The Obama administration has warned repeatedly about lone wolf terrorist attacks like Sunday’s massacre in Orlando, Florida. But it also acknowledges a grim reality: it can’t stop them all.
Days after a pair of Islamic terrorists murdered 13 people in San Bernardino, Calif., last December, President Barack Obama explained that “the terrorist threat has evolved into a new phase.” With the U.S. better able to stop elaborate plots like the September 11, 2001, attacks, “terrorists [have] turned to less complicated acts of violence” like mass shootings, Obama said.
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“Many Americans are asking whether we are confronted by a cancer that has no immediate cure,” he added, before listing several steps his administration is taking to combat homegrown terror attacks.
But, he concluded somberly: “Our approach will take time. This is not an easy task.”
That point was underscored all too clearly in the early Sunday morning hours at the Pulse nightclub, where gunman Omar Mateen, who reportedly pledged allegiance to the Islamic State during a 911 call, killed at least 50 people before police killed him.
Mateen and the San Bernardino shooters, Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, have underscored the nation’s core vulnerability to Islamist groups like al Qaeda and the Islamic State, also known as ISIL. Although they still aspire to down U.S. airliners and stage other spectacular attacks, by propagating their message online they can inflict blows on America from attackers who may be complete strangers.
A broad consensus exists among law enforcement officials and counterterrorism analysts that attacks like the one in Orlando are simply too easy for the authorities to prevent entirely. Powerful firearms are relatively cheap and accessible throughout the U.S. Shooting dozens of civilians at close range in a confined space like a nightclub requires no specialized training.
The Islamic State and al Qaeda have used Twitter, YouTube and other social media platforms to instill Muslims living inside the U.S. with hatred for non-Muslims and to mount self-directed attacks against random civilians. Social media giants like Facebook and Twitter are trying to crack down on such messages but the task is daunting in scale.
Meanwhile, FBI director James Comey has said that his agency has more than 900 terror investigations underway in 50 states. The FBI tracks 48 high-risk suspects 24 hours a day with teams of a dozen agents apiece, Comey said in November, warning of a severe drain on FBI resources. (According to some reports on Sunday, Mateen had previously been flagged by the FBI as a potential terror suspect but was no longer actively being investigated.)
“It is very difficult to interrupt the self-radicalization process,” said Frances Fragos Townsend, who served as homeland security adviser to president George W. Bush, adding that federal authorities “do not have the resources to cover every threat.” But Townsend added that the Obama administration should devote more resources to domestic terror investigations and review Justice Department restrictions on how aggressively those cases are pursued.
The U.S. is not believed to have suffered a terror attack highly organized or funded from abroad since September 11, 2001. But Obama has faced the problem of terrorists acting at their own direction from the start of his presidency, and has repeatedly touted stepped-up efforts to combat radicalization inside the country’s borders.
In September 2009 federal agents arrested an Afghan-American man from Colorado who sought to bomb the New York City subway system. That November, Army Major Nidal Hassan shot 13 people at the U.S. Army base at Ft. Hood. The next May, a Pakistani-American man tried to detonate a car bomb in Times Square. Three years later, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev bombed the Boston Marathon, killing three and wounding more than 250 people.
In July of last year a gunman killed four U.S. Marines at a military recruiting center in Chattanooga, Tenn.; in December, Farook and Malik killed 13 people in San Bernardino.
Each of those attacks appears to have been conducted with less planning and direction by senior terrorist leaders than the ones that struck Paris last November and Brussels in March. In each case, however, the shooters did declare allegiance to the Islamic State, as Mateen reportedly did, or otherwise made statements of sympathetic to radical Islam or hostile to U.S. counter-terrorism policies.
“Although the carnage is much worse, the Orlando attack looks at first glance like another variation on a familiar theme: a lone operator — a deeply disturbed one to judge from the early reporting — who acted apparently without outside prompting, and used a low tech means of assault instead of a super-complicated explosive device,” said Daniel Benjamin, a former top State Department counter-terrorism official.
“Precisely because Mateen caused so many casualties with an assault rifle, though, the lone wolf paradigm looks scarier today than it did before. And, of course, identifying that extremist ahead of time appears no easier,” added Benjamin, director of the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth University.
Others have said flatly that stopping such attacks is virtually impossible. “We see apparently today more of these attacks are coming,” Republican Senator Jeff Sessions, an adviser to Donald Trump, told Fox News Sunday.
After returning from Paris in March, Maine Senator Angus King, who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, called future attacks within the U.S. “more or less inevitable.” CIA director John Brennan used the same word during a January interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes” to describe attempts to kill Americans within the U.S.
Obama has promoted a “countering violent extremism” agenda aimed at blunting the spread of radical ideology that leads to terrorist attacks. That has included a strategy to combat ISIL propaganda on Twitter — one that critics have blasted as embarrassing and ineffective, and which the administration revamped in January.
Law enforcement officials have also struggled to establish dialogues with Muslim communities, many of which view the outreach with suspicion.
Obama’s Republican critics have repeatedly charged him with failing to fight ISIL aggressively enough and many conservatives have long complained about Obama’s reluctance to use the phrase “radical Islam,” insisting that it is impossible to defeat an enemy without describing it accurately. (Obama aides call the phrase needlessly provocative to moderate Muslims.)
On Sunday the Log Cabin Republicans, an LBGT advocacy group, said that that Obama should be prepared to use the phrase if the evidence supports it. “If the shooter’s suspected motivations are indeed confirmed, we call upon President Obama and the presumptive nominees of both parties to condemn the attacker and acknowledge in no uncertain terms the cause of this massacre: Radical Islamic terrorism,” Log Cabin Republicans President Gregory T. Angelo told Breitbart News.
In a statement on Sunday, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump noted that Obama had avoided using the phrase. “For that reason alone, he should step down,” Trump said.
Addressing to the nation after the San Bernardino attacks, Obama insisted that the U.S. is waging a tough campaign to wipe out ISIL in Iraq and Syria and to bring an end to Syria’s civil war, which has fueled the spread of radical Islamist ideology.
He also called for new gun control measures, including on the type of assault weapons used in San Bernardino and Orlando.
Obama raised the question of gun control again during his remarks from the White House on Sunday. The Orlando massacre, he said, was a “reminder of how easy it is for someone to get their hands on a weapon that lets them shoot people in a school, or in a house of worship, or a movie theater, or in a nightclub. And we have to decide if that’s the kind of country we want to be. And to actively do nothing is a decision as well.”
Hillary Clinton has not offered counter-terror proposals markedly different from Obama’s, although she has argued for a “no-fly zone” in Syria that might require a significant escalation in America’s military role there.
Trump has said he has a “foolproof” secret plan to defeat ISIL, and after the San Bernardino attacks called for blocking the entry of all Muslims into the U.S. “until our leaders can figure out what the hell is going on.”
Sessions seemed to underscore that idea on Sunday, suggesting that “we need to slow down and be careful about those we admit into the country.”
Mateen, however, was a U.S.-born citizen.