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The Orlando massacre and the dangers in the 'lone wolf' explanation

By Jacinta Carroll

The problem with the "lone wolf" label is that we run the risk of only focusing on the specifics of an individual case, and once again miss the patterns emerging in the broader terrorist threat, writes Jacinta Carroll.

The terrible events in Orlando - 50 people dead, 53 wounded in the worst terrorist attack on US soil since 2001 - have some striking elements of familiarity for Australians.

Many of the questions being asked now about Omar Mateen are the same that were asked - and continue to be posed - about Man Haron Monis and the Martin Place siege.

While intelligence and law enforcement are working to develop a full picture of Mateen and his possible connections, we have some picture of the individual.

Mateen is described as a lone actor with knowledge of and access to semi-automatic firearms, who made his public allegiance to Islamic State only minutes before the attack. That suggests an affiliation that is "inspired" and distant rather than being a "real" part of the group.

A perpetrator of domestic violence with mental health issues, he attacked ordinary citizens in a public venue before taking hostages. The FBI apparently had investigated him several times in the past but had given him a pass.

In his attack on a fashionable café in Sydney's CBD, Monis too had pledged a fumbled allegiance to IS only during the hostage siege; he had a history of association with a range of groups but little specifically with IS. He also had a history of alleged abuse towards women, as well as mental health issues.

One factor that distinguishes the Orlando attack from the Martin Place siege is the targetting of the local gay community, making it a hate crime.

IS, for its part, has claimed both attacks for its own.

As we have seen with the Martin Place siege, there's a tendency to deconstruct and explain away an individual's conduct and motivation. We are familiar with the personal problems of not only Monis but also those of bullied loner Jake Bilardi, academically-failing drug-dealer and Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and fellow drug-dealer and small-time crook-turned-Paris-attacker Salah Abdeslam.

Understanding what happened and why is useful in explaining the particular crime, but it does little to improve our understanding of what such attacks might mean in the broader context of the terrorist threat and what, if anything, we should be doing about it.

And there are some trends in terrorism that should make us worried.

Just like Monis, Mateen has already been called a lone wolf: a single player with no real connection to or direction from IS, but inspired by IS to undertake an act of terrorism.

The problem with the "lone wolf" label is that it suggests government agencies and the broader community not only can't do anything to prevent such attacks, but also that terrorist groups aren't really involved in them. It has even led to debate about whether some incidents are terrorist acts at all.

So what does a terrorist attack look like?

We are familiar with the large-scale, multiple-target and mass-casualty terrorist attacks such as 9/11, London's 7/7, Paris and Brussels. Terrorist groups took credit through their own propaganda outlets or trusted media contacts. These are events easy to understand as terrorist attacks.

So what of another unstable loner such as Mateen?

Former head of counterterrorism analysis for the New York Police Department, Mitchell Silber, developed a framework to distinguish between a fully-planned and coordinated attack (such as 9/11 and apparently Paris and Brussels), a purely inspired attack (such as may be the case with the Martin Place siege) and an attack which is broadly directed and facilitated (such as appears to be the case with Curtis Cheng's murder in Parramatta).

In the latter, targets and elements of operational planning are advised. Doctrinal justification is provided. Supportive echo chambers of the like-minded assist and encourage, in kind where possible.

Just because an attack lacks the scale and the centrally directed coordination and planning of a 9/11 does not mean it is not a terrorist act.

We should stop defaulting to the lone-attacker description, thereby suggesting there's nothing more to it. Particularly when the offender has died during the incident, as with Mateen and Monis.

There is more to this.

The Brussels museum attack in May 2014 and the thwarted attempted attack on an Amsterdam-Paris train are just two of the best-known of many events in Europe characterised as "lone wolf" attacks. But in the context of the subsequent Paris and Brussels attacks, they now indicate the scale of IS networks in Europe.

The 9/11 Commission similarly identified a failure by US and allied intelligence agencies to fully appreciate the significance of a range of isolated attacks that, seen through the 20-20 hindsight of the terrible events of 2001, were clear harbingers of a terrorist network with increasing capability and the intent to destroy the West.

Terrorist groups, as with all other insurgents, are relatively weaker than governments. Therefore they attack where they can, and where they have the best chance of success.

Success is a headline, and not a conventional military victory demonstrating physical superiority.

Islamist terrorists aren't limited by any of the conventions of human rights and decency that constrain Western counter-terrorism players.

So what does this mean for Orlando? And for Martin Place, Endeavour Hills and Parramatta?

That the intent and capabilities of IS and other Islamist groups is strong. They have supporters globally and use both the online environment and the freedom of Western societies to their advantage.

To put ourselves in the best position to defeat Islamist extremist terrorist groups such as IS, we need to step back from only focussing on the specifics of each individual case, and understand the indicators and patterns emerging in the bigger picture.

Law enforcement and intelligence agencies understand this. But the challenge is great if we are to disrupt and intercept a global and networked adversary that outsources targeting and assistance.

This is a real threat. And it won't be going away anytime soon: even if IS is destroyed, attacks such as the one in Orlando won't cease.

The theocratic ideology of Islamism ideology is hard to eradicate and, like the Cold War, it's a fight that will take decades.

We need to clearly examine what is occurring in the nexus between smaller-scale crime and terrorism. We need to understand that the modus operandi of Islamist terrorist groups is to minimise any of the more obvious indicators of large-scale attack planning. And we need to learn from all terrorist acts rather than rationalising them away.

Islamic State has celebrated Orlando, Martin Place, Parramatta and Endeavour Hills; the finer details don't matter so much to them and don't rate a mention with their supporters. This is a good indicator that we should be concerned about these events and more as part of the terrorist threat.

We should work with our Muslim communities on long-term preventative strategies if we are to identify and target those attracted to violent extremism.

Jacinta Carroll is senior analyst and director, Counter Terrorism Policy Centre at ASPI.

Originally published: ABC Online. 15 June 2016.

Originally published by: ABC Online on 15 Jun 2016