Jez Littlewood and Stephanie Carvin are assistant professors at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs and members of the Canadian network for research on Terrorism, Security and Society (TSAS)
The investigation into the worst mass killing in the United States since 9/11 is at a very early stage. As such, it is important to be extremely cautious in drawing definitive conclusions about what happened and why. The incident is, however, indicative of many of the challenges faced by the U.S. and Canada in combating domestic terrorism.
Lone actors represent one of the greatest challenges that security services face in both countries. Without turning the West into a surveillance society, it is very hard to identify individuals unconnected to larger groups or cells. Nevertheless, research by scholars in recent years has underlined that lone actors are rarely truly isolated from society at large and may have contacts and support in the real and digital worlds.
Data from an extensive study in 2014 indicated "leakage" – that is, signs that others see that an individual is discussing or mobilizing to violence – in nearly half of cases. The task for security services and frontline workers is to build trust and develop relations with a wide array of communities so they all feel comfortable coming forward with any information they may have that something harmful may take place. This can only be done by fostering trust and not scapegoating communities.
This, however, underlines, three difficult trade-offs. First, exploiting leakage requires information sharing among a wide array of actors and agencies before a criminal act has occurred. This has been a hotly contested issue, particularly in Canada with regards to Bill C-51. While there is no indication yet that a lack of co-operation or information sharing played a role in the Orlando attack, it is worth noting that one of the most powerful tools that security services have – information sharing – is also one of the most controversial. Policy-makers must find the right balance.
Second, while it is important to build trust with communities in order to improve the flow of information, it is equally important to also provide advice on indicators of mobilization to violence specific enough to avoid a high number of false positive claims. However, it is not clear as to how such information sharing should be done and by whom.
And even if such guidance could be provided to communities and frontline workers, structures would have to be put in place so that identified concerns could be acted upon quickly by the authorities. Moreover, identification has to be coupled with assessments of information: individuals cannot remain on a list without a credible basis.
Third, much will likely be made of the fact that the FBI investigated Mr. Mateen in 2013 and 2014 and closed both investigations without charges. The obvious question now is "why?" but we should not forget that in recent years the FBI has come under considerable criticism for allegedly "manufacturing" terrorists, or entrapping individuals by encouraging them to act.
Similar issues have been raised in the case of John Nuttall and Amanda Korody in the foiled July 2013 Canada Day bombing attack in Victoria, B.C. These actions have rightly raised concerns about civil liberties in the U.S. and Canada. At the same time, they raise difficult questions as to how security services respond when they are aware of individuals who may have violent intentions but are uncertain as to if and when they may act. Should suspected violent extremists under surveillance be ignored or nudged to act? The public safety, resource, legal, and ethical issues combine here in a manner that poses real dilemmas.
What is known about the killer so far illustrates these very challenging issues. While it will be tempting for some to see his declaration of support for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as definitive proof the group was behind or even directing the attack, at this stage there are no indications of a formal connection to ISIL.
Indeed, the killer has reportedly expressed hateful views about a number of groups and women over several years and appeared to have pledged allegiance to ISIL only during the attack. In this way, he may very well have been an individual inclined to violence who found a convenient narrative through which to frame his violent act. But there is no clear path in how to treat these individuals.