from Net Politics and Digital and Cyberspace Policy Program

The Orlando Massacre and the Conundrum of Online Radicalization

Imam Syed Shafeeq Rahman of the Islamic Center of Fort Pierce offers a prayer for victims of the Orlando shooting, in Fort Pierce, Florida on June 12, 2016. (Joe Skipper/Reuters)

June 16, 2016

Imam Syed Shafeeq Rahman of the Islamic Center of Fort Pierce offers a prayer for victims of the Orlando shooting, in Fort Pierce, Florida on June 12, 2016. (Joe Skipper/Reuters)
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After the terrorist attack in Orlando, President Obama stated “the killer took in extremist information and propaganda over the Internet.” FBI Director James Comey said Omar Mateen’s radicalization occurred in part through online activities. These statements reinforce what we already knew—online activities feature in extremist radicalization. We have a weaker grasp on what role extremist information on the internet plays in any given individual’s radicalization and whether strategies to address online aspects of radicalization are working. What we presently know about Mateen’s journey to committing the worst mass shooting in U.S. history provides little guidance on these questions. Nor is it clear additional information will change this reality.

Radicalization stories commonly involve online components, but they also exhibit a diversity that complicates understanding how extremist material on the internet influences radicalizing individuals. Typically, other factors are involved when someone embraces terrorism. Information about Mateen is still emerging, but understanding his decision to slaughter people at an LGBT night club while declaring allegiance to the so-called Islamic State confronts the confusion and complexity often experienced in trying to make sense of other radicalization cases.

Even with incomplete information, Mateen is a perplexing homegrown extremist. Here was a man who committed domestic violence and upset co-workers with violent rhetoric but kept his job with a private security firm and did not raise red flags during FBI investigations and surveillance. A man prone to homophobic outbursts who allegedly frequented the gay night club he attacked. A man who declared allegiance to the Islamic State during his massacre but showed little understanding of the different strands of Islamic extremism.

This profile does not mitigate the need to understand Mateen’s consumption of extremist online propaganda, but it makes the task of teasing out how such propaganda informed his turn to mass murder difficult. This difficulty has burdened other efforts to identify what role the Islamic State’s online activities played in radicalization cases. But, with Mateen, concluding with confidence anything more than online activities were one factor among many seems improbable. Further, whether his resort to violence was influenced by hate-filled material on the internet aimed at the LGBT community also should be explored.

In his remarks on this tragedy, President Obama lamented that the Islamic State’s “propaganda, their videos, their posting are pervasive and more easily accessible than we want.” This comment raises questions about the Obama administration’s strategies to counter the Islamic State’s online campaign. The administration promotes counter-narrative strategies to blunt the Islamic State’s version of Islam, collaborates with companies to remove extremist content from social media platforms, and has launched military cyberattacks against the Islamic State’s social media capabilities. Progress by the U.S.-led military campaign against the Islamic State has created more favorable conditions for the administration’s online strategies.

Clearly, counter-narrative campaigns did not influence Mateen. This fact does not mean such campaigns have failed or cannot contribute to preventing radicalization. However, it illustrates difficulties counter-narrative campaigns confront in reaching people vulnerable to online extremist propaganda and in demonstrating impact with such individuals.

Mateen accessed extremist content on the internet, meaning that, at least in this case, counter-content efforts did not succeed. But, at the moment, we do not know whether Mateen’s online activities occurred before or after counter-content efforts, including account suspensions, started gaining some traction. Did Mateen access content that is now harder for the Islamic State to disseminate and people to find? Whatever the answer to this question, this incident highlights limits counter-content efforts confront in reducing how pervasive and accessible extremist propaganda is online.

The cyberattacks on the Islamic State’s social media operations began after the San Bernardino terrorist attack in December 2015. The government has not released enough information to permit evaluation of the damage the cyberattacks have inflicted on the Islamic State’s online activities and the availability of extremist material on the internet. Assuming Mateen accessed such material after the cyberattacks began, the counter-narrative efforts, counter-content activities, and cyberattacks combined did not disrupt his radicalization.

Despite the president and the FBI acknowledging online extremist propaganda as a factor in the Orlando massacre, political responses have not focused much on it. Previous terrorist attacks spawned interest in confronting the Islamic State’s exploitation of the internet. Post-Orlando discourse has been dominated by Donald Trump’s desire to ban Muslim immigration and calls by President Obama, Hillary Clinton, and others for gun control. As we learn more about Mateen’s internet behavior, what to do about the online aspects of radicalization might gain more attention. But this horrific episode might not supply policy makers with actionable insights on how to combat the digital facets of violent extremism more effectively.

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