Paris twice, Brussels, San Bernardino, and now Orlando; mass casualty terrorist attacks in the West, sadly, have become routine. Sunday’s Islamic State-inspired carnage proves exceptional in only one respect: It was the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. Beyond the sickening body count, the ingredients of this violent act appear all too familiar. Omar Mateen pledged allegiance to the Islamic State on a 911 call during the attack.His actions provide yet another example of the dangerous new breed of terrorists traumatizing the world today and the challenges counterterrorism officials face trying to detect and disrupt a sea of aggressive, inspired radicals with little to no previous detectable connections to the Islamic State.
Americans watched in horror over the past year as the Islamic State brought violence to the streets of European cities. European jihadists returning from Syria blended with inspired hometown recruits. Experience combined with zeal brought unprecedented multi-target attacks to both Paris and Brussels. Then came the San Bernardino attacks in December, in which an extremist husband and wife inspired by both al Qaeda and the Islamic State (and likely encouraged by the success of their fellow attackers in Paris) launched an assault. Now Mateen has brought this carnage to Orlando, continuing a string of Islamic State-claimed violence where one successful attack inspires yet another.
The Islamic State’s recent Western attacks, whether directed or inspired, point to a new generation of terrorists and plots presenting law enforcement and the intelligence community with a unique challenge. The assumptions about terrorism formed in the 2000s — when the threat of al Qaeda informed and occupied the minds of counterterrorism professionals — no longer hold.
In the coming days, the most interesting question of the Orlando investigation will be the degree to which the Islamic State and Mateen were connected and whether the terror group directed the attack in some fashion.
It turns out the direct connection to the Islamic State may not matter.”>It turns out the direct connection to the Islamic State may not matter. Historically, attacks directed by a terrorist group were better planned, resourced, and coordinated — thus their violence created the most casualties. With each new “lone wolf” attack, this maxim proves less true. The Paris and Brussels attacks, two highly successful terrorist plots, were funded and directed at a strategic level by the Islamic State. At a local operational level though, these European Islamic State cells planned, plotted, and executed against targets largely of their choosing, striking targets they knew well.
In the United States, Mateen and the San Bernardino shooters show little or no direct connection to…