The real danger in Orlando
One of the most senior and experienced counterterrorism officials in the Middle East recently told me the West is failing to fully understand the impact of ISIS.
“It’s not an army, it’s not about religion, it’s not even a movement,” he said. “It’s a label. Every mad and upset young man can just now say they are part of ISIS.”
This conversation took place a few weeks before the attack in Orlando, but in retrospect was telling. At the time, the official was reflecting, in part, on the terrorists in Brussels and Paris and elsewhere, some of whom had criminal records before declaring an affiliation with ISIS.
Now, while the Orlando investigation is still in its early stages, the world had begun to glimpse what appear to be the conflicting, confused and violent disturbed motivations of the killer. While there are signs he was self-radicalized on the internet, this looks to be a case very different from other so-called lone-wolf attacks.
“There’s not a single motivation. There are multiple motivations, and we should stop thinking there will be a light bulb — it’s ISIS, it’s radicalization, it’s homophobia. It may be that he is gay, it’s mental illness, it’s all of the above,” said Juliette Kayyem, former U.S. assistant secretary for Homeland Security and a CNN contributor.
“It is also not entirely clear at this point just what terrorist group he aspired to support,” FBI Director James Comey told reporters Monday, recounting what the killer told 9-1-1 when he placed several calls to the number during the attack.
“He said he was doing this for the leader of ISIL (another acronym for ISIS), who he named and pledged loyalty to, but he also appeared to claim solidarity with the perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombing and solidarity with a Florida man who died as a suicide bomber in Syria for al-Nusra Front, a group in conflict with the so-called Islamic State,” Comey added, noting the Boston Marathon bombers and the suicide bomber from Florida were not inspired by ISIS.
And law enforcement is still trying to determine to what extent he was motivated by anti-gay bigotry since the target of the attack as an LGBT nightclub.
The counterterrorism official I spoke with days ago had a point well worth considering in the wake of Orlando: He spoke about the dangers of those who are just plain mad at the world and looking for a cause to justify their killing.
If that is the case, it’s a staggering development.
Particular and specific motivations may no longer be the central factor to investigate. And the discussion about whether an attacker was a lone wolf who is “inspired” by ISIS becomes perhaps less immediately relevant, though it’s always critical to know whether there is a network of operatives behind an attacker.
What Orlando really may tell us is that ISIS has achieved something far darker. It has, in fact, brought an end to the post-Sept. 11 era and the traditional and central national security transaction: Gather intelligence, find a target, strike it and kill the terrorists.
Al Qaeda under Osama bin Laden, and even today, is always looking for next big score. ISIS is not. If it can kill civilians from Paris to Brussels to San Bernardino to Orlando by just being a label that criminals can attach themselves to, they have achieved a goal that maybe even their leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, had never envisioned: The creation of a terror group that defies conventional counter attack.
Top military officials have warned for months there is no military solution to ISIS. In a recent interview with The Los Angeles Times, the top Air Force intelligence officer said killing ISIS’s top leaders has only had a short-term effect, compared to striking their financial targets, such as oil tankers and cash storage sites. Lt. Gen. Robert P. Otto, Air Force chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, said that when top ISIS operatives are killed “there is a temporary impact on operations and then the adversary appoints someone else in his place.”
But that doesn’t mean the military war against ISIS will, or should, ease up.
ISIS, as President Barack Obama said Tuesday, is losing territory in both Syria and Iraq. U.S. military intelligence officials have long said that Baghdadi’s death-cult vision of an Islamic state requires him to demonstrate to his followers that he can control territory. U.S. special operations are working to change that for Baghdadi, supporting local forces that can take away ISIS territory on the ground and constantly looking for any scrap of intelligence on the battlefield about where he is located. Obama says the “mission is destroy ISIL.”
But after Orlando, that still might not be enough.
By Barbara Starr
CNN Pentagon Correspondent
Correction: Osama bin Laden’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.