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Shifting Terrorist Threats to America’s Homeland

Jul 06 , 2016
  • Fu Xiaoqiang

    Director, Institute of Security and Arms Control, CICIR

The Orlando shooting on June 12 shocked the whole world. It was the worst terrorist attack in the US homeland since 9/11. Although Washington is inclined to define it as ‘an act of hatred and violence’, the case undoubtedly indicated changing threats to the US homeland. It seems that the line of homeland defense established after 9/11 is hardly capable of dealing with the new threats.

The Orlando shooting is a lone-wolf attack incited by extremist ideology rather than a terrorist attack directly masterminded or commanded by any specific terrorist organization. Although the shooter claimed allegiance to ISIS, the attack was not a typical ISIS-style attack. The level of threat posed by the shooting to America’s national security was lower than the 2009 Ford Hood army-base shooting and the 2010 Times Square car-bombing attempt by a man of Pakistani origin under the influence of al-Qaeda. The latter two directly attacked symbols of American power and an American landmark, but the Orlando case did not challenge these symbols directly.

Since 2015, there have been three terrorist attacks in the US involving allegiance to the ISIS: the May 2015 attack in Texas, the December San Bernardino attack and this Orlando case. On social media such as Twitter and Facebook, perpetrators claimed connections to ISIS. Extremists bewitched by ISIS have been found in many states in America. Among the 250 American extremists who have gone to war in Syria, many are young people and the proportion of women has been increasing. This is similar to what has happened in many other countries. There is no evidence that these terrorist attacks incited by the ISIS were deliberate acts by the organization against the US. It’s more self-labeling by the attackers themselves. The Orlando shooting was also different from the terrorist attack in Paris, which involved a team of multiple attackers and a mastermind directly linked to the ISIS.

The Orlando case does not yet represent a turn in the overall threat situation in the US. The risk of international terrorist organizations launching attacks similar to the 9/11 remains low, although the threat of home-grown violent extremism is indeed on the rise, with both Islamization of radicalism, i.e., individuals legitimizing violence with Islam, and violent crimes out of other social reasons. Nonetheless, if left unheeded and if no international consensus and effective response is developed in the process of international anti-terror cooperation, home-grown violent extremism may well produce severe threats and consequences. The Orlando shooting sufficiently proves that even a lone wolf may produce mass casualties with appropriate weapons. It will be even worse if extremist gangs appear in the American homeland.

The US-led military alliance against ISIS has achieved remarkable results in both Iraq and Syria. ISIS has been cornered and is accelerating attempts to expand its influence outside of controlled areas, with increased possibility of committing crimes in North America and Europe. Against this backdrop, the US should be more vigilant in case terrorist threats from ISIS increase again. Unlike al-Qaeda, which carefully organizes and controls many detachments, ISIS inculcates violence among individuals even before establishing firm connections and engages in open and unscrupulous acts of instigation, propaganda and recruitment on the Internet, leading to radicalization of daily behaviors. Its media actions focus on not only seducing recruits for jihad in the caliphate but also inciting extremism and hate among distorted minds. Such a threat will not be prevented with enhanced visa and border controls only.

Violent extremist threats confronting the US and Europe are different, but this does not mean the US may rest without worries. Indeed, compared with the over 6,000 people in Europe who went to Iraq and Syria for jihad, the ISIS threat to the US is smaller. Compared with their counterparts in the US, extremist groups in Europe are larger, more belligerent and have more hands-on experience in jihad. It is also easier for them to establish direct contact with ISIS and al-Qaeda. Islamic extremists seldom have direct contact with these two organizations and most of them have become radical through social media. But extremist threats tend to upgrade easily and it’s easier for these people to acquire firearms in the US.

New thinking must be developed to prevent home-grown extremist threats. Besides treating them as part of the international anti-terror war and further strengthening efforts against violent extremism at home, the US should demonstrate a greater sense of responsibility in eliminating their sources in the world. As is known to all, this round of rising domestic extremism is closely linked to the expansion of ISIS and civil war in Syria. If the US fails to make progress in addressing the chaotic situations in the Middle East and Afghanistan, new types of extremist threats instigated by emerging terrorist organizations may well appear.

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