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Stopping lone wolf plots poses growing challenge for counterterror officials

People at a prayer vigil at the Joy Metropolitan Church hold hands after a fatal shooting at the Pulse Orlando nightclub Sunday, June 12, 2016, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

President Barack Obama confirmed Monday that there is no evidence indicating that Orlando gunman Omar Mateen was following directions from ISIS when he killed 49 people early Sunday morning, but terrorism experts take no comfort in learning this was another "lone wolf" attack.

Obama said it appears Mateen was self-radicalized by extremist material he found on the internet, not unlike what is believed to have happened with ISIS-inspired terrorist Syed Farook in San Bernardino.

Such leaderless terror plots are one of the unique challenges posed by ISIS, since the group encourages its supporters to strike against western targets whenever and wherever they can and takes credit for the attacks afterward.

"The smallest action you do in the heart of their land is dearer to us than the largest action by us," an ISIS spokesman said in a speech last month, according to the New York Times.

There are several reasons why terrorist attacks in the U.S. have recently trended away from large scale elaborate plots and toward lone wolf actors doing as much damage as they can.

A coordinated, centrally directed attack like the one seen in Paris last November is easier to manage in Europe, where ISIS fighters can readily sneak onto the continent. In the U.S., getting one person already in the country to act on their own can be more effective.

A single independent plotter can operate without communications that can be intercepted by intelligence agencies. Guns are also more easily available in the U.S., enabling a terrorist like Mateen to arm himself without raising suspicion.

"Our counterterrorism systems were designed to pick up on people who were connected to these groups," said Scott Stewart, vice president for tactical analysis at Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence firm.

These perpetrators often lack the training and resources that terrorist more closely connected to an organization have, but authorities find such leaderless resistance particularly challenging to prevent.

"It really just becomes a balancing act between when a person is going to make a leap from violent rhetoric to violent action," said Seamus Hughes, deputy director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University. "That's the difficult spot the FBI is in right now."

Identifying self-radicalized ISIS sympathizers and weeding out the ones who are willing to act on their beliefs is a difficult, if not impossible, task.

"Radicalization is not linear," Hughes, a former staffer at the National Counterterrorism Center, explained. "People float in and out... It's highly individualized and highly complex."

David Gomez, a former FBI counterterrorism official and profiler, compared potential terrorists to serial killers who were often found to have tortured animals as children, and he said similar warning signs might be seen in their youth. ISIS may just be the vehicle that some unstable people use to express those tendencies.

"It's not about ISIS necessarily," Gomez said. "It's about finding those people who are violent sociopaths as part of their nature."

He noted that reports say Mateen celebrated the 9/11 attacks in 2001, for example.

Pointing fingers at the FBI for not stopping Mateen may be the obvious response, but terrorism experts say casting blame is premature, even if the information available does raise serious questions about its handling of Mateen.

FBI Director James Comey revealed new details of the agency's prior interactions with Mateen Monday. The FBI investigated Mateen for 10 months beginning in May 2013 because he had made inflammatory statements to coworkers about ties to terror groups. According to Comey, Mateen had told coworkers he wanted to "martyr himself."

Months after the first investigation closed, Mateen was interviewed again when his name came up in connection with an American who conducted a suicide bombing in Syria. A witness said they feared Mateen may have been radicalizing but no evidence of significant contact with the bomber was found.

Mateen pledged loyalty to ISIS during one of three 911 calls during Sunday's assault.

Gomez said it is too soon to say whether authorities could have realistically done more to stop him, absent an overt illegal act. The Constitution and FBI guidelines place limits on how far a case can go without developing probable cause. Eventually, cases that lack evidence have to be closed.

"Those limitations are not because the FBI doesn't want to go farther," he said.

Hughes said the FBI will likely be conducting an after-action review of their previous investigations, but it is possible that Mateen only decided to act in the last few days or weeks and he was truly not a threat when they interviewed him.

"It may shake out that they made the right call," he said.

Hughes said the FBI has generally been quite aggressive in pursuing suspects with potential links to ISIS, to the point where the agency has been criticized by civil liberties groups for it.

According to Stewart, the FBI has been particularly effective in catching the suspects who reach out to others for help or weapons. The real threat is the ones who do not need anyone else's assistance to pull off a simple attack.

The responsibility for identifying and stopping those potential lone wolves does not lie solely with law enforcement. Friends, family, and neighbors often notice behavior before an attack that seems suspicious in hindsight afterward.

"We almost always see that in every one of these cases there were signs that were missed," Stewart said.

Especially if someone is working alone, they will be conducting surveillance, training, and obtaining supplies. Many attacks have been thwarted in those pre-operational stages because someone recognized the abnormal behavior and reported it.

In Mateen's case, his ex-wife and former coworker have reported that he exhibited violent and aggressive behavior. That likely would have become more pronounced in the lead-up to an attack and there would be other noticeable shifts in personality, according to Gomez.

"I think that those closest to him would recognize the changes in behavior," he said.

Another important and difficult step in preventing ISIS-inspired lone wolf attacks is fighting its propaganda infrastructure on social media.

Beyond banning accounts that violate terms of service, Hughes said the government and social media providers are still struggling to deal with the way ISIS operates online and develop effective counter-messaging methods.

"This is kind of low-hanging fruit that we haven't figured out yet."

According to Gomez, the government likely has the ability to block ISIS internet transmissions, but since the country is not really on "a war footing," the resolve to take such drastic measures is missing.

"Most people don't see the war on terror affecting them sufficiently that they would want to essentially censor ISIS through electronic means," he said.

Stewart said the radical Islamic ideology that ISIS represents needs to be countered within the Muslim community. Western governments can encourage and support those efforts, but they have no stake in the battle over the soul of Islam.

"We cannot arrest our way out of this issue or even kill our way out of this issue because of the ideology," he explained.

There are many reasons why ISIS has been able to recruit Americans to commit acts of terror, but the existence of its caliphate in Iraq and Syria often factors into it.

"Social media is the messenger," Hughes said, but the message that the caliphate represents is more important. The physical location is part of that message, so losing on the battlefield undercuts one of the group's biggest selling points.

While Gomez agrees that the caliphate serves an important role in ISIS recruiting worldwide, he said it is less significant for U.S. recruits. They are often lost souls looking for meaning or adventure in their lives, and they are drawn to ISIS the same way members are drawn to other cults.

It is too early in the investigation for the public or the government to draw any specific conclusions from the Orlando attack, but the tragedy does serve as a reminder of some unfortunate truths.

"The big overall lesson is this is the normal now," Stewart said. "This is what the threat has come to in the post-9/11 environment."

Citizens need to be vigilant and they must take some responsibility for their own safety.

"People have made fun of the 'see something, say something' mantra, but it's kind of true," Stewart said.

Hughes said Mateen's radicalization demonstrates that intervention is sometimes needed to get someone off the path to developing terrorist intent before they become violent.

"What's more important is to have systems in place for loved ones and family members and friends to be able to direct their radicalized individual to an intervention or disengagement program," Hughes said.

The Orlando attack also illustrates that the threat of terrorism is still very real.

"It's going to get worse before it gets better and people have to be prepared," Gomez said.

He advised people to start thinking about and planning for inevitable future attacks, and to keep an eye out for warning signs.

"You can't live your life with your head in the sand anymore," Gomez said, "because it could be your neighbor."

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