Another terrorist attack, another desperate search for meaning. The bodies were still warm in Orlando when the speculation about the killer and his motive began in earnest. Not surprisingly, the event dominated world news – as it should – and the usual parade of experts and analysts were asked to explain everything immediately despite the absence of facts (full disclosure: I was one of them. I have considered not replying to requests for interviews in the proximate aftermath of an attack but have decided that my experience may have something interesting to contribute and hence I agree to do them).
With time we are learning more about Omar Mateen: his background, his relationships, his ideology. A particularly in-depth piece appeared in today’s New York Times. There are certain to be more before something else – quite possibly another terrorist attack – dislodges it from the front pages.
So, what do we know so far about the killer? He was moody. He misbehaved in school. He may have celebrated the attacks of 9/11. He beat his first wife. He appeared to both hate gays and frequent gay bars. He was “always shaken, always agitated, always mad”. And the list of descriptions goes on. It is not clear how much of this data dump is useful.
It is in the pile of disjointed information coming to the surface that we are trying to understand his motivation. This is a worthy pursuit as it would be great if we can learn something about this incident that helps us identify the next terrorist before he strikes. There is little doubt that we will be inundated with more “radicalisation models” and “predictive analytics” (one effort at the University of Miami is looking at the “complexity in real-world systems of self-organising groups”). All of this is admirable and may actually lead to something useful for practitioners one day.
But it is more likely that all these efforts will go for naught.
This is not to disparage these attempts nor those passionate about finding answers. It is merely an acknowledgement of some fundamental truths about terrorism and violent radicalisation. These can be summed up as follows:
- we are dealing with decision making at the individual level. I know of no programme or device that can reliably predict in real time why a given person makes the decision s/he does
- violent radicalisation does not always lead to terrorism: in fact it rarely does. The vast majority of those who embrace violent ideologies do not act on them. We do not have the resources to monitor everyone – and nor should we anyway – in the hopes of having the right people in the right places before terror strikes and I doubt that there is any theory that can help narrow the field of possible terrorists
- terrorist and terrorist movements adapt and change frequently and I am skeptical that models can accommodate these changes
- despite public perceptions, terrorism is a very rare phenomenon and we will never have enough data to build anything with statistical confidence. When you add in the difficulty of acquiring and using information held by law enforcement and security intelligence agencies scholars are left with even less relevant material with which to construct a model. This will always be a small-n problem.
The need to understand is human. I get that. But we have to be realistic about what we can know. Promising comprehensive solutions to the phenomenon of terrorism – and I have seen hundreds over my professional lifetime – is both disingenuous and dishonest. In the case of Omar Mateen there were definite signs that all was not well with this man and there were also classic signs of Islamist extremist radicalisation. We can argue forever about what the FBI did or did not do: there is no question in my mind that he should have been investigated further, but I do not want to engage in Monday morning quarterbacking.
In the end we have to accept that acts of terrorism will sometimes occur regardless of the efforts of our very capable law enforcement and security intelligence agencies. We need to do our best to identify and stop violent extremists from acting and we will succeed on that front most times, but not all. That is reality folks, harsh and ungiving.