Details continue to emerge about the man who killed 49 people and wounded 52 others at an Orlando gay nightclub on June 12. While we cannot say with confidence what the killer’s motivations were, we are learning more about what he told emergency dispatchers when he called 911 in the midst of the massacre.
According to FBI Director James Comey, Omar Mateen professed allegiance or affinity toward a wide-ranging group of disparate and often-opposed terrorist organizations. The Associated Press reports:
The Orlando gunman professed allegiance during the attack on a gay nightclub to the leader of the Islamic State militants, even as he called the Boston Marathon bombers, who had nothing to do with the extremist group, his homeboys. Before that, the FBI said, he claimed family connections to Al-Qaeda and boasted of ties to Hezbollah, organizations deeply at odds with the Islamic State extremists.
“Deeply at odds” to say the least.
The Islamic State (IS) extremist group has significant disagreements with Al-Qaeda and the Al-Nusra Front, Syria's Al-Qaeda affiliate. The two groups have even fought heavy battles against each other. Al-Nusra and IS, both radical Sunni groups, are literally at war with Hizballah, a radical Shi'ite militia and terrorist group based in Lebanon and a staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Furthermore, the online media presence of all of these groups -- their publications, Twitter accounts, YouTube videos, and blog posts -- often focus on these internal divisions. Dabiq, the slick English-language magazine published by IS, focused their entire last issue on internal divisions between Muslims. Just this month, supreme Al-Nusra Front religious official Sami al-Oreidi released a video statement that stressed the need to destroy Alawites, the sect of Shi’a Islam to which Assad and many of his supporters belong and to which Hizballah is allied.
In other words, it is clear that the Orlando gunman may not have been particularly indoctrinated in even the basic tenets of the radical groups he pledged allegiance to. Far from being a devoted apostle of a particular form of radicalized Islam, the gunman was described by U.S. President Barack Obama as a self-radicalized example of “homegrown extremism.”
The Orlando shooter was a lone wolf. And he is also exactly the kind of person Islamic State wants to encourage.
Whereas Al-Qaeda prefers to strike landmarks and symbols of Western decadence or imperialism, while largely avoiding civilian casualties, IS believes there is no such thing as collateral damage. Everyone who does not accept their narrow and radical prescription of Islam, whether they be in the West or in the Middle East, is a worthy target. Whereas Al-Qaeda prefers its “soldiers” to have some sort of ideological and theological foundations, IS will welcome all sinners as long as they are willing to die for Islam.
In many ways, this is the natural evolution of a concept spread in the preachings of infamous jihadist Anwar al-Awlaki, who told the story in his online propaganda of Usairin, a non-Muslim who fought for the Prophet Muhammad at the battle of Uhud and died just after accepting Islam. Crucially, he was granted acceptance into Jannah (paradise) without having followed the rest of the path set out by the Prophet. Usairin's story, popularized in propaganda videos, is perhaps the perfect example of the kind of person IS is so eager to inspire -- those who are lost, seeking a cause and identity, rather than those who are already committed to one.
Hassan Hassan, a journalist and expert on IS who hails from the first town in Syria that the terror group took over in 2014, wrote in The Financial Times that this issue is yet another dividing line between Al-Qaeda and its syndicate Al-Nusra Front on one side and IS on the other:
Al-Qaeda presents itself as a vanguard movement whose aim is to rally the Muslim masses to the cause of jihad. The very existence of sympathisers means its project is working and so is regarded as a gain in and of itself.
Isis, on the other hand, views sympathisers as potential recruits to its army. Al-Qaeda has also done so from time to time, but Isis is different in that it views the mobilisation of its sympathisers strategically, rather than as a revenge tactic or a short-term call for action.
But just who are these “lone wolves” who are fighting and dying for IS's cause? That, too, is evolving, in perhaps the most disturbing way.
Six days before the attack in Orlando, I wrote that IS's version of terrorism is an evolution from what Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda envisioned just 15 years ago. I contrasted the 9/11 attacks -- which the official U.S. government commission report estimates cost Al-Qaeda between $400,000 and $500,000 -- with the Paris and Brussels attacks, which were conducted by a terror cell using simple nail bombs and guns.
Yet the Orlando attack was orders of magnitude less complicated than what took place in Paris and Brussels. From what we know now, Islamic State extremists based in the Middle East never coordinated with the attacker, nor spent a single dollar to facilitate the attack. Instead, Mateen, with his half-cooked radical jihadist ideology, legally bought a gun that typically costs $500 to $600 and takes less than an hour to purchase.
In many ways, this could be a worst-case scenario -- IS can now potentially inspire terrorists who appear to have little indoctrination, limited religiosity and, based on what we know so far about the Orlando shooter, plenty of personal problems.
The haunting and ultimately unanswerable question is whether Omar Mateen ever would have committed such a horrifying act if it were not for the existence of the Islamic State militant group.