The mass shooting in Florida comes as Islamic State forces are stretched thin, under financial strain and losing ground near strongholds in Iraq, Syria and Libya, U.S. officials say.
A multi-pronged U.S. strategy has killed thousands of Islamic State fighters in Syria and Iraq, trimmed their ability to smuggle oil and move supplies, and steadily chipped away at the group’s self-declared caliphate in both countries.
“The noose is tightening,” CIA Director John Brennan said in an interview Sunday with the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya news channel.
“They still maintain quite a bit of capability to carry out attacks in [Iraq and Syria] as well as beyond, so this is going to be a long, hard fight,” Brennan said.
Indeed, as the slaughter of 49 patrons at a gay nightclub in Orlando early Sunday made clear, the Obama administration is battling a multi-front war against Islamic State, with more American casualties on the home front than overseas.
“Everybody is focused on the destruction of the caliphate,” said Christopher Harmer, a former Pentagon strategist now at the Institute for the Study of War, a nonpartisan public policy group in Washington, D.C. “But the more daunting task will be combating their ideology to inspire attacks, which is a virtually impossible problem to solve.”
No evidence indicates the Orlando gunman, New York-born Omar Mateen, had contact with or support from Islamic State or any other terrorist group, officials said Monday. He professed allegiance to the leader of Islamic State in a call to police during the shooting itself. He later died in a shootout with police.
Mateen’s self-radicalization, apparently from extremist websites and other online material, is part of a trend that has confounded the Obama administration.
“Even as we hit their leadership, even as we go after their infrastructure… one of the biggest challenges we are going to have is this kind of propaganda and perversions of Islam that you see generated on the Internet,” President Obama said Monday at the White House.
The U.S. military portrays the domestic attacks, in part, as a sign of the growing pressure they are putting on Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
“We know they continue to look for opportunities to make spectacular, headline grabbing attacks, in part to make up for their losses on the battlefield in both Iraq and Syria,” Col. Chritopher Garver, spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Baghdad, wrote in an email.
But the evidence is scanty. Islamic State has urged followers since 2014, when it was at its peak, to mount attacks in America, Europe and other regions.
Nothing suggests that Mateen, or the couple who gunned down 14 people in San Bernardino in December, or the 18-year-old who stabbed four people at UC Merced last fall, did so to avenge Islamic State’s battlefield setbacks.
While the militants remain entrenched in cities and towns, by any measure the group’s losses are substantial and growing.
Iraqi military forces, tribal fighters and Shiite militias are attempting to recapture Fallujah, an Islamic State stronghold west of Baghdad. Backed by more than 80 coalition airstrikes in the last month, the offensive has moved slowly closer to the embattled city.
At the same time, Islamic State has ramped up a deadly series of…