National Security

Mateen had a troubled past. Why isn’t that the story?

Images show the transformation of Mohammad Abdulazeez, who killed five service members in a rampage in Chattanooga, Tenn., in July 2015. His family said he had a history of depression and addiction. He was killed shortly after the attack.
Images show the transformation of Mohammad Abdulazeez, who killed five service members in a rampage in Chattanooga, Tenn., in July 2015. His family said he had a history of depression and addiction. He was killed shortly after the attack. Facebook and Yearbook

Hours after Mohammad Abdulazeez fired 100 rounds into Chattanooga military offices, gunning down four Marines and a sailor before being killed by police, the emerging story was one of a “lone wolf” jihadist with possible ties to extremist groups abroad.

But Abdulazeez’s family made a decision that would quickly redirect the story of their son’s rampage last July in ways that didn’t happen after attacks in San Bernardino or, now, Orlando: They hired an attorney who turned the Chattanooga aftermath into a case study of what it takes to add nuance to a national tragedy involving a Muslim perpetrator.

The attorney, who asked that his name not be published because of the sensitivity of the case, first urged the parents to go public with a statement about their son’s history of depression, explaining that “the first thing you say is critical.” Convinced that Abdulazeez was no diehard jihadist, they also leaked the attacker’s suspected bipolar behavior, abuse of alcohol and painkillers, his struggle to stay employed, and how he faced bankruptcy and a drunken-driving charge.

The effect was immediate, with all major TV networks and newspapers pivoting from the terrorism angle to the shooter’s “troubled past.” The lesson, the attorney said, is that it’s hard – but not impossible – to make Americans see beyond Islamist extremism in cases of Muslim attackers.

FBI Director James Comey talked about the bureau's initial investigation of Omar Mateen, who later killed at least 49 people at Pulse night club in Orlando, Florida. He said the gunman showed "strong indications of radicalization" before the mass

“It would’ve been ‘ISIS lone wolf plans deliberate, premeditated attack on a military installation,’ ” the attorney said, imagining the headlines had the family not been up front about Abdulazeez’s struggles. “It would’ve been about the propaganda rather than the factors that converted that to action.”

You don’t just take what a perpetrator says at face value.

Quintan Wiktorowicz, former White House adviser

That more nuanced public examination of Abdulazeez’s motivations remains the exception in a climate where fear of the Islamic State and other Muslim extremist groups seem to make the more simplistic jihadist storyline irresistible to news organizations and useful to politicians, according to interviews with attorneys, counter-terrorism analysts and representatives of civil liberties groups. Often, they said, that angle persists even with little or no evidence that the assailant was motivated by extremist ideology.

On Thursday, CIA Director John Brennan said authorities have not been “able to uncover any link” between the Islamic State and Omar Mateen, the shooter who stormed Pulse nightclub Sunday in an attack that left 49 dead and dozens injured.

By the time the CIA’s findings were announced, however, politicians and pundits had seized on the extremist angle, driven by Mateen’s pledge of support for the Islamic State leaders in a phone call to police.

The narrative has held, despite a slew of reports suggesting a complicated, conflicted man with a penchant for guns, a history of domestic violence, alarming behavioral problems dating back to middle school, and alleged struggles with his sexual identity. Unlike in the Chattanooga case, however, there was no centrally controlled counternarrative, so the broader portrait of Mateen emerged in dribs and drabs, doing little to dent the prevailing extremist narrative.

Focusing on extremist ideology as the driver of radicalization, rather than as the end result, is often misleading and even dangerous, according to experts who’ve studied the backgrounds of violent jihadists.

“It can make us less safe. It means that we’re missing a really important conversation about all the other drivers, and all the other complexities that we might be able to address,” said Quintan Wiktorowicz, a former White House senior adviser on countering violent extremism who’s now a managing partner of Affinis Labs, a Virginia-based startup incubator whose projects include apps to combat radical messaging.

A reporter for The New York Times posted more than 150 numbered tweets related to the Islamic State angle; prominent Washington policy figures implored her to stop, given the many unknowns in the case. Cable news channels splashed Arizona Sen. John McCain’s statements that President Barack Obama was “directly responsible” for the Orlando killings because of his policies toward the Islamic State – with little discussion of the weaknesses of such a charge.

Obama himself initially alluded to “lone actors or small cells of terrorists,” though his rhetoric softened after Brennan’s appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Presidential candidates also chimed in – Hillary Clinton said she has no problem using the terms “radical jihadism or radical Islamism” when asked about Orlando, while Donald Trump used the attack to double down on his opposition to admitting Muslim refugees and to disparage American Muslims for failing to police their communities.

If Muslims are never mentally ill then someone should study our population and see what makes us so resilient.

Maha Hilal, civil rights advocate

The extremism-focused discourse continued even after reports said Mateen had espoused support for Hezbollah, the Nusra Front and Islamic State – groups that don’t share the same sect or worldview, and that are at war with one another in Syria. That Mateen could say he supported them all showed that he had little real understanding of what the groups stand for.

“If you say you have six favorite colors, you don’t have a favorite color,” said the attorney in the Chattanooga case.

Wiktorowicz, who’s studied dozens of extremists over 20 years, said the roots of radicalization often lie in identity crises, being the victim of violence, or feeling disillusioned or marginalized. In many cases, perpetrators engage in behavior generally frowned upon in conservative communities – drinking, smoking, dating – and, in their shame, turned to extremist causes as “almost a form of redemption, a catharsis.”

“You don’t just take what a perpetrator says at face value,” Wiktorowicz said. “They may be driven to these horrific acts for a variety of reasons, but their forward-facing or public explanation is to tie it to something bigger than themselves, to give it meaning.”

Maha Hilal, executive director of the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms, a nonprofit advocacy group for Muslim prisoners and others charged in connection with the so-called “war on terror,” said there’s a pattern to how terrorism cases are presented to Americans.

The conclusion – suspect was motivated by Islamist extremism – comes first. Next come hypotheses – “lone wolf” phenomenon, trips to Saudi Arabia – to bolster the conclusion. More nuanced information, especially a perpetrator’s history of mental illness, comes much later and often gets lost in the terrorism hype.

By contrast, Hilal said, talk of mental health typically begins immediately after, say, a school shooting perpetrated by a non-Muslim man. That was the case with Seung-Hui Cho, who killed 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007, and Adam Lanza, who killed his mother before murdering 26 people, most of them children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012.

“If Muslims are never mentally ill,” Hilal said dryly, “then someone should study our population and see what makes us so resilient.” 

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect date for the Virginia Tech shooting.

Hannah Allam: 202-383-6186, @HannahAllam

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