Why you should care
Because America has suffered the worst mass shooting in history.
John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
It was the deadliest mass shooting America has yet seen: 50 people killed at a gay nightclub, with the perpetrator, Omar Mateen, pledging allegiance to the Islamic State terrorist group. The month of Ramadan and Gay Pride has taken a terrible turn.
We turned to our senior columnist John McLaughlin to interpret the mass shooting. How is global terror evolving? Should we expect more attacks? And, most important, how can we best protect one another?
OZY: Is this an act of terrorism?
John McLaughlin: In the broadest definition of the term, absolutely. We’ve become accustomed to associating it almost exclusively with acts directed from abroad, but of course we’ve experienced terrorism spawned domestically, such as the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and the Atlanta Olympics bombing in 1996. To be crystal clear, we don’t yet know whether Mateen acted with any foreign direction — the answer probably lies in the electronic media that the FBI and police will now scour. But even if he did not, the fact that he pledged allegiance to ISIS in his 911 call establishes that he was at least paying attention to ISIS propaganda and its appeal to attack “infidels.”
OZY: How has the Islamic State changed the terrorism paradigm?
J.M.: ISIS, to an extent beyond what earlier terrorist groups achieved, has a presence everywhere people can go online. To a degree, Al Qaeda was a VHS-era group — recall how they would smuggle out videotapes intermittently to spread their messages. ISIS, by contrast, uses just about every instrument of social media to spread their propaganda to vulnerable potential recruits. They are also less wedded to the idea of large-scale, elaborately planned attacks on big iconic targets and much more inclined to encourage smaller-scale attacks on “soft” targets, such as we saw in Paris, Brussels and San Bernardino. They are essentially telling their adherents to go ahead and freelance — to go out there, kill and cause mayhem.
OZY: What is the risk of copycat attacks?
J.M.: This is always a great risk. For all we know at this point, Mateen’s attack may itself have been a copycat attack. Perhaps he got the idea from hearing about Paris, where terrorists also attacked social gatherings.
OZY: What do you think the political fallout will be — especially on the presidential election?
J.M.: The leading candidates are already taking positions that mirror their long-standing themes — Trump claiming he was “right” in his concern about Muslims entering this country, Clinton emphasizing her support for tougher gun controls. They are about as far apart on these issues — especially on gun control — as any two candidates have ever been. Much as an assault weapons ban makes sense, at least to me, its opponents seem always to have the upper hand. Probably the most important future factor will be which candidate gets to appoint the next Supreme Court justices. Recall that the Supreme Court in 2008 declared the District of Columbia ban on handguns unconstitutional under the Second Amendment, thus negating the ability of local jurisdictions to legislate such bans. A different court might roll this back in another test case.
OZY: What conclusions, if any, should we draw about the effectiveness of FBI counterterrorism efforts?
J.M.: The FBI is doing an excellent job but is severely challenged by the growing magnitude of the problem. The FBI leadership has made the point that they are pursuing ISIS-related investigations in all 50 states — an incredible case load. We will have to learn more about the bureau’s earlier investigations of Mateen before drawing any conclusions about their work on this case.
OZY: What, if anything, should we be doing differently?
J.M.: In my personal view, it is way past time for an assault weapons ban. And when something like this happens, it is always worth reviewing how well our various databases are connected. Did the information the FBI collected on Mateen in 2013 and 2014 get into the kind of databases that security firms, like the one where Mateen worked, use when checking out a potential employee or when gun dealers make a sale? Someone will be looking into all of that, but I can’t stress enough that we need to know more before drawing any sweeping conclusions.