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June 15, 2016

The Orlando Shooter’s Many Paths to Violence

Update – 9/27/16: Newly released information indicates that Mateen told a hostage negotiator during the standoff that his attack was inspired by the death of an ISIS commander. This indicates that Mateen’s support of ISIS may have been more influential in his decision than was previously known.

This weekend’s shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, which left 49 dead and 52 people injured, has reinvigorated debate surrounding the nature of radicalization and what it means when someone claims to act on behalf of a foreign terrorist organization.omar mateen

While details about the attack and the perpetrator, Omar Mateen, continue to emerge, there are indications that the assailant may have been motivated by more complicated factors than a simple allegiance to any one, or combination of, terrorist groups. During his call to 911 at the time of the attack, Mateen pledged allegiance to ISIS and its leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, called the Boston marathon bombers his “homeboys” and mentioned Moner Abusalha, a Florida resident who committed a suicide attack on behalf of Jabhat al Nusra, Al Qaeda in Syria, in 2014.

There are signs, however, that extremist ideology may have been only one of many elements that led him to carry out the massacre. Mateen reportedly exhibited violent tendencies prior to the attack; he was accused of domestic abuse by his ex-wife and reportedly threatened coworkers in the past. Domestic violence has been linked to mass shootings – extremist or otherwise. His ex-wife has also suggested he may have been gay. If true, that could point to a host of personal, psychological reasons for his decision to attack Pulse, which was a gay nightclub.

Still, the fact that Mateen had claimed support for Hezbollah and Al Qaeda in a conversation with co-workers – which, along with his possible connections to Moner Abusalha, led to him being investigated twice by the FBI– may indicate he had some profound attraction to these groups.

Mateen is far from the only individual whose activity appears to have been shaped by a complex web of factors, of which extremist ideology may be just one element. For example:

  • In August 2014, Ali Muhammad Brown was allegedly engaged in a rob­bery when he shot a man in a car in New Jersey. Brown is also accused of killing three indi­vid­u­als outside a gay nightclub in Cal­i­for­nia that June; Brown had allegedly lured them to his car on Grindr, a gay  (dating) app, and then murdered them. When appre­hended, Brown claimed that the mur­ders were revenge for U.S. actions in the Mid­dle East. Brown had also reportedlyali-muhammad-brown written in a journal that he planned to follow ISIS and “learn the way of jihadis,” and had previously been linked to a conspiracy to send funds to Al Shabaab, al Qaeda in Somalia. The circumstances of this particular murder, however, indicated that he was hoping to get away with robbery, rather than undertaking a politically charged act.  Similarly, there were no clear indications that his murders in California were undertaken for political reasons.

At least two other individuals never claimed their attacks on behalf of specific foreign terrorist organizations, but were linked to those organizations in their online activity – and in both cases, ISIS eventually claimed credit for their violent actions. ISIS has also claimed credit for the Orlando attack.

  • In September 2014, Okla­homa res­i­dent Alton Nolen was sus­pended from his work­place, a food pro­cess­ing plant. Nolen returned with “a large bladed knife,” with which he beheaded a for­mer col­league and attacked a second. Nolen’s social media feed indi­cated an inter­est in vio­lent extrem­ist pro­pa­ganda, and par­tic­u­larly violent acts associated with ISIS, even as it became clear that he had no actual links to extrem­ist orga­ni­za­tions or a com­pre­hen­sive adher­ence to extrem­ist ideology. Indeed, his online activ­ity may have influenced him to some extent – his inter­est in extrem­ist vio­lence may have informed his deci­sion to under­take a behead­ing rather than another form of vio­lence. Dabiq, ISIS’s English language magazine, claimed credit for Nolen’s activity and boasted that he had acted based on ISIS propaganda. The circumstances of the activity, though, seemed more directly related to workplace violence than to Islamic extremism.
  • In October 2014, Zale Thomp­son of New York attacked law enforce­ment offi­cers with a hatchet. Thompson’s online history  indi­cated he had experimented with a variety of extremist ideologies, but had most recently engaged with Islamic extrem­ist pro­pa­ganda and ide­ol­ogy, includ­ing ISIS-specific pro­pa­ganda, prior to the attack – presumably because it justified such an attack more than other groups he had associated with. He had also independently expressed anger against law enforcement. Thompson’s ultimate motives have not been made clear; the NYPD classified his actions as a terrorist attack, but the FBI did not. Like Nolen, Thompson did not state that his action was undertaken on behalf of a foreign terrorist organization, but ISIS claimed that it was inspired by their propaganda in Dabiq magazine.

The apparent complexity of the motivations in the Orlando Shooting would indicate that this tragedy can fall under the rubric of many other mass casualty attacks – such as Sandy Hook and Charleston- as well as under the rubric of domestic terrorism motivated by Islamic extremist ideology – such as the Boston Bombing and the San Bernardino shooting.

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August 12, 2015

From Charleston to Chattanooga: The Face of Terror in America

By Oren Segal and Mark Pitcavage
Directors of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism

Terrorism is sometimes referred to as the “faceless enemy,” but it has hardly been faceless in the United States this summer.  Too many people have emerged from the shadows to inflict death and suffering.

The parade of violence has seemed unending, from Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi, who attacked police officers providing security for the so-called “Muhammad Art Exhibit” in Texas in May, to John Houser, the Hitler-admiring man obsessed with the moral decay of America who recently opened fire at a Louisiana movie theater showing the movie Trainwreck.

Of the various killers and would-be killers this summer, two stand out.  The first is Dylann Storm Roof, the white supremacist who allegedly confessed to the June massacre at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, that left nine African-Americans dead.dylann-storm-roof-gun-confederate-flag-600

The second is Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez, who in July engaged in a shooting spree targeting a Chattanooga military recruiting center and a nearby naval reserve center.  Abdulazeez, who may have been inspired by radical Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, killed five people—all military personnel—before being killed by police.

In many ways, Roof and Abdulazeez personify America’s terrorist threat; they are the faces of the “faceless enemy.”  Most obviously, each represents a major source of terrorism.  Roof was a white supremacist who allegedly hoped to start a “race war” in which whites would prevail.  White supremacists have for decades been the most prolific source of domestic extremist-related lethal violence.  Along with the other main segment of the extreme right, anti-government militia groups and sovereign citizens, they are responsible for the great majority of extremist-related deaths in the U.S.

Abdulazeez, on whom there is less information regarding motivation, may well have latched onto the ideas of al-Awlaki—including his encouragement of attacks on military targets—as a way to atone for some of his personal demons, including drugs and alcohol.  Domestic Islamic extremists have in recent years attempted or conducted a large number of terrorist plots, conspiracies and acts, despite being fewer in number than right-wing extremists.

Both men also chose targets typical of their movements.  For Abdulazeez, it was the military; here he followed in the footsteps of Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, who killed a soldier at a recruiting center in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 2009, and Nidal Malik Hassan, who killed 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, that same year.  Other Islamic extremists have also recently plotted attacks against military targets in the U.S., though without success.mohammad-youssef-abdulazeez

Roof went on a shooting rampage against African-Americans.  Sprees of violence against racial, ethnic, or religious minorities are a common type of white supremacist terrorism.  In recent years, there have been a number of such episodes, including Frazier Glenn Miller’s attacks on Jewish institutions in Overland Park, Kansas, in 2014; Wade Michael Page’s rampage at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, in 2012, and Keith Luke’s attacks on African immigrants in Brockton, Massachusetts, in 2009.

Both Roof and Abdulazeez used firearms for their attacks, which is also typical of American terrorism.  Although the public usually thinks of terrorism in terms of bombs, terrorists like Ted Kaczynski and the Boston Marathon bombers are rare in America.  The vast majority of extremist-related murders involve guns—easy to acquire, simple to use, and deadly.  This is why Charleston and Chattanooga number among the 10 deadliest extremist-related attacks of the past 50 years.  Indeed, with the exception of the Oklahoma City bombing, the “top 10” attacks all involved firearms.

Abdulazeez and Roof were both young men, disaffected, facing personal stresses of different kinds (Abdulazeez also suffered from mental illness).  Although terrorism knows no age limits—Nidal Hasan was 39 at the time of his Fort Hood rampage, while white supremacist James Von Brunn, who attacked the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2009, was in his late 80s—many of the attacks and plots in recent years by both Islamic and right-wing extremists have been committed by men in their mid-20s or younger.

Like Abdulazeez and Roof, a number of these extremists committed their attacks as lone wolves, unattached to any particular group.  Overall, the number of lethal lone wolf attacks in the past two decades has been fairly low, numbering only a few dozen, but in recent years, lone wolves seem to have been emerging at a faster rate.  One reason may be the increasing role played by the Internet in facilitating self-radicalization.  It was through the Internet that Roof educated himself in white supremacy; it was via the Internet that Abdulazeez downloaded recordings of al-Awlaki.

Here one can see a significant difference between right-wing extremists and domestic Islamic radicals.  While they can both easily immerse themselves in a sea of on-line propaganda designed to instill and reinforce extreme views, right-wing extremist Internet sources are primarily based in the United States and, therefore, must watch what they say.  White supremacists who openly use the Internet to encourage violence and terrorism open themselves up to criminal investigation and, if violence occurs, possible civil liability; as a result, their encouragement of violence is often more implicit than explicit.

Domestic Islamic extremists, in contrast, receive most of their radicalizing messages from abroad, from terrorist groups and like-minded supporters who are freer to use the Internet to call for violence and terrorism within the U.S.  Propaganda from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, for example, was an inspiration for the Boston Marathon bombing.  In the past two years, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has taken such tactics to a new level altogether, employing a virtual army of on-line recruiters who use social media platforms to reach and radicalize susceptible individuals across the globe.  Seeking to instill a deep sense of community and purpose, ISIS supporters encourage Americans to come to the Middle East to help it fight its wars—many of the 80+ U.S. residents linked to Islamic extremist activity since 2014 have made such attempts. But ISIS also urges people to launch attacks in the U.S.

Roof and Abdulazeez were both cold-blooded killers.  Their attacks deeply affected the citizens of Charleston and Chattanooga and, indeed, the whole country, though not always in the same ways.  In particular, the Chattanooga shootings, like some similar attacks before them, stirred anti-Muslim sentiments directed at America’s entire Muslim community, a disturbing phenomenon for which there is no parallel with regard to white supremacist attacks.

But their attacks were similar in that they were both essentially futile, able to achieve little but death and misery.  Indeed, the reactions to the attacks illustrate just how ineffective they actually were.  The Chattanooga attack, for example, inspired an outpouring of support for the U.S. military. The Charleston response was even more powerful.  Far from starting a “race war,” Roof’s slaughter not only brought Charlestonians of all races together but also resulted in a bipartisan effort to remove the Confederate flag from the South Carolina capitol.

American extremists, of whatever stripe, can hurt and even kill, but the one thing they can’t do is win.

Mr. Segal is an authority on Islamic extremism and terrorism in the United States; Dr. Pitcavage is an expert on right-wing extremism and terrorism in the United States.

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May 30, 2013

Latest Inspire Magazine Celebrates Boston Bombing

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Commemorative graphic of Boston Bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev in latest issue of Inspire

The eleventh issue of Al Qaeda in the Ara­bian Penin­sula’s Inspire mag­a­zine celebrates the April 15 Boston Bombing, praises the Tsar­naev brothers and encourages future attacks against the U.S.

The magazine, recently released online, highlights how the Boston bombers, Tamer­lan and Dzkhokhar Tsar­naev, were aided by previous issues of Inspire. According to federal law enforcement officials, the brothers got bomb-making instruc­tions from the magazine.

This issue features letters and several articles reveling in the death and destruction of Americans. For example, the letter to the editor reads: “Americans, you should understand this simple equation: as you kill you will be killed… Yesterday it was Baghdad, today it is Boston… You should be asking, ‘Where is next?’”

“The peace you enjoyed before September 11 is merely just part of history,” the letter continues. “In other words, you will never enjoy peace until we live it practically in Palestine and all the infidel forces leave the Peninsula of Muhammad and all other Muslim lands.”

Another letter, written by “Jonas the rebel,” encourages American Muslims to engage in lone wolf attacks. “…your belongingness to Islam is enough to classify you as an enemy… The Boston Bombings have uncovered the capabilities of the Muslim Youth, they have revealed the power of the Lone Jihad operation.”

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Inspire Magazine publishes collection of tweets “from the mujahideen in the Arabian Peninsula”

The magazine includes a collection of tweets “from the mujahideen in the Arabian Peninsula” further celebrating the Boston bombing. It even includes a “Newsflash” section lauding the tornado in Oklahoma earlier this month, claiming that “Muslims and others alike celebrated and prayed for more to strike America… This is not from nature, this is from the Lord of nature.”

In an article titled “Message to the American Nation,” Qassim Ar-Reimy writes about America “meddling” in the affairs of Muslims. The article promises that those “standing against your aggression and oppression on humanity” will “damage your economy and terrify your hearts.”

Since it was first published in 2010, numerous inter­na­tional and domes­tic extrem­ists moti­vated by rad­i­cal inter­pre­ta­tions of Islam have been influ­enced by the mag­a­zine and, in some cases, report­edly uti­lized the bomb mak­ing instruc­tions in their attempts to carry out attacks.

Samir Khan, a 24-year-old Amer­i­can known for dis­trib­ut­ing ter­ror­ist pro­pa­ganda mate­r­ial online, was the prin­ci­pal author of Inspire before he was killed by a U.S. drone strike on Sep­tem­ber 30, 2011. This latest issue of the magazine is the fourth to be released since his death.

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