Each week, In Theory takes on a big idea in the news and explores it from a range of perspectives. This week we’re talking about radicalization and “homegrown terrorism.” Need a primer? Catch up here.
David Sterman is a senior program associate at New America’s International Security Program. Find him on Twitter: @DSterms.
In the wake of the shooting in Orlando, the deadliest terrorist attack in the United States since 9/11, the discussion of how people become radicalized has often sought a master narrative, one that can explain every case and assign a single motivation. Pundits decry a supposed tendency to refer to factors other than radical Islamist ideology when trying to explain an attack as erasing the role of ideology.
Yet it is precisely the ability avoid either-or explanations that is essential to understanding the threat the United States faces from homegrown terrorists. As Enrique Marquez, who is accused of buying the weapons for 2015’s San Bernardino attack, said: “No one really knows me. I lead multiple lives.” Marquez’s self-analysis was flawed in many respects, but in one respect he is correct: A single motive for violent actions is seldom sufficient. Jihadist ideology, with its peculiar mix of religious, foreign policy and socio-political views, is important, but it should not overshadow the investigation and analysis of other explanations.
It is already clear that Omar Mateen, the Orlando attacker, was motivated by a combination of personal and ideological reasons. Reports have emerged that Mateen had frequented the gay nightclub he attacked as well as gay dating sites. These reports raise questions about whether his decision to conduct the attack may have been partially motivated by the pressures of repressing his sexuality. Regardless of whether Mateen’s sexuality had any influence on his actions, other factors also point to potential explanations beyond jihadist ideology — from his reported drinking to his history of domestic violence and of homophobic and racist comments.
That said, the role of jihadist ideology cannot be divorced from these explanations. Mateen had been investigated by the FBI twice in relation to terrorism — once about statements he had made, and once to investigate possible ties to Moner Mohammad Abusalha, an American from Florida who trained in Syria and eventually conducted a suicide bombing there. FBI Director James B. Comey has stated that he is “highly confident” that Mateen radicalized in part online. One member of Mateen’s community reported to law enforcement that Mateen had watched videos by Anwar al-Awlaki, an American cleric whose statements have been repeatedly referenced by suspected terrorists in the United States. When he conducted the attack, Mateen pledged allegiance to the Islamic State via a 911 call.
At times, people involved in extremism will shift between the allegiances they cite to justify their violence, providing a reminder that even when people pledge allegiance to a jihadist group, it does not mean that group’s ideology was the primary or only explanation of their move to violence. Sometimes these shifts are relatively minor and within a broader shared ideological context: Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the two San Bernardino attackers, expressed interest in joining al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula before aligning himself with the Islamic State. Mateen expressed support for al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and even at an earlier point Hezbollah, even though al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are actively fighting a war.
Sometimes, the shifts in cited allegiance can be more contradictory, as was the case with Joseph Jeffrey Brice, a Washington resident who pleaded guilty to making a bomb and attempting to provide terrorists with bomb-making instructions. In his testimony in the case, it was revealed that Brice laid claim to a series of allegiances online, ranging from al-Qaeda to support for Timothy McVeigh and the Irish Republican Army. In fact, Brice, who was investigated at first due to his posting of videos of explosives with jihadist imagery online under the name StrengthofAllah, was not even Muslim. In one court filing, the government suggested the real motivation was the excitement and enjoyment Brice derived from making bombs and demonstrating his expertise, rather than a commitment to any ideology — a reminder that even when an extremist speaks the language of jihadism, he may be responding primarily to a non-ideological impulse.
Though President Obama has come under repeated criticism for talking about factors beyond jihadist ideology when addressing homegrown terrorist attacks, it is worth remembering that these cases are about individuals, who tend not to fit explanations based on single factors. Pursuing reductive explanations at the expense of nuance is counterproductive. It blinds analysis to cases of potential violence where the jihadism factor is missing, while at the same time exaggerating the causation of jihadist ideology in cases where it does exist.
Ignoring Mateen’s history of interaction with jihadism or his stated motivation during the attack is foolhardy, but so is assuming that jihadism is the one and only explanation.