Omar Mateen wanted the world to associate his attack at an Orlando nightclub, the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, with ISIS, the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
Mateen took a few moments just before slaughtering club-goers to call 911 and swear allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. For its own part, ISIS seems happy to associate itself with his attack. The ISIS-linked Amaq News Agency has described Mateen as a “fighter from the Islamic State.”
But should this be considered an “ISIS attack”? As The Guardian’s Jason Burke makes clear in an article about the shooting, U.S. government analysts are now poring over the question of whether Mateen was directed to carry out this attack by ISIS, merely inspired by the group, or something in between. (That the attack may be ISIS-inspired does not preclude it being a hate crime, as President Obama’s address about the shooting made clear.)
Mitchell D. Silber, the former director of intelligence analysis for the New York City Police Department, has crafted a framework for understanding the connection between terrorist attacks and transnational networks. Though he designed the framework for ISIS’s parent organization, al-Qaeda, it is equally applicable to ISIS.
Silber places terrorist attacks’ relationship to broader networks into three categories. The first category is attacks where the network exercises command and control. The second category is plots that a network suggests or endorses, but provides no specific guidance on “means, timing, and targets.” The third category, in which plotters are ideologically inspired by an organization but received no suggestions from its leadership, has the weakest connection to the network.
Over the past few years, there has been a systematic bias for analysts to place Western plots into this final category. Analysts have too often believed that plots were inspired by larger networks but otherwise unconnected to them.
As the intrepid journalist Rukmini Callimachi has documented in an extensive New York Times investigation, officials now believe that ISIS’s powerful terrorist network in Europe could have been better understood long before the tragic attack that struck Paris in November.
She notes numerous plots in Europe-including the May 2014 shooting at the Brussels Jewish Museum and the attempted August 2015 attack on a train traveling from Amsterdam to Paris-where authorities quickly honed in on the idea that the attackers were “lone wolves.” In doing so, they missed important connections to the broader ISIS network.
This is why a discussion about lone wolf vs. networked terrorism is neither academic nor without consequence. Had European authorities doggedly searched for connections following these small-scale or failed plots, they would have had a better chance of preventing a tragedy of the magnitude of the Paris attacks, with 130 innocent lives lost.
Just as ISIS claiming an attack does not prove that its overall network played a strong role, lack of immediately obvious connections to the broader organization does not necessarily mean an attack is lone wolf in nature.
Finding answers is hard work, but the public deserves to have analysts and officials who will keep digging.