Orlando Massacre and ISIS: The Illusion of Power

Omar Mateen’s vicious assault on a Saturday night crowd in an Orlando gay bar either had nothing to do with Islam, or everything to do with it.

We don’t yet know all the facts, but what we do know is contradictory.

His father, Seddique Mir Mateen, told NBC news that his son’s actions “had nothing to do with religion.” His father did, however, suggest another motive: homophobia. The father said that Omar saw two men kissing when they were in Miami, and the son went into a rage.

Omar’s former wife confirmed that he had a short temper and was prone to violence.  She told the Washington Post that he used to beat her, and was “mentally unstable.”

On the other hand, the Amaq Agency, the news outlet of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, stated that the shooting “was carried out by an Islamic State fighter.” Omar himself called 911 shortly after entering the bar in Orlando saying that he had pledged allegiance to the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. Federal law enforcement officials added that in that brief call he also referenced the Tsarnaev brothers who exploded bombs during the 2013 Boston Marathon.

It is not clear why Omar referred to the Tsarnaev brothers, although with our limited knowledge of the incident his attack and theirs seem eerily similar. Both were assaults on public spaces, soft targets, conducted without any notice. In both cases the perpetrators had personal reasons for undertaking the attacks—homophobia in the case of Omar and in the case of the older Tsarnaev brother, a resentment over governmental policies that deprived him of his goal to become a Golden Gloves champ.

And in both cases they turned to an extreme Islamic rhetoric to justify their acts. In the case of the Tsarnaev brothers, it was an ideological support for the separatist movement in Russian-controlled Chechnya. In the case of Omar Mateen, he claimed to be carrying out a terrorist attack on behalf of ISIS. But was he?

ISIS is getting desperate. It would like to claim that it has the ability to conduct terrorist acts around the world. Yet in the area that it actually controls—eastern Syria and western Iraq—it is losing ground.

The movement known variously as the Islamic State, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (or “the Levant”—wider Syria), or Daesh has been seriously degraded. Air strikes have killed many of their leaders, disrupted their supply routes, and destroyed their weapons caches.

Within the last year they have lost some of their major territorial conquests, including Palmyra in Syria, and Ramadi and Sinjar in Iraq. Currently the ISIS-controlled city of Fallujah is under attack and seems destined to fall; their major outpost in Libya, Sirte, has been retaken by government forces, Syrian troops are moving towards their headquarters in Raqqa, and their largest trophy in Iraq, the city of Mosul, is slated for liberation.

Moreover, volunteers are not streaming to the region in the numbers that previously had supported the movement. Although their online presence continues to be active on Twitter and on secret sites on the dark web, volunteers seem hesitant to join a losing operation.

In this context ISIS needs the illusion of power. There is no doubt that this is what the Paris and Brussels terrorist attacks were meant to achieve.

ISIS has also encouraged individuals to conduct their own acts of jihad against disbelievers. Such acts would give the appearance of a global terrorist operation, even though the central ISIS command did little to plan or conduct them. Is this what happened in Orlando?

Thus far, there is no evidence that Omar Mateen has had any connection with ISIS leadership. The ISIS news agency that boasted that he was an “ISIS fighter” did not, however, state that his was an ISIS operation. The agency did not imply that it had been planned and orchestrated by the central command in Syria.

Moreover, a gay bar in Orlando, Florida seems like a strange venue for an ISIS operation. Multiple targets in the heart of Paris and Brussels fit more closely to the modus operandi of the ISIS organization, showing the weakness of the government security apparatus. An attack on a gay bar would not have the same symbolic effect. Though ISIS has persecuted LGBT people in the territory they control, there has not been any other case in which the movement has targeted gay culture in the West.

But LGBT culture was clearly an obsession of Omar Mateen, according to his father. Like the Tsarnaev brothers’ attack on the Boston Marathon, this tragedy appears to be one conducted by a lone wolf with a private motive who has cloaked his actions with the glamor of a global terrorist ideology.

Perhaps if Mateen had been a Christian he would have justified his homophobic rampage with right-wing Christian rhetoric. Or if he had been a Marxist, he might have justified his rage in Soviet-era homophobic language. But since he was a Muslim and linked himself with ISIS, we are left with the uncertainty about whether and to what degree this can be described as an Islamic extremist act.