Omar Mateen, the shooter at the gay club, Pulse, who killed nearly 50 innocent civilians and injured an equal number, represents the latest example in the most recent trend in radical Islamic terrorism. As a self-radicalized American citizen, Mateen had pledged his allegiance to al-Nusra, the Boston bombers, Hezbollah, and ISIS, making it clear that he is little more than a loser wannabe jihadi who does not even understand the difference between these groups, most of which are diametrically opposed to one another. Calling 911 in the middle of his killing spree, he specifically stated that he was conducting the attack in the name of ISIS.
In what we could call “traditional terrorism,” jihadis are recruited and trained in a foreign country and then infiltrate into the target country to conduct their attack. An example of this would be the Mumbai siege, in which members of the terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) killed 164 people. A variation of this would be the 9/11 attacks, in which jihadis were recruited abroad, then sent to the United States to learn how to fly airplanes before executing their mission. These types of terrorist attacks are directed by a planning and leadership cell abroad. These attacks are time consuming and expensive for these groups to carry out.
By comparison, remote radicalism costs jihadi networks abroad absolutely nothing. In his recent book “Blood Year,” David Kilcullen coins the term “remote radicalism,” writing, “Most concerning was the emergence of self-radicalized terrorist-individuals acting alone against targets of opportunity, in self-organized, self-directed acts of violence” (Blood Year, 56). Kilcullen mentions Army psychiatrist-turned-mass shooter Nidal Hasan, who killed 13 people at Fort Hood before being captured. He was radicalized and received direction from al-Qaeda leader Anwar Al-Awlaki in Yemen.
By the time Bin Laden was killed, there was strong evidence that self-radicalization was being replaced with “remote radicalization”-the exploitation of dramatically improved electronic communications systems, social media, and increasing access to mobile phones and the internet by terrorists who were able to spot, assess, develop, recruit, and then handle an operational asset from a distance” (Blood Year, 56).
Remote radicalization only becomes more difficult for law enforcement to detect as society’s losers, people who are disenfranchised for reasons that may have little to do with religion or politics, as well as those who are legitimately mentally ill, marry up with jihadi ideology on the internet and take it as their cause du jour.
In 2014, Zale Thompson attacked two New York City policemen with a hatchet, seriously injuring one officer before the other shot and killed Thompson. As a convert to Islam, Thompson became radicalized all on his own, without receiving any direction from controllers abroad to conduct his attack in Jamaica Queens against the NYPD. What is interesting about this case in particular is that this author was told at the time that, although Thompson had jihadi propaganda all over his computer, when police searched his apartment, they found a box filled with black liberation dogma stored away in a corner. If it wasn’t Islamic jihad, someone like Thompson probably would have taken his anger out on the world using the veneer of another ideology.
Although 9/11- and Mumbai-type attacks can be infiltrated and halted by intelligence services and law enforcement officers, identifying and stopping remote radicalized lone wolves is extremely difficult, if not impossible. How can terrorists like Mateen be stopped? America can ban the scary black rifle, the now-notorious AR-15 the New York Times and other outlets are decrying as some kind of autonomous killing machine. We could also ban religion, outlawing Islam entirely since jihadis are inspired by radical aspects of it. Don’t forget that we can also give up all of our civil rights and set up a true surveillance state in America, having the government all up inside every American’s business all the time with wire taps and data-mining.
The reality is that banning guns or religions will not stop remote radicals like Mateen or Nidal. It certainly would not have stopped the 9/11 hijackers, who used box cutters and airplanes as their weapons of choice, nor would it have stopped the Boston bombers, who used pressure cookers to kill. As Ben Franklin said, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” This is the tough thing about freedom. When people are free, they have the freedom to do really stupid things. Relinquishing our civil rights will not bring us freedom or security.
As someone who does not hold public office, I can write something here that no politician can ever say but is nonetheless fundamentally true: Terrorist attacks are never going to go away completely. Furthermore, America is strong enough to absorb a certain level of terrorism without it drastically impacting our society and way of life. This might sound like a cold-hearted trade off, and perhaps it is. I’m proposing that we tolerate a certain level of terrorism so that we can continue to live in a free society. To not tolerate it means restricting our freedoms and way of life, all so that we can theoretically stop the next terrorist attack, which probably won’t happen anyway.
For the time being, America is locked into a never-ending cycle of knee-jerk reactions, following an all-too-predicable script each time an act of terror or a mass shooting by a deranged individual occurs. Various actors call for restricting civil rights, whether it is profiling Muslims and Arabs or banning certain people from the right to bear arms without due process. The media cycle grinds away, getting as much mileage as they can out of the murders, Americans all hate on each other for a few days, and then we just sit and wait so we can do it all over again.
Perhaps it is time that we have a real conversation about freedom versus security, and try to understand where we stand on this issue as a country, because sooner or later we will face the grim reality of another terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11. When that happens, I shudder to think what kind of legislation will be shoved down our throats by Congress in the dead of night, with no one in elected office having even read the bill.