Was the Orlando Nightclub Shooting an ISIS Attack?

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People walk by a police roadblock near the Pulse nightclub on June 12, 2016 in Orlando, Florida.  People close to the gunman behind the attack on a gay nightclub in Florida that left 50 dead, paint a picture of a violent and prejudiced young man.
Pulse on Sunday morning. Photo: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/This content is subject to copyright.

By now you’re probably aware that Omar Mateen, the 29-year-old who killed 49 people and wounded more than 50 others at the Florida gay club Pulse, was an ISIS sympathizer. At the moment, Mateen’s affiliation with ISIS appears to be extremely limited — there’s no indication that the leadership or other members knew he existed until Sunday — but the shooting does appear to fit into the terrorist group’s larger strategy of encouraging "lone wolf" attacks for which it can claim responsibility after the fact. Here’s a quick explanation of what "an ISIS attack" even means in the context of what happened in Orlando.

What we know about Mateen’s motives:
We’ll probably never know Mateen’s exact motives, but his actions and those who know him have provided some clues. Mateen’s father, ex-wife, and co-worker have all described him as homophobic, suggesting that he deliberately chose a gay club as his target. ISIS, which has repeatedly publicized its executions of gay people, is definitely anti-gay, but, as The Guardian points out, the group doesn’t have a history of specifically encouraging its followers to attack gay people. Of course, it’s entirely possible — likely, even — that Mateen was driven by both homophobia and his desire to carry out an attack on behalf of ISIS.

Did he receive any material help from ISIS (or anyone else)?
Mateen doesn’t seem to have received any help purchasing weapons or planning the shooting — and he didn’t really need it. He had two gun licenses, one for his job as a security guard and a statewide one, and reportedly legally purchased the handgun and semiautomatic rifle he used in the shooting sometime in the last week.

Was he in touch with anyone associated with ISIS or terrorism in general?
It’s unclear as of now. The Guardian reports that in 2013 the FBI investigated Mateen after he told his co-workers that he knew the Boston Marathon bombers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (who were not involved with ISIS). “I can confirm that the subject made allegations of terror ties that investigation proved to be unfounded, but I can’t comment on the specific association,” said an FBI spokesperson of the investigation. In a Monday press conference, FBI director James Comey said that Mateen had also told his co-workers that he had “family connections to al-Qaeda, then he claimed [connections] to Hezbollah, which is a Shia organization and a bitter enemy of [ISIS].” “We then interviewed him twice,” said Comey. “He admitted making the statements, but explained that he did it in anger, because he thought his coworkers were discriminating against him and teasing him because he was Muslim.” 

In 2014, the FBI again investigated Mateen, this time for possible ties to Moner Mohammad Abu-Salha, who attended Mateen’s Florida mosque before becoming a suicide bomber for the al-Nusra Front, an ISIS rival, in Syria. The agency closed the inquiry after concluding that Mateen and Abu-Salha’s “contact was minimal and did not constitute a substantive relationship or threat at that time.”

When and how did Mateen pledge allegiance to ISIS?
During the shooting. Comey again:

He explains the 911 calls made by the shooter from the club. There were three different calls.

He called and he hung up, called again and he spoke briefly with the dispatcher, and he hung up.

Then the dispatcher called back, and they spoke again.

“He said he was doing this for the leader of [ISIS], who he named, and pledged loyalty to,” Comey says. The gunman expressed “solidarity with the bombers of the Boston Marathon, and solidarity with a man who died in a suicide bombing for al-Nusra,” a group which Comey notes is actually at odds with [ISIS].

What does that mean?
That, at the very least, Mateen was familiar with ISIS’s protocol for so-called “lone wolf” operations. A couple of years ago, ISIS spokesperson Abu Muhammad al-Adnani began urging sympathizers in the West to kill wherever they could. “Do not ask for anyone’s permission,” he said. ISIS has since made it clear that announcing one’s loyalty to the group (known as a Bay’ah) during or after the attack is enough to turn it into an ISIS-branded mission. This is what San Bernardino shooters Tashfeen Malik and Syed Rizwan Farook were apparently trying to do when they declared support for ISIS on Facebook shortly before being killed by the police.

As the New York Times’ Rukmini Callimachi explains:

Was ISIS aware of Mateen’s plan?
Almost definitely not. Here are Callimachi’s observations about the response from ISIS’s official news agency, Amaq:

But ISIS’s radio station, Al Bayan, soon indicated that the group was happy to accept credit for the attack after the fact. From the Times:

In the radio announcement on Monday, the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, describes the gunman, Omar Mateen, as “one of the soldiers of the Caliphate,” a term used by the group both to refer to its fighters enlisted under its command on the battlegrounds of Syria and Iraq, as well as to adherents who act in the name of the Islamic State, even if they have no direct ties to the group.

With facilitation from Allah the Almighty, the brother Omar Mateen, one of the soldiers of the Caliphate in America, carried out a security raid in which he was able to enter into a gathering of Crusaders in a nightclub for followers of the people of Lot in Orlando, Florida,” the radio announcement said, using a term for gays, according to a translation provided by the SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks extremist propaganda. “Allah enabled him to subdue the impure Crusaders, killing and wounding more than a hundred of them before he was killed — may Allah accept him. It should be pointed out that this invasion is the largest in America in terms of the number killed.”

On Monday afternoon, both Comey and President Obama indicated that there was no evidence to suggest that ISIS had actively participated in Mateen’s attack, with Obama calling it “an example of the kind of homegrown extremism that all of us have been so concerned about for a very long time.” But, he continued, “It’s not an either-or; it’s a both-and … We have to go after these terrorist organizations and hit them hard, we have to counter extremism, but we also have to make sure that it’s not easy for somebody who decides they want to harm people in this country to be able to obtain weapons to get at them.”

While investigators will no doubt take an exhaustive look at whether Mateen could have somehow been identified or stopped before he arrived at Pulse, the frightening truth is that his style of attack is likely much more difficult to prevent than larger, coordinated ISIS efforts. “Unfortunately for all of us, ISIS’s encouragement of lone wolf attacks means there’s no operational links to find,” tweeted activist Iyad El-Baghdadi on Sunday. “[Because] there are no operational links in lone wolf attacks, surveillance is no longer effective.”

Was the Orlando Shooting an ISIS Attack?