How Omar Mateen became a jihadist

James Burns

The confluence of issues inherent in the Orlando massacre involves the assassin’s head, heart and hand. Omar Mateen’s head was packed with jihadist propaganda. His heart was evidently troubled with issues of sexual and personal identity. And his hand held a gun.

The Islamic State’s slick propaganda — propelled worldwide with just a click or two — must fall on fertile ground to take root. Angry young men who feel like cultural outcasts in the Western world are excellent candidates. Western values and lifestyles are mocked and reviled, rendering us legitimate targets for young jihadists’ rage. When a beheading video fuels a primal bloodlust, mass murder can become their methodology of revenge.

This mindset of holy homicide must be energized by emotional drivers to reap a harvest of hate, to use writer Michael Gerson’s phrase. In Mateen’s case, feelings of hatred and victimization may have interacted with sexual identity issues — so as to make a gay bar an inviting target. Disney World may also have been a desired target, but the pragmatic issue of easier accessibility prevailed.

With his head and heart synchronizing in anti-Western hate, Mateen’s hands had to turn that hatred into homicide. A hand may pull a trigger, wield a knife, drop poison into a city reservoir or assemble a bomb. Just as life is full of choices, death-by-terrorist also involves a sickening selection of targets, timing and weaponry. Boston’s Tsarnaev brothers visited a fireworks store and pressure-cooker vendor. Mateen went to a gun shop.

That seed of sadistic terrorism planted in a young man’s mind by a book, video or voice of hatred has to be nurtured to bear fruit for the jihadist movement. John Donne’s observation that “no man is an island” undermines the convenient simplicity of the “lone wolf” scenario. Boston, San Bernardino, Fort Hood and Orlando were all executed by just one or two attackers — but they needed help along the way.

The “lone wolf” was raised by the pack and often stays tethered to the mother ship of jihadi cultural motivators and killing methods right up to the day of the attack. In the back of his mind, he hears the applause and approval of fellow jihadis and supportive mentors as he plans and perpetrates his attack. From beginning to end, he’s a team player, even when he goes to bat by himself — as a baseball player does. Mateen’s bat was an assault rifle, and in the jihadist league, he knocked it out of the park, a sickening but undeniable fact.

Safe houses and escape routes after an attack are of no use to someone seeking martyrdom. And cyberspace enlarges such seas of support into a virtually limitless lethal geography of jihad. Even a dead imam’s tirades from ten thousand miles away can be an effective tool of jihad.

I got to know terrorism and how it changes day-to-day life after eight visits to Belfast. And that background brought to mind a similarity of the Orlando shooter, Omar Mateen, with the London underground bomber, Mohammad Khan. Mateen was 29, Khan 30, when they committed mass murder. Both were job holders and married fathers of one, the family no obstacle to martyrdom in either case. Mateen’s middle name was Siddiqui and Khan’s was Sidique. Both accomplished their mission of murder in dramatic fashion, the inevitable terrorist’s bonus of murdering high-value, public-venue soft targets.

The Winston-Salem Journal’s post-Orlando editorial listed the names of the 49 victims followed by a large blank space down the rest of the page: “The space below is for the next victims of a mass shooting in America, this week or next week or the week after.” The warning is apt; we need to be alert in the short run. But in the long run we must combat the planting and nurturing of that jihadi seed which can grow into a harvest of hate.

James Burns is a professor emeritus at the University of Florida.