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Shooting Renews Focus on How to Identify, Stop Extremist Attacks

  • Chris Hannas

Investigators work the scene following a mass shooting at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando Florida, U.S., June 12, 2016.

Investigators work the scene following a mass shooting at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando Florida, U.S., June 12, 2016.

Attacks like Sunday's mass shooting in Orlando, Florida, bring public shock and frustration along with a return to questions about what the government can do to prevent something similar from happening again.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation was aware of Omar Mateen, who perpetrated the attack, and interviewed him in 2013 and 2014. But an official said investigators found no evidence of criminal activity.

Seamus Hughes, deputy director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, said the agency will likely spend the coming days reviewing why Mateen's case was closed, and whether that was the appropriate action.

"The issue, as always, becomes when a person goes from radical thought to actual action, and that’s what the FBI is trying to grapple with right now," Hughes told VOA. "They have a thousand active investigations in all 50 states and have to make the determination of when is somebody just spouting their mouth off and when they’re actually going to make the violent leap into militancy.”

Police cordon off an area near the site of the shooting at the Pulse Club in Orlando, Florida, June 12, 2016. (J. Pernalete/VOA)

Police cordon off an area near the site of the shooting at the Pulse Club in Orlando, Florida, June 12, 2016. (J. Pernalete/VOA)

Tracking challenges

Daniel Pipes, president of the Middle East Forum, said it is difficult for authorities to keep track of potential violent extremists because they do not necessarily have a criminal record or associate with people who are committing violence.

"I dubbed this many years ago the 'Sudden Jihad Syndrome,'" he said. "Sudden in the sense that there’s no warning from the outside. Someone who in this case is a security guard who had a 3-year-old child, who had seemed to be integrated and living a normal life, can have ideas in his head that will cause him to erupt in this way and start massacring people."

The Orlando shooter claimed allegiance to Islamic State in a phone call to emergency services, while the militant group used its media outlet to claim the attack was carrying out by one of its fighters.

Mutual benefits

Marielle Harris, a senior researcher at the Counter Extremism Project, told VOA it is unclear yet how much direct support the shooter may have had. But she said the situation was mutually beneficial, with Mateen able to act on behalf of a powerful organization and Islamic State getting to claim an attack that has dominated Western media. She said it is important to look at the internet's role in radicalization, adding that social media companies need to be much more proactive.

"We don’t know how active Omar Mateen was on social media, but we can guess that he was radicalized online," Harris said. "He had never been to ISIS-controlled territory. He was born in New York. He lived most of his life in Florida. So, really, where do people get information these days? It’s on the internet. Where are they self-radicalizing? It’s on the internet."

Harris also stressed that in addition to visible interactions, another major issue is extremists connecting on Facebook or Twitter and then moving to encrypted platforms that are much harder to trace. She highlighted a CEP initiative that uses the hashtag #CEPDigitalDisruption to flag extremist accounts for removal. It monitors posts in English, French, German, Turkish and Arabic.

Friends and family members embrace outside the Orlando Police Headquarters during the investigation of a shooting at the Pulse night club in Orlando, Florida, June 12, 2016.

Friends and family members embrace outside the Orlando Police Headquarters during the investigation of a shooting at the Pulse night club in Orlando, Florida, June 12, 2016.

"We really do need to keep an eye on these extremists and see just how they're radicalizing online because that's half of the battlefield," Harris said.

Balancing security and privacy

Any discussion of monitoring online activities, particularly those of Americans, also brings with it the debate about the needs to ensure security while also respecting privacy.

“It’s a very difficult balancing act," Hughes said. "The issue becomes: As a public we can’t expect the FBI or law enforcement to have a 100 percent success rate. It’s just unrealistic. You’re going to have a number of people who make a jump into violence that you’re not going to be able to stop, and that’s the nature of living in a free society."

Pipes said relying on police is not the best method for combating Islamist extremists, and the focus should instead by on countering "these horrifying ideas with better ones."

"It’s not about guns, it’s not about poverty, it’s not about mental illness. It’s about a body of ideas, a very ugly body of ideas like fascism, communism, now this Islamism," he said. "We need to focus on this. We will not solve this problem until we deal with this ugly body of ideas."

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