CNN: Maybe some of these terror attacks aren't terrorism

Philip Mudd is a CNN contributor on terrorism and a former “deputy director of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center.” Today he writes an opinion piece for CNN arguing that maybe the terror attacks we’re seeing aren’t really terror attacks at all:

Now, years into the ISIS onslaught, we have yet another generation of murderers seen as the next iteration of this threat. A Muslim who may have some affiliation with ISIS Ideas without ever having met an ISIS member, and who appears also to have a personal grievance — a marital problem, a psychological struggle — murders dozens at a location that is not always readily identifiable as a political target. Is a gay nightclub a jihadi protest against homosexuality or an individual’s response to some personal demon?

There are two reasons we should move away from this blurring of the line between today’s terror — seemingly random attacks with debatable motivations — and yesterday’s terrorism, perpetrated by politically motivated Islamist revolutionaries, starting with Osama bin Laden.

The basic argument here is that previous terror attacks were directed from above and therefore it was possible to state with certainty that the terrorists had a specific political motive. But the new wave of ISIS inspired attacks involve people who claim an affiliation to the group but who may never have met anyone from ISIS. What Mudd spends a lot of this piece building up to is the idea that some of these folks aren’t terrorists at all, just nuts who claim ISIS as validation for their wanton mass murder.

Strangely, the piece doesn’t really delve into the detail behind any particular attack. Mudd refers to the Orlando nightclub attack several times but when he does says some things that are arguably not true:

When we don’t know the motivations of these new killers who simply cover their actions with an ISIS veneer, why do we give them the validation they seek? At the very least, we are looking at a new category of terror for which we have no label.

When an apparently emotionally disturbed attacker murders in Nice, Orlando, Germany, or any of the other locations that have become so common today, commentators shift immediately to the bias of placing these attacks in an understandable narrative, to make sense of acts of violence.

Do we not know the motivation of the Orlando shooter? He called police and told them he was pledging allegiance to ISIS. His former co-worker described him as a “devout Muslim” who prayed several times during each work shift. Initially, there was some question whether Mateen may have had a personal motive involving his own sexuality After the attack, several people came forward and said he was a regular at the nightclub and had been seen trying to pick up other men. One person even claimed to be Mateen’s gay lover and said he was certain Mateen’s attack was about personal revenge, not terrorism. But back in June the FBI announced they had interviewed hundreds of people, looked at Mateen’s cell phone and found no evidence he was leading a secret life as a gay man.

Mudd doesn’t go into any of these details but he writes as if the jury is still out on what motivated Mateen. Unless the FBI missed something, which is always possible I guess, there doesn’t seem to be much to support for the personal motive theory of the attack.

Similarly, Mudd suggests that the attack in Nice was another case of mass murder not necessarily connected with terrorism. There were some reports early on that the attacker was secular and only became radicalized in the weeks leading up to the attack. However French prosecutors announced two weeks ago that  Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel had help with the plot and had been planning it for months. If so, then this was not the spontaneous attack by a crazy person who decided to throw out the name of ISIS at the last moment on a lark.

Disturbed individuals who couldn’t find a group to validate their actions in the past today have that validation, and it’s ISIS. Regardless of whether they either believe or understand the ISIS message, they will claim ISIS inspiration because the alternative — mass murder without a clear rationale — is indefensible. Yet would these attacks have occurred without ISIS? Maybe so.

There have been some attacks recently which were probably based on mental illness or personal motives rather than terrorism. The mass shooting in Munich may fit the bill and authorities are saying the knife attack that killed an American woman in London last week was also probably the act of a disturbed mind.

Granted, there are still some mass attacks which are not terrorism, however Mudd goes too far when he suggests the attacks in Nice and Orlando fit that pattern. He has no proof these attacks would have happened apart from ISIS and there is evidence (from the killer’s own lips in the Orlando case) to the contrary.