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June 14, 2016
In the early hours of Sunday morning, a gunmen entered Pulse, a popular gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Three hours later, at least 50 people were dead, including the gunman, and another 50 were injured. The attack, the worst mass shooting in US history, was carried out by Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old US citizen born in New York to first generation Afghan parents.

Little is known about Mateen, who moved to Florida, or about his motives. Law enforcement officials have revealed that he was the subject of a ten-month FBI investigation that ultimately was closed without his arrest. It is also known that he made a 911 call from the club, in which he pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL), but the extent of his connections to ISIS, if any, remain a mystery.

To better understand the attack, the context in which it occurred, and its impact on US Muslim communities and a heated presidential race, MENASource speaks to Atlantic Council Nonresident Senior Fellow Geneive Abdo. Specializing in issues regarding modern Iran and political Islam, Abdo is the author of multiple books including Mecca and Main Street: Muslim Life in America After 9/11, which was published in 2006.

MENASource: What do we know so far about Omar Mateen, and the attack that he carried out in Orlando?

Genieve Abdo: We know that he was violent in some ways. His ex-wife has been interviewed and she accused him of domestic violence. We know from his father that he was unhappy, that he had emotional issues. We also know that he was very well educated. His father said he ensured that he attended the best schools that the United States had to offer. We also think we know that he was very intolerant of homosexuals. But I think to point to that as the primary reason for the attack is a bit simplistic. If you look at it in the broader sense, he probably believed that this was immoral in the Islamic context, or at least how he interprets his faith. That probably was more of a driver of his anger than just the simple fact that he doesn’t like homosexuals.

We also know that he claims from his 911 call that he is a sympathizer of ISIS. ISIS has claimed responsibility, while the intelligence community released information that they don’t necessarily link him to ISIS. I think that it’s important to not consider this in a literal sense. People all over the world are influenced by extremist groups such as ISIS and it’s not as if you have to be a member to carry out an attack based upon their ideology. And perhaps that is what he was trying to communicate with his 911 call—that he subscribes to ISIS’ ideology.

MS: What is the right terminology when describing him? Is he a lone wolf? Is he a homegrown terrorist?

GA: It’s difficult to say because the way that ISIS operates in part, much like Al Qaeda, it’s not as if [Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi, the head of ISIS is instructing people abroad to carry out these attacks. They have their autonomous groups and autonomous operations. There is no reason, at least now, to believe he was part of a cell or any sort of planned operation. I think that we can say he acted alone, at least that’s what we know at this moment. But I reject the term homegrown terrorist because I think if you examine the educational profile, the sociological profile, the income levels, of the majority of Muslims in America, he doesn’t fit that profile. The people who are part of the religious second generation are completely nonviolent. They don’t necessarily focus, as he did apparently, on what happens globally. They’re integrated Americans. I wrote a book in 2006, Mecca and Main Street: Muslim Life in America After 9/11, and I focus particularly on the second generation that was becoming religious. The book is about how they are expressing their religiosity unlike their parents—they’re going to mosques in greater numbers than their parents, their wearing headscarves in greater numbers than their parents. They’re identifying more with Islam than their parents and they’re nonviolent. That is why we need to distance ourselves from misleading terms such as homegrown. Yes, he was born in America. But homegrown leads people to believe that there is some sort of process through which radicals go through in this country to become radicalized, and in fact there isn’t. And so that’s why I think that term is a misnomer.

MS: If there is no specific process that we can identify that is leading to these kinds of attacks, how do US authorities or US-based Muslim communities address this, and try to avoid this kind of attack happening again.

GA: That’s the problem. That’s a source of great frustration for the Muslim leadership in the United States. For groups such as the Islamic Society of North America, for the Council on American Islamic Relations, because every time this happens, they are faced with being held responsible and there is no evidence whatsoever that this young man belonged to any of these organizations or that he had any connections to them. Since 9/11 that has been the problem—how do you identify people who have the potential to become radicalized. Law enforcement hasn’t solved this problem, the Muslim community hasn’t solved this problem, because what we know from academic research is that the time that lapses between someone just perusing the internet and reading radical websites and actually becoming radicalized is very short. And that’s why it’s difficult. As we know from his history – he was monitored. He made very inflammatory statements that were reported to the police, and so we know there was a radicalization process, but in this country because at least to some degree there’s a respect for civil rights, you can’t just arrest people because they could become radicalized so it’s a big problem.

MS: How have CAIR and other Muslim groups responded to the attack?

GA: They’ve condemned it of course. Even groups that are not Islamic such as the Anti-Discrimination Committee have also condemned it. This has been happening since 9/11, and it’s very challenging for them because they’ve been on television, they’re leadership has been in the media, explaining that this young man had nothing to do with the Muslim leadership in America, and so it’s always difficult for them to condemn these attacks while also explaining how Islam fits into the act. Islam is interpreted in many ways by Muslims all over the world. Some people think that carrying out violence is part of their Islamic duty. I don’t know if this was the case here or not. But the majority of Muslims, of course, don’t believe that.

MS: We’ve often seen hate crimes against Muslims in the wake of these attacks? Can we expect more of that now?

GA: Absolutely. Unfortunately, that’s the other burden that Muslims in this country, who number 4 to 6 million, carry. Every time there’s an attack, not only here but abroad, they are burdened with the reputation of being potential terrorists, potential radicals. And so we can expect more hate crimes. And, unfortunately, because it’s a presidential election season, we’ve already heard very bigoted, discriminatory remarks made by some of the presidential candidates and senators. Unfortunately, I think more that is coming.

MS: On the issue of presidential candidates, we saw Trump reiterate his call to ban Muslims from entering the United States – how would you respond to that?

GA: I think that it’s very unfortunate that this has given Donald Trump ammunition to renew his call to ban Muslims from this country. Fortunately, a lot of people have challenged him since he first made this statement a couple of months ago, so that’s been a positive development. But unfortunately, there’s a lot of people who think this is a good idea. And while I think that probably won’t happen—because I don’t think it’s constitutional to ban Muslims—but what might happen, and I hope this isn’t in our future—is more surveillance of Muslim communities. After 9/11 there was surveillance in mosques, people were arrested, police raided the homes of Muslims who had nothing to do with 9/11. They even went on university campuses and demanded that administrations give them a list of people with Muslim and Arab names, so a lot of things were done that challenge our civil liberties. And so one problem with all these kinds of anti-Muslim discourse is that a ban may never happen, but other results of this kind of discussion could develop that are very negative.

MS: Trump called on President Barack Obama to resign for refusing to use the expression ‘Radical Islam,’ and on the other hand today, Hillary Clinton did come out and call it radical Islamism for the first time, saying in response to Trumps criticisms: “I have clearly said we face terrorist enemies who use Islam to justify slaughtering people. We have to stop them and we will. We have to defeat radical jihadist terrorism, and we will…And to me, radical jihadism, radical Islamism, I think they mean the same thing. I'm happy to say either, but that's not the point."

GA: Well unfortunately, she’s responding to Trump and so she has been pushed to the conservative right. Unfortunately, because of the campaign season there could be developments that may not have happened ordinarily if people weren’t running for president. That’s not a very positive sign. We don’t know at this point to what degree this attack was religiously motivated, we just don’t know. And the fact that he’s a Muslim and carried out an attack, doesn’t necessarily mean he was influenced by how he should practice his faith. He did say that he was influenced by ISIS, and again, that gets into the internal Islamic debate about what is Islam. Baghdadi himself has been quoted as saying that Islam is not a religion of peace, that the prophet ruled with a sword—this is a quote from Baghdadi—but the majority of 1.3 billion Muslims do not agree with this form of interpretation.