Guns and lone wolves

The Florida attack demonstrates the power of self-radicalised, lone gunmen whose actions are enabled by the U.S.’s lack of gun control

June 15, 2016 01:17 am | Updated October 18, 2016 01:43 pm IST

Omar Mateen has been identified as the lone gunman who >massacred 50 people at Pulse, an LGBT nightclub in Orlando , Florida. Over the last three years, “lone wolf”-style terrorist attacks have been on the rise. In 2016 alone, there have been 694 terrorist attacks across the world in six months, including those carried out by violent non-state actors. Out of these, at least 31 were classified as lone wolf attacks, i.e. actors acting allegedly by themselves without any tactical or financial support from an established insurgent group or international terrorist organisation.

Mateen’s motivations remain unclear. His father, Mir Seddique Mateen, a first-generation Afghan immigrant in America, claims that his son was not an Islamist radical but >might have been homophobic . Motivations of the culprit aside, what remain clear are the following. First, lone wolf-style attacks are on the rise, as they remain an efficient way of disseminating terror in hard-to-access places for terrorist groups like the Islamic State (IS). With the IS’s recruitment of foreign fighters being stymied by alert governments and ground assaults keeping it locked in, the group has turned to ‘do-it-yourself’ terrorism, which is hard to predict and deadly in its outcome as such terrorism rests on locally based unknown assailants with no prior criminal records.

Lone wolves and latitude Lone wolves typically remain off the security radar, and, even if flagged and questioned, like Omar Mateen was in 2013, they do not have enough of a record to facilitate any preventive measures. They are not an integral part of any organised hierarchical structure that classifies itself as an insurgent group and do not receive training and finances. At most, such actors are inspired, not trained, to act for a group. In Mateen’s case, it is reported that he was a member of the Timbuktu Seminary, an online community that follows the teaching of former U.S. Marine-turned-bank robber Marcus Robertson, who now goes by the name of cleric Abu Taubah. During the month of Ramzan, IS cleric and spokesperson Abu Muhammad al-Adnani had called on the group’s supporters in the West saying, “The smallest action you do in the heart of their land is dearer to us than the largest action by us and more effective and more damaging to them.”

Second, in the U.S. lone wolf-style attacks have involved all types of people from different ethnic identities. They are not carried out specifically by people belonging to one religious or ethnic group. The one thing that they all have in common though is “group hate”. Most such assailants are anti-government, anti-women, anti-people of colour, or anti-gay. They are all self-radicalised, in some cases, pledging allegiance to groups (like the Ku Klux Klan) to which they have no tangible connection. In Mateen’s case, he pledged allegiance to IS through a 911 call, during the shootout. A short while later, IS took to social media to claim the attack.

Third, if you look at the mass shootings statistics, there are a disproportionately larger number of such incidents in the U.S. According to the Gun Violence Archive, there were 280 mass shootings in the U.S. in 2014 out of a total of 51,820 gun-related incidents. Similarly in 2015, the number of gun-related incidents in the U.S. was 53,272, with 330 of them being mass shootings. In 2016 alone, there have been 136 mass shootings. One of President Barack Obama’s greatest challenges has been putting in place gun-control measures. At least 37 per cent of American households have a firearm. Since 1871, the National Rifle Association has protected the Second Amendment and a century or so later became active in advocacy and political donations. An Assault Weapons Ban expired in the U.S. in 2004 and was not renewed or replaced. Mr. Obama’s victories on gun control have been limited to introducing background checks on suppliers, similar checks on organisations buying guns and giving schools and police more resources to fight gun violence.

The case for gun control Following the Orlando killings, politicians in the U.S. need to explain why policy measures to curb gun sales have not been established. A renewed assault rifles ban could have made it harder for someone like Mateen or Adam Lanza (the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter) to buy an AR-15. The sale of the same military grade rifle is banned in the U.K., for instance, and mass shootings are far fewer.

We can begin to parse some trends from these three points and correlate them. The first such trend is that of people self-radicalising towards an extremist ideology by accessing material on social media or by connecting with preachers and espousers of such ideology through such media. A classic case is that of Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, a couple who had become radicalised enough through the Internet to be able to kill their co-workers during a social event last year in San Bernardino. Similarly, Dylann Roof, who killed nine African-Americans at a church in Charleston last June, was a self-radicalised white supremacist. Elliot Rodger, who killed six people at Isla Vista in 2014, was an out-and-out misogynist whose beliefs against women were reinforced through online forums.

The Orlando mass shooting is a terror attack stemming from homophobia reinforced by regressive religious doctrine; it is not solely an IS-orchestrated event and the IS link is peripheral since Mateen had no direct connection with the IS. It is more plausible to view it as one in a series of terrorist incidents carried out by people who harbour some form of group hate and are often socially maladjusted in their local communities. The current gun sales environment in the U.S. allows such people to have licensed weapons, which often include assault rifles, and with the right amount of push, they will then perpetrate such an attack without any help from anyone. This is the pattern we can clearly see.

Orlando’s killings lie at an intersection of national and global politics. Internationally, IS propaganda was able to influence a young second-generation Afghan-American through the Internet. Nationally, the lack of gun-control measures allowed him to acquire the means to carry out the attack. This combined with personal homophobia gave Mateen a target group, the LGBT community, which is on the IS radar as a sexual minority that needs to be brutally punished or eliminated. The Orlando attack is not just another terrorist attack. Seeing it as such is misleading as the attack flags local enabling conditions in countries like America, which allow such actions to be undertaken by disturbed/radicalised individuals.

Vasundhara Sirnate Drennan is the Chief Coordinator of Research at The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy.

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