In the aftermath of the recent mass killings by lone attackers in Orlando and Nice, more details have come to light about the attackers’ histories and identities.
Both attackers had track records of domestic violence, records of depression and questions around their sexual identities.
As the Islamic State group (IS) continues to stake claim on exported attacks on the West, it has also disseminated a range of identity politics and gender norms.
The message is less about empowering individuals through religion, and more about attracting insecure and threatened individuals with a psychological need for control and simple answers.
FBI data on mass shootings between 2009 and 2015 revealed that 57% of attacks involved former spouses or family members among the victims.
Sixteen per cent of mass attackers had faced charges of domestic violence.
Domestic violence is sometimes referred to as “intimate terrorism”, defined as “the use of physical abuse plus a broad range of tactics designed to get and keep control over the other person in the relationship”.
Both the Orlando and Nice perpetrators, as well as the Boston Marathon bomber and a number of other high-profile lone attackers, had known records of “intimate terrorism” long before their larger-scale attacks.
Omar Mateen, the Orlando attacker who killed 49 and wounded 53 at the gay nightclub Pulse, had a history of abuse.
As early as the third grade (age eight), teachers had commented on his verbal and physical abuse towards other students, both violent and sometimes sexual in nature.
These abusive propensities carried over into his marriage. His first wife, Sitora Yusufiy, openly talked of his violent and psychological abuse, which included repeated beatings, control over her finances and isolation from friends and family.
Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, the Nice attacker who killed 84 and injured over 300 people on 14 July, also had a history of domestic abuse.
He was known to authorities for assault and abuse of his wife. In the aftermath of the attack, neighbours described him as depressed, unstable and increasingly aggressive after his wife had left him two years previously.
His family also reported that he had seen psychologists in Tunisia before leaving for France in 2005. The family had experienced outbreaks of anger where Bouhlel would shout and break things.
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It is not the case that those carrying out domestic violence should be profiled as likely terrorist suspects.
However, it is unsurprising – looking at the profile of domestic abusers – that those able to justify violence against those closest to them can be capable of normalising other violent tendencies.
Gender identity and sexuality
There are also indications that both Omar Mateen and Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel had bisexual or homosexual affinities.
Although the FBI has stated there is no concrete evidence of Mateen’s homosexuality, many witnesses reported that he had been attending gay night clubs for a long time – beyond what might be considered “scoping”. He reportedly used the gay dating app Jack’d and had asked out a gay friend of his at one point.
In comparison, Bouhlel’s mobile phone records suggest a much more open and engaged bisexual identity, using dating sites to pick up both male and female lovers and saving a range of images and videos of men and women he had recently slept with.
Both men’s histories of depression, domestic violence and hidden sexual identities seem to conflict with the rigid machismo and anti-LGBT ideology of IS. However, it is exactly this worldview that alienated and disempowered individuals are attracted to.
Violent extremist and terrorist organisations, from neo-Nazi groups to Islamic extremist networks, provide an ideological justification for the subjugation and mistreatment of women.
They also provide an infrastructure for the systematic abuse of not only women, but of all those not fitting their rigid interpretation of gender norms.
Pathway to gender roles
In this confined and fundamentalist interpretation of the world, all of the confusion and nuance of identity, sexuality and belonging is simplified into a structure of good and evil, right and wrong.
This narrative allows those feeling frustrated, depressed, confused and disempowered to feel in control and gives them a seemingly higher purpose.
For those questioning their identity or feeling at odds with their own sexual inclinations, IS seems to show a clear pathway of how to adhere to gender roles.
IS propaganda exports a hyper-masculine and dominant male identity while glorifying the subservient female role.
For individuals already holding discriminatory worldviews and violent propensities, these extremist organisations offer acceptance and even praise for these violent inclinations.
They encourage a further expansion of these tendencies towards mass attacks against those they deem “evil”.
However, in the case of lone wolf attackers, this praise and encouragement is often from a distance, with little to no direct central contact.
IS benefits from taking credit for the enhanced inclinations of disturbed individuals, playing into the group’s asymmetrical warfare tactics abroad as it loses combatants and territory in Syria and Iraq.
French President Francois Hollande calls for increased attacks on IS abroad, but this will be of little help to the European threat.
Only a multi-agency approach that not only shares information between local and national authorities but also enhances capacities of mental health and social service providers will be able to adequately prevent and respond to lone actor threats of this kind.