In reconstructing the events of the bloody night in Orlando, information about more than three critical hours is still missing. So far, American authorities are providing only partial information on what happened in the Pulse club between around 2 A.M. local time, when the murderer, Omar Mateen, began to entrench himself in one part of the club while holding dozens of hostages at gunpoint, and 5:20, when police finally seized control of the club, fatally shot Mateen and rescued those hostages still alive.
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We still don’t know if any kind of negotiations were conducted with Mateen over the hostages. We also don’t know if some of the 49 people killed were shot by Mateen or got caught in the crossfire between terrorist and rescue personnel. It’s generally very hard to end hostage situations “cleanly,” capturing only the attacker without killing or wounding innocent people. Local police forces in the United States generally have trained rescue units, but they tend to deal with criminal kidnappings or domestic violence cases. Terror kidnappings and massacres are far rarer.
It seems that a new terror pattern has emerged that governments and security forces in targeted countries are only beginning to understand — a movement from terror for bargaining purposes to spectacular attacks almost for their own sake, with an aim to lengthen the drama for as long as possible.
In the past, kidnapping and hostage-taking generally had a clear objective — to conduct negotiations to free the terror group’s prisoners or fulfill other demands. In recent years this has changed; hostages are no longer taken to achieve anything, but just to buy time. Hostage-taking lengthens the terror attack, increases the dramatic atmosphere surrounding it, ensures heavy media coverage and enhances terror’s psychological effect.
Moty Cristal, an Israeli expert on negotiating who for many years was part of defense establishment teams that dealt with such incidents, told Haaretz on Monday that there seems to be a mismatch between the way Western security forces deal with such hostage situations and the new modus operandi.
“The approach in the past was that the event must be contained; either to resolve the crisis with the kidnapper by negotiating and if that didn’t work, to break in and rescue the hostages by force. The period of contact is utilized to prepare and organize [an attack] should it be needed,” he said.
Cristal believes that the increase in the number of similar attacks by “lone wolves” or small cells inspired by radical Islamist groups but not actually affiliated with them will force a change in operational doctrine. “It seems that the negotiating component in such crises will be reduced proportionately and there will be a need to develop the ability to strike as quickly as possible,” he said.
Meanwhile, the debate in America continues over what Chemi Shalev described as the narrative used to describe the Orlando attack. It’s not just “political correctness” or the Obama administration's hesitant Middle East policy that’s making it difficult for administration officials to admit the radical Islamist background of the attack, despite the mounting evidence. The fact that Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is exploiting the attack to campaign wildly against Democrats and Muslims is making it hard for the administration to own up to the facts, because doing so plays into Trump’s hands.
Viewed from afar, however, that debate seems somewhat forced. Mateen expressed solidarity with radical Islamist groups in the past and admitted that he had sworn allegiance to the Islamic State (ISIS) in a call to the police hot line. There doesn’t seem to be any difficulty in describing the attacks as Islamic terror directed at an LGBT club out of homophobic motivations, and that the terrorist exploited weak gun laws to arm himself with deadly weapons (far more deadly that those at the disposal of the terrorists who murdered four people at the Sarona market last week, for example).
But the U.S. political atmosphere is so charged that even agreement on clear facts is not possible. Thus the debate starts deteriorating into twisted arguments, like the one claiming that Mateen’s act is actually evidence of the failure of the U.S. health system to deal with the mental health problems of nonwhite citizens. In other words, that radical Islam had nothing to do with what happened.
Nevertheless, describing the terrorist as an ISIS operative also seems to be an exaggeration at this point. Like the attack in San Bernardino in December, this looks to be an act that was inspired by ISIS, not managed by it directly. The ISIS way of doing things does not necessarily require a clear chain of command, particularly in the United States, with its intolerably weak gun laws. Online incitement is enough; the terrorist can take it from there on his own.