Investigations are still ongoing in Orlando but it seems that the professed allegiance to ISIS by the shooter, Omar Mateen, was more a detonator than the charge itself. What exploded inside the Pulse nightclub was a volatile mix of rage and instabilities that had been building in the man for a long time. The siren call of radical Islam, coming over the Internet, added an ideological justification, a sense of divine mission and membership into a likeminded band of brothers.
What should be most alarming to the West, however, are not the attacks in Orlando (and San Bernardino) themselves, but the fact that they were done by freelancers, encouraged to murder by electronic messages from half a world away. Unlike in Paris and Brussels, these two attacks required little or no coordination with ISIS leadership. The killers obtained their own weapons and made their own plans. The female shooter in San Bernardino may have had a contact with ISIS operatives, but in Orlando, it seems that Mateen's connection with ISIS was limited to receiving its Internet messages.
The ISIS Internet threat is about to get worse. For many months now, ISIS has been losing ground militarily in Syria and Iraq; it has lost several of its earlier conquests (including Falluja) and others are now in danger of being overrun, including Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic "state" (or caliphate) it has created in the desert. Western military responses employing limited ground attacks and sophisticated air power have seriously damaged the oil facilities and transport that are ISIS' economic lifeline and greatly threaten its command-and-control capabilities and its abilities to mass fighters.
In response to these military setbacks, ISIS has stepped up its attacks on soft civilian targets, as in Paris and Brussels, and also perfected its Internet invitations to murder. Both tactics put forth the same message: "We're still here and we're still dangerous." As the West continues to degrade ISIS' military fortunes on the ground, the group's Internet messages have become more explicit in their deadly intent. Potential recruits are now called upon to kill non-Muslims any way they can, if not with bullets then with rocks.
It doesn't matter that its siren song may influence only the smallest percentage of an Internet audience; that audience is so huge that even a small percentage is more than enough. It doesn't even matter if ISIS Internet recruits are competent; even if the attacks they stage fail, the very fact of an attempt, combined with unpredictability, ramp up fear and anger in the target populations, which is what ISIS wants to achieve. As explained in an earlier piece in this series, a key ISIS strategy is to goad the West to commit its military forces into a climactic ground battle in the Middle East, a necessary step toward its ultimate goal of Armageddon--a fiery end to the world and a glorious entry by the faithful into heaven.
Waging war-by-Internet is also very low-cost for ISIS: it doesn't have to supply weapons or trainings; all it has to do is take credit after the fact. And they can physically run the whole operation from the back of a truck.
HERE'S HOW THE WEST CAN UNDERMINE ISIS' INTERNET STRATEGY:
Degrade and destroy the caliphate-the ground areas under ISIS control. Continue the current successful military strategies focused on sophisticated air attacks on ISIS key vulnerabilities: the oil fields and transport vehicles that are its economic lifeline, troop concentrations, and command-and-control facilities. Continue to carefully support key local allies, predominantly the Kurds and a re-trained and re-energized Iraqi army.
All of this weakens ISIS militarily, shrinks the areas under its control and drains the ISIS checkbook, undermining its ability to administer a physical domain, including its hospitals, roads etc. Controlling physical territory is an absolute precondition for a caliphate to exist, and establishing its caliphate as the will of God remains a key factor in ISIS' attraction for potential recruits. As ISIS' physical domain malfunctions and shrinks, its Internet narrative that it is the engine of God weakens. Our counter narrative must lead potential recruits to ask: ISIS claims to be racing toward establishing a global caliphate--and this miserable patch of sand they cling to is what it looks like?
But the call to join the Islamic State is still going out, and still having a powerful effect on social media and within jihadist circles. The West cannot wait until ISIS is defeated militarily or burns itself out.
Pressure the Saudis. Saudi citizens are still a major funding source for the radical jihadist preachers who supply much of the content for ISIS Internet messages. The US needs to take off the gloves with the Saudis and use our leverage to force them to crack down on funders of radical Islam and the clerics who preach it.
Cyberwar options. The Pentagon has now thrown its cyberwar capabilities into the fight against ISIS, joining the NSA and the other civilian agencies already on the job. While the details are secret for obvious reasons, the military's six-year-old Cyber Command is now mounting full-scale computer-network attacks, bringing secret American cyberweapons that had been aimed elsewhere, notably at Iran, into the fight against ISIS. The goal of the online campaign is to disrupt ISIS' ability to spread its message, attract new adherents, circulate orders from commanders, and carry out day-to-day functions, like paying its fighters. The Pentagon's cyber attacks are also designed to rattle ISIS commanders, who've begun to realize that sophisticated hacking efforts are manipulating their data. Potential recruits might also be deterred if they need to worry about the security of their communications with ISIS.
No one expects that hacking into ISIS computers or attempting to block terror-related content could eliminate the ISIS Internet threat completely. We need a major effort to degrade the credibility of ISIS messages by providing effective counter narratives. Simply telling the truth about ISIS' current military setbacks in Iraq and Syria, as noted earlier, is an obvious step. But much more is required:
Understand why ISIS messages are so powerful in order to develop effective counter narratives. See an earlier blog in this series. ISIS Internet recruiting pitches present a radical, fundamentalist, anti-West, apocalyptic vision that is extremely attractive to many Sunni Muslims, particularly those who are desperate and disenfranchised. The messages start by being warm and welcoming, with stirring imagery and professionally produced footage. They are expertly targeted to appeal to a potential recruit's sense of adventure, and to offer an attractive cause worth fighting for. The pitches are designed to produce and support a virtual community of ISIS fans, an echo chamber reinforcing the description of ISIS as a social movement devoted to protecting Muslims, to fighting an unfair global system and to returning Islam to a position of power and respect in the world.
The low-hanging fruit for ISIS Internet recruiting are people who feel inadequate, disrespected, full of unfulfilled ambitions, angry at real or perceived injustices, and who are blaming other people or institutions for their woes. ISIS supports their grievances and reinforces their belief that the cause of their frustration is an unfair world. To some of the losers they attract, ISIS appears to offer all they lack--the glitz and glamour of guns, women, and glory, and the feeling of being part of something big and utopian. ISIS offers them purpose on earth and paradise to come.
As Graham Fuller has recently noted, we cannot avoid mentioning Islam in this context--not because Islam is an inspiration for murder, but because radical Islam has become the ideology of preference for some individuals seeking out a "higher cause" by which to justify their frustrations, resentments, fantasies, and even savagery. There will always be deranged individuals filled with hate, compensating for their failures and hopelessness. They will always seek higher justifications, trying to lend dignity to their own wretched state of mind and acts of rage. For many such people, that higher justification is a religion.
By drawing potential recruits into a fantasy world on the Internet, ISIS channels their rage toward "anti-Islamic forces" that dominate the world and keep Muslims down. The only way to alter their dismal situation, ISIS tells these people, is to join the battle to establish a caliphate and transform the world.
Enlist moderate Muslims to develop and broadcast an effective counter narrative to ISIS messages. Why does ISIS demand the existence of a caliphate? Why do they believe it is necessary to kill or enslave those they regard as infidels? Why does its apocalyptic ideology appeal to recruits from all over the world? Questions like these need answers, and the way to start is by examining the origins and convictions (and contradictions) of ISIS ideology. This examination must come from within Islam itself.
In justifying even their most brutal actions, ISIS leaders are proud to quote texts from the Koran and/or cite actions condoned or urged by the Prophet during that bloody period when Islam was surrounded by enemies and fighting for its life on the Arabian Peninsula.
By far the majority of Muslims, however, oppose ISIS and do not interpret the Koran the way ISIS does. They already have an alternative narrative, a narrative of peace, love and tolerance, based on completely different interpretations of their holy writ and on other actions by Muhammad, especially in the early period just after, as Muslims believe, the holy texts were handed down to him by God. Muslims following the ISIS interpretation of the Koran is as if Christians and Jews decided to base their spiritual practices on the most violent and intolerant parts of the Old Testament and ignore everything else.
Extremist ideology, however, has spread within some Muslim communities, especially in Europe. It's a grave problem that Muslims must confront without excuses. Moderate Muslims need to redouble efforts, begun after 9/11, to ensure that their vision of a more tolerant and inclusive Islam prevails. Their leaders must take up the sensitive and complex role of monitoring aberrant speech and behavior in their own mosques and speaking out against not just acts of violence, but also against those interpretations of Islam that are incompatible with the Islamic values accepted and practiced by the vast majority of Muslims.
We need to find ways to discreetly support Muslim leaders who are already reaching out to their communities to confront the problem of young people attracted to violent extremism. Low-key government support is already in place for pilot programs in cities such as Minneapolis, Boston and Los Angeles to forge connections among community-based groups, schools and public agencies for everything from soccer leagues to job-training programs. Much more can be done.
Do a better job of protecting ourselves. It's impossible to talk about the carnages of San Bernardino and Orlando without talking about obvious ways those carnages could have been limited if not prevented. My list includes:
1. Reinstate the ban on assault weapons, the weapon of choice for mass murderers. These are military weapons and their only purpose is to kill as many people as possible in the shortest possible time. A skilled shooter with the kind of weapon used in San Bernardino and Orlando can fire a half-dozen rounds a second.
2. Limit the size of gun magazines. The Orlando shooter had hundred-round magazines, meaning he only had to switch magazines once, leaving almost no time for any brave people there to tackle him before he could reload.
3. Forbid gun sales to anyone on the government's terror watch lists and to anyone with a documented history of mental disorders or domestic violence.
4. Determine which of your state and national legislators oppose common sense measures such as these--and vote them out of office in November.
Finally--as a US Foreign Service Officer I was involved in wars and revolutions for years. I know that sometimes the violence out there is tribal. Sometime it's a struggle for resources. Sometimes it's a bareknuckle contest for power. And sometimes it's motivated by religion, which is the hardest kind of violence to understand and deal with. "God-led" violence can never be defeated by military force alone because the messianic ideals that drive it are bullet proof. The war the West needs to wage against ISIS is as much psychological as it is military. We need to listen, reflect, learn from experience and proceed with caution. We have a long way to go.
You can find my previous three blog pieces on ISIS here