Orlando – Are We Asking the Right Questions?

Written By: CENSA Editorial Board

In the wake of the mass shooting in Orlando, in-print and online conversations are abuzz with questions regarding Omar Mateen’s true motives and his possible connection with the Islamic State terrorist group known as ISIS. One of the primary questions, “Did he have direct links to ISIS?” draws comments from a diverse population—some of whom seem to believe that if the answer is “no,” then the meaning of the attack is less significant, or perhaps it poses less of a strategic threat to U.S. national security. Yet this logic fails to consider the purpose behind ISIS’s propaganda and recruitment campaigns. Intricately designed, these campaigns currently have global influence, in over six main languages, and can be accessed by anyone with access to the internet. One single post to justpaste.it, for instance, produces more than 20 different links to different types of media sites containing messages in multiple sizes and suitable for any bandwidth.

In the immediate aftermath of the Orlando attacks, ISIS capitalized on the event by engaging social media sites even as the news was initially breaking. Initial messages included support for the shooter, the sponsorship and use of various hashtags associated with the event (sometimes known as “hashtag hijacking”), and the encouragement of similar attacks in other locations. The messages contained very purposeful, targeted posts calling all “believers” to attack “non-believers” by any and all means. The messages have been consistent, methodical and emotional, as can be seen in a weekly publication of an online newsletter posted to multiple social media platforms each Tuesday.  Similar messages were seen after the attacks in Paris[1] and Brussels.[2] Additionally, an associate of Mateen’s[3] has since come forward and relayed that Mateen had been watching and listening to Anwar al-Awlaki’s messages prior to the shooting (see archive.org).

ISIS’s aggressive engagement of social media sites and its pervasive online presence is cause for considerable concern for any national security professional. The group is effectively competing in the “war of ideas” and recruiting untold numbers of future armed radicals. Its online campaign extends the reach of the organization to an infinite number of potential allies, including the socially disgruntled, disturbed, or disenfranchised in all parts of the world. Given this, a person could conduct an attack in the name of ISIS without ever having to talk to another person (might this be exactly the case in the July 14 truck attack in Nice, France?). The real question might be, therefore, does one need to have direct connections to a group to be considered a member of it? Does this really matter?

[1] http://theconversation.com/how-social-media-was-key-to-islamic-states-attacks-on-paris-50743

[2] http://www.businessinsider.de/isis-telegram-twitter-brussels-attacks-2016-3?r=US&IR=T

[3] https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/06/20/i-reported-omar-mateen-to-the-fbi-trump-is-wrong-that-muslims-dont-do-our-part/