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Massacre has the potential to shape US poll

By Peter Jennings

It will take months to find out exactly what sick ideology motivated Omar Mateen to kill 49 people in a Florida nightclub. But we know enough about him to see a pattern emerging that’s common to many people who radicalise and become violent extremists. Mateen was American born of Afghan parents. He was no fool — the New York Times reports he earned a degree in criminal justice technology in 2006 and had been employed by a leading security company.

But he was abusive and unstable. A brief marriage ended in 2011 after his wife divorced him claiming domestic violence. She has told the media that Mateen was not particularly religious, but more recently he became a frequent visitor to the Fort Pierce Islamic Centre in Orlando and was becoming more reclusive.

Mateen’s father, Seddique Mir Mateen, apparently hosted a pro-Afghanistan TV program that broadcast anti-Pakistan and pro-Taliban content. Disturbingly, Mateen was interviewed twice by the FBI in 2013, reported by co-workers for extremist views. Again, in 2014, he was questioned for what’s been called “minimal contact” with Moner Mohammad Abusalha, a Florida man who became America’s first suicide bomber in Syria in May 2014.

With this background it’s hardly surprising Mateen was somewhere on the FBI’s radar, but just not high enough to have been picked up in any of the hundreds of bureau sting operations against Islamist extremists, including in Florida. That gives rise to a fascinating question: did Mateen go on his killing spree because he thought that law enforcement operations were closing in?

Another disturbing question is how he could have been so low on priority lists, given that his history showed so many radicalisation boxes were ticked. One can only feel for intelligence and police forces here, in Europe and America. They are being asked to do the impossible: prevent outrages without compromising the liberties of individuals who might, but then again might not, radicalise to the point of violence.

Although Mateen pledged allegiance to Islamic State in a 911 phone call from the Pulse nightclub, it is unlikely that IS was directing the attack. It doesn’t matter, though, whether IS was directing or “merely” inspiring it. The killings will have the same galvanising effect in the US and echoes will be heard in Australia.

President Barack Obama will be criticised for being too relaxed about the direct risks IS poses to American security. Fewer Americans than Australians have radicalised and gone to Syria to fight with extremist groups. Obama has never drawn as direct a connection between the war in Syria and Iraq and domestic security as has Tony Abbott or (in more muted tones) Malcolm Turnbull. America’s strategy against IS has been about applying slow pressure to bottle up the terror group in its key cities of Mosul and Raqqa and, over months, “degrade” IS by killing fighters with air strikes.

But the strategy doesn’t stop the propaganda and it is having the effect of inspiring individuals to radicalise and mount terror attacks in cities as widespread as Sydney, Melbourne, Istanbul, Paris, Brussels and Orlando.

Obama will have no choice other than to step up the pace and scale of the fight in Iraq and Syria. In fact, that has been happening quietly for months, as the US pushed more special forces troops into combat operations. We should expect more US troops to be deployed now. It won’t be too long before Turnbull gets a call he doesn’t really want from Obama, asking for Australia to contribute more forces.

Donald Trump has already made political use of the Orlando killings to claim that the Obama administration does not know how to deal with the terror threat. Trump doesn’t have even the beginning of a plan to do any better in Iraq or Syria, but the shootings in Florida will give him more momentum going into the presidential election.

Hillary Clinton’s problem is to be tied by party and her earlier role as secretary of state to Obama’s failed Middle East and counter-terrorism strategies.

In Australia, Turnbull has an opportunity he doesn’t seem to want to exercise, which is to play the national security card in the election. Surely that’s what all the billions of dollars spent in ships and submarines was intended to deliver. Bill Shorten will continue to claim there is no difference between Labor and the Coalition on counter-terrorism, but he will realise that terror attacks help incumbent parties.

Before too long politicians and voters will be demanding more pre-emptive police and intelligence operations to apprehend individuals with backgrounds like Mateen.

That may prevent shootings but we should also be worried about social cohesion and stability in our cities. The price of Obama’s failure to destroy IS when he had the chance in mid-2014 will be paid in pre-emptive police operations around the world. 

Peter Jennings is Executive Director of ASPI

Originally published: Herald Sun. Wednesday 15 June 2016.

Originally published by: External link on 15 Jun 2016