The Islamic Brigades III.

Omar Mateen, the Orlando Islamist homophobe mass murderer is beginning to appear as deranged from youth.  Different groups have sought to interpret the massacre to serve their own ends.[1]  Republicans harp on the danger from “radical Islam.”  President Obama excoriates American gun laws.  Gay rights groups trace the line from Stonewall to Orlando.  All this is great for an “Inside Baseball” approach to politics.  Does it solve any of our problems?  No.

Currently, it is all the rage to remark that ISIS exerts a global influence through both its propaganda and the reality of its military threat to Syria and Iraq.  This leads to “lone wolf” attacks.  However, the “shoe bomber,” the “underwear bomber,” the London transit bombers, and the Madrid train bombers all struck before ISIS was so much as a twinkle in the eye of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.  Stamp out ISIS and some new source of inspiration will arise.

Both traditional diplomats and modern military intelligence analysts have always sought to understand the “capabilities” of other states, rather than their “intent.”  “Intent” can change pretty rapidly, so understanding “capability” is much more useful in interpreting the strategic environment.  Peter Bergen, the author of United States of Jihad: Investigating America’s Homegrown Terrorists (2016), describes FBI behavioral analysts as doing something similar.  They analyze where a subject appears to be on a “pathway to violence.”  Neither of the two earlier FBI investigations of Omar Mateen had given any reason to believe that he had advanced far down the “pathway.”[2]  Suddenly, a few weeks ago, Mateen began to shift from all talk toward action.  He purchased guns; he tried to purchase body armor and ammunition in bulk; he began visiting a number of public sites suitable for targeting large numbers of people.  What caused the apparently sudden acceleration down the “pathway”?  We don’t know yet.

Terrorism scholars have concluded that the reason that terrorists attack are complex, but highly personal, rather than standardized.  Indeed, the “soldiers” of ISIS may be “little more than disturbed individuals grasping for justification.”[3]  Thus, Peter Bergen rejects simple answers.  In only 10 percent of 300 cases he examined did the “terrorist” have any kind of identifiable mental problem.[4]  The share of them who had ever done time in prison was only slightly higher than the American national average.[5]  Radical Islam just pulls some people.  Why?

Instead of simple explanations, Bergen finds a pattern of complex factors.  There is likely to be hostility to America’s Middle Eastern policy (our mindless support for Israel, our wrecking Iraq and Libya).  At the core, however, he finds people who have suffered some kind of acute “personal disappointment” or rupture like the death of a parent.  To take two examples, Nidal Hassan had few friends, no wife, and both his parents had died; while Tamerlan Tsarnaev had missed his punch in an effort to become an Olympic boxer.   Omar Mateen kept getting tossed out of school, losing jobs, and failing at marriage.  This, in turn, sends them in search of something that will give their life meaning.  That can mean radical Islam.  So, are terrorists “failed sons”?

[1] Max Fisher, “Trying to Know The Unknowable: Why Attackers Strike,” NYT, 15 June 2016.

[2] Obviously, this has nothing to do with the important questions, first, of whether someone with such a troubled life history should have been able to buy a firearm; and, second, whether anyone should be able to buy something like an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle.

[3] Fisher, “Trying to Know The Unknowable.”

[4] Peter Bergen, “Why Do Terrorists Commit Terrorism?” NYT, 15 June 2016.

[5] Terrorists: 12 percent versus American average: 11 percent.  However, extraordinarily large numbers of Americans have done time as a result of the War on Drugs, so this figure might look different if set in the context of incarceration rates in other advanced nations.

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