New information is shedding light on Omar Mir Seddique Mateen, a security guard born in New York, who is reported to have killed 49 people in an Orlando gay night club Sunday morning. The FBI had interviewed Mateen in recently in two terror- related cases, but couldn’t confirm his involvement with terror groups then.
One of the notable things about Mateen is that the FBI said it is “highly confident” he was radicalized to some degree by viewing extremism on the internet. FBI director James Comey expressed that no indicators showed the attack was directed from outside the country or that Mateen was a member of a terrorist network.
CNN reported on Monday that the official ISIS radio channel described the attack as a “raid on a Crusader gathering” carried out by ” one of the Caliphate’s soldier’s in America”.
So how could a man with no apparent connections to a terrorist network carry out an act of terror pledging allegiance to ISIS?
David Perlmutter, Professor and Dean of the College of Media and Communications at Texas Tech University, has been studying terrorist communications and recruiting for years. He explained that Mateen’s path to extremist materials through digital means fits the method ISIS has been using to quickly recruit supporters from afar.
“My initial reaction [to the Orlando shooting] was, this is it, this is the future of terrorism,” Perlmutter said. “It’s gonna be spontaneous home grown, where somebody gets into their head, maybe they give some signals, they say some of these things to their family and their friends, but generally they don’t give you the same kind of information that would lead you to pre-arrest someone, or to take somebody into custody. That’s because they’re not sending in their membership dues to the central terrorist organization, they’re not writing fan letters to the central organization and they’re not showing up to meetings at a local terrorist cell, they’re just fuming in front of their computers by themselves and just grabbing their guns and doing as much damage as they can.”
Perlmutter added that while ISIS welcomes people internationally to travel to join them in the Middle East, Mateen is one of several examples of how their digital media can connect with people very far away. These digitally inspired ISIS recruits can then go on to commit massive acts of terror with little or no direct involvement from ISIS leaders.
Perlmutter added that this type of recruiting is even more notable because it achieves international attention for ISIS at likely little or no cost to ISIS.
It may not even be ISIS itself that interacts with supporters from afar, Perlmutter said. He explained that ISIS videos and propaganda are often viewed through re-tweets or re-sharing of ISIS material. This means that the digital path of people like Mateen is even harder to track than terrorists prior to the age of social media.
“The point is: our microscope has to be much finer, because you’re not going to get the big footprints, either electronically or on paper or in person like you did 30 years ago,” Perlmutter explained. “It’s a huge challenge to centralized law enforcement that’s very good at this anyway, like the FBI, it’s almost an insurmountable challenge to local police who are monitoring every day matters.”
As opposed to terrorists from decades ago like Ted Kaczynski who lived in a secluded cabin in Montana while he plotted, Perlmutter said that the attackers behind the Orlando shootings and the San Bernadino shootings were both much more “on the grid.”
“They’re still connected to the world, they often leak things, but if you leak something to one person, the problem is, if someone were paying attention you could put all the puzzle pieces together. But who’s gonna do that?” Perlmutter said.
Perlmutter has talked with law enforcement agencies before about the challenge of tracking terrorist groups in the digital age. He explained that the agencies he’s spoken to say one of the biggest hurdles is acquiring the tools and man power to do the in-depth analysis required to track a trail of possible digital leads.
Tracking the complex network of online connections of ISIS-related communications requires a great deal of attention and effort, Perlmutter said. Moving forward, he said that the shootings in Orlando are a reminder that both lawn enforcement and every day citizens need to be hyper-vigilant of this new brand of terror.
“We need more successful algorithms we need more successful search strategies, but above all we need more families, communities to pay attention to this,” Perlmutter said. “But if you have a suspicion, you have to act on it and you have to find out more, not just ignore it..”