What the Latest Detail From the Orlando Massacre Says About Terrorism in America

June 20th 2016

Kyle Jaeger

The FBI stated on Monday that Omar Mateen, the gunman behind the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, wasn't directly motivated by any global terror groups.

While Mateen pledged allegiance to the Islamic State verbally and on social media during the attack at a gay nightclub in Orlando, he planned and executed the attack alone, FBI agent Ron Hopper said in a press conference on Monday.

In other words, in the eyes of federal law enforcement, Mateen was a domestic terrorist.

It's a jarring detail that speaks to a broader misunderstanding among the public about what, exactly, constitutes "terrorism." America has been engaged in a "War on Terror," after all, but that war has taken place almost exclusively abroad, in far-removed countries.


Even before Mateen carried out the Pulse nightclub massacre, researchers have warned that domestic terrorism poses a greater threat to Americans than transnational terrorist groups. A 2011 study published in the journal Global Policy stated that "the war on terror needs to focus on more than just transnational terrorism, because domestic terrorism poses a greater threat in terms of lives and property loss than transnational terrorism."

"There is a conventional wisdom that terrorism in the U.S. is the province of foreigners and is seen as a problem of infiltration," David Sterman, a senior program associate at the New America Foundation, told Vox. "And while there is certainly a reason for that perception, as the September 11 attacks were conducted by people who came in from abroad, in the 330 cases we’ve examined since September 11, we found 80 percent are U.S. citizens."

domestic terrorism

Who's responsible for domestic terror?

A 2015 report from the New America Foundation found that right-wing extremists had been responsible for almost double the number of terrorist attacks compared to radical jihadists since 9/11. However, the Pulse nightclub massacre has dramatically altered those numbers, with domestic terrorists claiming ties to radical Islam now responsible for 98 deaths since 9/11, compared to 48 deaths caused by right-wing attackers.

"But what gets lost in the national conversation on domestic terrorism is that terrorist acts are largely perpetrated by American citizens already living inside America's borders," Vox reports. "Radicalization — whether it's jihadist extremism or right-wing extremism — more often than not starts at home in the US rather than entering the country from abroad."

[h/t Vox]

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