The Cipher Brief sat down with former Director of Analysis at the NYPD, Mitch Silber, to discuss the fallout from the Orlando attack this past week. According to Silber, the attack benefitted ISIS primarily since it diverted attention away from the group’s battlefield losses in Iraq and Syria. Further, Silber explained that while safeguards established since 9/11 have prevented terrorists from crossing into the U.S., the homegrown threat presents a new set of challenges that are much more difficult to monitor.
The Cipher Brief: What does an attack like Orlando do for ISIS in terms of messaging and appeal? Is this a victory for them?
Mitch Silber: It certainly is on a number of different levels. There has been a significant amount of coverage in the media about how ISIS’ physical footprint in Syria and Iraq is shrinking and the amount of territory that they own is being pressured. There has been a lot of discussion about ISIS on the decline in the media. This in a way rebuts that. It shows that they are still potent even though, so far, there does not appear to be an operational link between Orlando shooter Omar Mateen and the organization. It looks more like an inspirational link.
TCB: Is this type of lone-wolf attack more or less valuable to ISIS than a coordinated attack like Paris or Brussels?
MS: I think it’s slightly less valuable to ISIS, but only marginally less valuable. The fact that this appears to be ISIS inspired versus ISIS coordinated like Brussels and Paris in some ways is more powerful, because ISIS didn’t really have to do anything to enable or facilitate this attack, and they still receive all the credit for it, showing them as the most robust global terrorist organization.
On the other hand, for counterterrorism practitioners, this is not an example of ISIS being able to send operatives here. We still know that the defenses that have been erected post 9/11 are still working pretty well to prevent terrorist operatives from getting into the U.S. At the end of the day though, we have approximately 50 people killed in the name of ISIS, so I’m not sure how much solace that is. There are a lot of people in the media who are saying, “Hey, whether it’s ISIS inspired or ISIS commanded and controlled, it doesn’t matter.”
TCB: Is there a momentum factor that we need to be concerned about as the idea of lone-wolf terror makes the rounds in the media?
MS: There is some value in that analysis. There is nothing that succeeds like success. If people see the amount of attention that Mateen has garnered from the media, then people who are like-minded and want to have that type of infamy might be motivated to carry out a similar type of attack and can see it as having a relatively high rate of success.
TCB: Is there a way, perhaps via social media, to measure any PR value that ISIS has gained?
MS: Not that I can think of.
TCB: It seems that many of the lone-wolf attacks have been carried out by individuals who have at one point or another been listed on an FBI watch list or have had close family members on the FBI watch list. Is there more that can be done to mitigate threats posed by these individuals?
MS: Unfortunately, this falls into what we are now seeing again as a gap in coverage. This echoes what happened with the Tsarnaev brothers, who were responsible for the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013. In both the Boston and Orlando cases, the FBI, one way or another, came across the individuals who ultimately carried out the attacks, interviewed them, even investigated them to some level, and eventually came to the conclusion that there wasn’t something there that justified arresting them or continuing an open investigation. So they closed the investigations. And then low and behold, these individuals activated with awful and deadly consequences.
In this case, one might argue that once you’ve been investigated by the FBI for terrorism, even if you’ve been cleared, maybe you shouldn’t be permitted to buy an AR-15 or other semi-automatic rifles. But with the Tsarnaevs, they made their own device. By the nature of counterterrorism, you are constantly prioritizing threats and ultimately clearing some. And some people that you clear may go on to attack you later on. That’s what happened in London in 2005 with the 7/7 attacks. The people who they cleared a couple of years before were responsible for it. So this is part of the challenge for law enforcement and intelligence if you’re not going to monitor everybody, which you can’t.
TCB: Is there any way to flag an individual purchasing a weapon if that person had at one point been on an FBI watch list?
MS: Not unless gun laws change.
TCB: What are some of the next questions authorities will be seeking to answer?
MS: There are more questions that are still out there regarding the nature of Mateen’s association with ISIS and other similar groups. How long has this been going on? We don’t know anything about his radicalization to violence process, and that will be important to learn.
TCB: What can be done to detect or counter homegrown terrorist attacks such as this one?
MS: Countering these attacks is extremely difficult, especially if a person stays to his or herself. This person’s wife didn’t turn him in. Family members in this case, and in San Bernardino and Boston, didn’t turn them in. If the conspiracy is small, one or two people, then it’s very hard for law enforcement to detect it.
Further, there were no overseas communications in this case. If they are not communicating with ISIS headquarters for guidance, it’s hard to stop them. Many al Qaeda plots are stopped based on intercepting the communications with al Qaeda’s command center.