The investigation into the Orlando, Florida, nightclub massacre is still in its infancy, but already enough is known to call it what it was: an act of war by militant jihadist against our nation.
Indications are that the shooter, Omar Mateen, acted on his own, but this does not mean he acted alone. His swearing of allegiance to the Islamic State group (ISIS) shows that he saw himself as part of the larger violent jihadist war on the United States. ISIS quickly and perversely reciprocated this view, praising him as “one of the soldiers” of its caliphate.
Even in the midst of our grief, we face the urgent questions of how we should respond. We cannot bring back those who died, but we can resolve anew to protect ourselves from further attacks.
The first and most obvious step is to improve domestic intelligence gathering here at home, supporting the FBI and local law enforcement agencies in identifying and preventing such assaults before they occur, and ensuring that our intelligence agencies have the legal authorities and political support they need to keep us safe.
But we need to face the hard truth that as long as the violent jihadist movement exists, exemplified by ISIS and Al-Qaida and their respective affiliates, it will seek to inspire new homegrown terrorists. Invariably a few of these will evade detection and launch attacks such as the one in Orlando, or worse.
In this sense, calling Mateen a “homegrown” terrorist is a misnomer. He was born in the United States, but the ideology he embraced was born and is nurtured in the Islamic State’s caliphate in Iraq and Syria. The only way to eliminate such attacks is to destroy the organization inspiring them and eliminate its safe haven.
The ongoing American-led military campaign has seen some successes in recent months, including recapturing some ISIS-controlled territory, curtailing some of its finances and killing some of its leadership. But as long as ISIS maintains its caliphate, it will continue to claim legitimacy, create cells and attract affiliates worldwide, and inspire followers to wage violence against civilians, as we have seen this past year in Paris, San Bernardino, Brussels, and now Orlando.
This is why we need to see this attack as a national security challenge, not a mere domestic crime. Our response needs to employ the full spectrum of our national power.
This means a stepped-up campaign to destroy ISIS with increased deployments of American forces and more permissive rules of engagement for our airstrikes. This will embolden our regional allies to increase their force commitments as well.
Diplomacy is also essential. Backed by the credible threat of force, we need to pursue a comprehensive diplomatic settlement in the Middle East that ends the Syrian civil war, isolates Iran, marginalizes Russia and restores ties with our alienated regional allies. This will reassure the region’s Sunnis that America has not turned against them. Many of them believe otherwise and are thus susceptible to ISIS recruitment appeals.
But perhaps most important, we need to develop a comprehensive counter-radicalization strategy using overt and covert methods. We have killed thousands of ISIS fighters, but we are losing the information battle as ISIS uses social media to recruit thousands of new fighters.
It is an oft-said cliché but nonetheless true: The nation that invented Google, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram should be able to get the better of a small band of Islamist death-cult acolytes.
Muslims are essential allies in this fight. The vast majority of Muslims reject violent jihadism. American Muslims in particular are indispensable in cooperating with domestic intelligence efforts to identify potential terrorists in their communities and in promulgating a peaceful and tolerant interpretation of their faith.
Now is the time to stand together as a nation for our common values and against our common enemy of militant Islamism. Although Mateen seemed to harbor a particular animus toward gays and lesbians, jihadists hold a special loathing not only for homosexuals, but also for Christians, Jews, Hindus, other Muslims who reject the jihadist worldview, and all people who embrace democratic values.
The attack in Orlando was an attack on all of us. We need to respond as one nation, united in our resolve to destroy ISIS, and to protect the religious and political freedoms of all Americans.
William Inboden is executive director of the Clements Center for National Security and an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin. His previous roles include serving on the National Security Council staff in the George W. Bush administration.
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