Ahead of the one-year anniversary of the deadly shooting at Pulse nightclub that left 49 dead and 53 wounded, national security experts say lessons of the attack have gone unheeded as similar incidents inspired by violent extremism continue across the globe.
The issue of whether efforts to contain extremism are sufficient has risen to the fore after a spate of attacks in the United Kingdom — one at an Arianna Grande concert in Manchester that left 22 dead and another attack on London Bridge that left eight dead. Those incidents are consistent with violence in Kabul, Paris, Istanbul, Brussels, Berlin and San Bernadino as well as the Pulse shooting on June 12, 2016.
Omar Mateen, the perpetrator of the Pulse shooting, gunned down patrons of the LGBT nightclub with an assault weapon and a semi-automatic pistol after pledging allegiance to ISIS on social media and on a 911 phone call. Even during the attack, Mateen made Facebook posts in support of the Islamic extremist group.
According to CBS News, one of his posts read, “You kill innocent women and children by doing us airstrikes..now taste the Islamic state vengeance…In the next few days you will see attacks from the Islamic State in the usa.”
Although the Islamic State of Iraq & Syria took credit for the massacre, there’s no evidence the terrorist group directly coordinated the attack.
Ned Price, who’s gay and worked under the Obama administration at the CIA and the National Security Council, said the shooting echoed shootings in San Bernardino and Ft. Hood in Texas, which he called “incidents of people who have been inspired by extremist ideology.”
“I think what Orlando did was really reinforce the scale and scope of the challenge that we face combatting this ideology,” Price said.
Mike Sexton, who’s gay and a D.C.-based national security analyst for a prominent security and risk management firm, said making conclusions about the Orlando shooting is difficult because the shooter was killed during the attack, but the cumulative incidents of terrorism speak volumes about the need for improved security.
“The takeaway from that shooting and other attacks like on the Brussels airport and on Ariana Grande’s concert in Manchester, to me, is that we aren’t doing enough to secure soft targets that lightly trained or untrained ISIS operatives can strike with relative ease,” Sexton said. “That takeaway is more tactical and the burden falls upon individuals and companies operating these facilities as well as their governments.”
For the attacks in the United States, one aspect of the Pulse shooting that gun control advocates continue to decry is the ease with which individuals can procure firearms. The assault rifle used by Mateen was banned in the United States until that statute expired in 2004.
Price said the Orlando shooting — as well as incidents in San Bernardino and Ft. Hood — demonstrates “the ease with which terrorists and would-be terrorists can get their hands on firearms.”
“Just in the past several weeks, we’ve seen horrific incidents in places like London and Manchester, but what distinguishes the incidents we’re seeing in the United States, by and large at least, is the fact that extremists here have ready access to weapons, including semi-automatic weapons that are essentially weapons of war turned against civilians in recreation centers and nightclubs and on military bases,” Price said.
As the Blade reported six months after the Pulse shootings, efforts to institute gun control regulations — even modest proposals like enhanced background checks — seem dead in the water with President Trump in the White House and Republicans allied with the National Rifle Association in charge of Congress.
One initiative the Obama administration pursued was seeking cooperation from social media companies in shutting down accounts from ISIS. After all, Twitter banned gay conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopolous for life after making snide remarks about comedian Leslie Jones, but ISIS is still able to propagate its messages through the platform.
In the aftermath of the San Bernardino shooting, Obama White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest articulated the request from the U.S. government for greater help from Silicon Valley.
“Surely we can have a discussion about ways to create, publish, and amplify content from credible sources that counteracts the radicalizing messaging from ISIL and other extremists,” Earnest said. “Given the way that technology works these days, there surely are ways that we can disrupt paths to radicalization, to identify recruitment patterns, and to provide metrics that allow us to measure the success of our counter-radicalization efforts.”
Nearly one-and-a-half years later and on the anniversary of the Pulse shooting, national security experts commended efforts from companies like Twitter and Facebook in deleting the social media accounts of ISIS, but noted the inherent challenges in containing the threat.
Price said even though the U.S. government has no special leverage over social media companies, they have made “good progress” on their own consistent with First Amendment and technological limitations.
“Twitter, Facebook, other social networking sites have taken some positive steps in this regard,” Price said. “That’s not to say that we all couldn’t do more.”
Among the steps Price identified was taking down ISIS-linked accounts and establishing new mechanisms to block extremist content.
Sexton said removing social media as tool for ISIS is “almost an intractable problem” because when one account is deleted, terrorists can just set up another.
“On publicly viewable social media, taking down ISIS completely is like trying to slay Hydra,” Sexton said. “Persisting is necessary but ultimately the decisive factor will be how compellingly we can refute their narrative and appeal to disillusioned prospective recruits.”
Meanwhile, under the Trump administration, the approach to combatting violent extremism more heavily relies on hard power, such as the dropping of the largest U.S. non-nuclear bomb on an ISIS site in Afghanistan that killed an estimated 92 militants.
Price cautioned against placing too much emphasis on hard power and “believing that bombs and armaments falling from the sky and proxies fighting ISIL on the ground is the only, or perhaps even the most effective way to take on the this challenge.”
“Of course, that’s one of the ingredients,” Price added. “The Obama administration felt it was imperative to take on this challenge ourselves, the U.S. government, but more importantly to work with partners in the Muslim and the Arab world who have a better understanding of this ideology and, more to the point, of understanding how to counter it most effectively, including in the online domain.”
In the aftermath of the attacks in the United Kingdom, Trump has taken to Twitter to promote his travel ban temporarily barring refugees to the United States and immigration from six Muslim-majority countries seen as high-risk for terrorism: Iran, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Syria, Sudan. (Iraq was among the countries in the initial version of the ban, but was removed in the second version.)
Courts have enjoined Trump from enforcing the ban on the basis it violates due process and religious freedom, much to the consternation of the president who derided the judiciary as “slow and political” as the issue reaches the U.S. Supreme Court. Trump also lambasted his own Justice Department for seeking reconsideration of the less stringent second version of the ban as opposed to the first one, which included a ban on U.S. entry for green card holders.
Price said the ineffectiveness of such a travel ban in confronting the threat of violent extremism is “plain as day” given the lack of refugees and individuals from the countries identified in the ban in successfully carrying out terrorist attacks in the United States. Mateen was a natural-born U.S. citizen whose father immigrated from Pakistan in the 1980s.
“There’s not a single attack in this country that has taken place since 9-11 that would have been thwarted by the travel ban,” Price said. “The attacks here at home have been perpetuated by U.S. citizens or naturalized U.S. citizens: People are who are here legally and not from one of the countries on either iterations of the travel ban.”
Price said overseas “the same trend holds” of extremist-inspired natives conducting terrorist attacks, or individuals who immigrated legally and not from targeted countries. (The perpetuator of the Manchester bombing, Salman Ramadan Abedi, had Libyan ancestry and his parents were refugees who hailed from the country, but he was born in the United Kingdom.)
“This is good politics from Trump’s hardcore base,” Price said. “It has absolutely no basis in national security, and I think that’s what now two courts have pointed to. They have pointed to the fact this is a Muslim ban in everything but name.”
But with extremist-inspired terrorist attacks continuing across the glove, the international community may look to the Pulse shooting and incidents like it for clues on eliminating the threat.
Price said the international community shares a common challenge, but recent incidents in the United Kingdom are unique in some respects because of “the relative lack of integration on the part of that country’s Muslim community,” which he said contrasts with the melting pot of the United States.
“That is not the case in some sectors within the U.K., and I think we’re seeing a reflection of that,” Price said. “There is this feeling of disenchantment and frankly a lack of integration that, I think, has fueled a lot of this. I wouldn’t want to put any sort of blame on U.K. authorities for the challenge they face that as I said before is enormous, and they’re working on around the clock to thwart it, but as the saying goes, security services have to be successful all of time, and terrorists only have to be successful one time.”