ISTANBUL — ISIS excels at finding vulnerabilities and exploiting them. In fact, one could say this is exactly what terrorists do and have always done: They find holes in the armor of an enemy they can’t defeat militarily and aim right for them.
ISIS supporters seem to have discovered just how easy it is to buy a powerful gun in the United States without raising suspicion — a hole in America's national security armor they're evidently taking advantage of.
After the massacre in Orlando, I spoke to one of my most trustworthy sources on counter-terrorism. When I asked him what his takeaway was from the attack, he did not hesitate: “It’s the guns. We gotta get rid of the assault rifles."
He’s not alone in viewing the debate over gun control as an issue of national security. For years, General Stanley McChrystal ran the U.S. military’s Joint Special Operations Command, which oversees the Army’s Delta Force and the Navy Seals. McChrystal oversaw the operation that killed the ISIS patriarch Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. No one could accuse the JSOC of being soft on terrorists.
And yet, just days before the Orlando violence, McChrystal — along with Gen. David Petraeus, astronaut Capt. Mark Kelly and more than 20 other former American service members — called for more controls on firearms.
“As service members, each of us swore an oath to protect our Constitution and the homeland. Now we’re asking our leaders to do more to protect our rights and save lives,” said Kelly, whose wife, former Arizona congresswoman Gabby Giffords, was shot along with 18 others by a gunman at close range in 2011.
“As a former Deputy Commander of the Navy Expeditionary Combat Command, I know that our Sailors had to be well versed in the use of firearms. I saw first hand the incredible power of firearms, and I know the precautions we taught to keep people safe. But I also know the dangers guns pose when they are in the hands of dangerous people,” said Rear Admiral Jamie Barnett.
STRATEGIC WEAKNESSES — EUROPE VS. U.S.
Every continent has its own unique strategic vulnerability. For Europe, it's the large pockets of Muslim immigrants who feel ostracized and ghettoized in neighborhoods like Saint Denis outside Paris or Molenbeek in Brussels. Europe is also far closer to the ISIS killing fields in Syria, meaning recruits have been able to travel easily to gain battlefield experience.
There is also no effective central European intelligence or security body keeping track of the databases and watch lists. The situation for Europe was made even worse last year when border security across the continent collapsed under an unprecedented wave of mass migration.
Compared to Europe, the United States is far more secure. Relatively few Americans — about 250, according to the Justice Department — have tried to or succeeded at joining ISIS, compared to Europe’s thousands. The United States is also far away from Syria, a deterrent to travel.
But a change in ISIS strategy has exposed an American vulnerability: access to high-powered firearms, bought legally even by those whom the FBI suspects of extremism. Last month, ISIS renewed a call it first made publicly in 2014 for recruits and supporters to arm themselves and attack where they live, preferably against civilians, instead of coming to Syria or Iraq at all.
GUNS IN EUROPE, TOO
Critics of tighter gun control laws have pointed out that ISIS militants used assault rifles to hit targets in Europe, where the weapons are illegal.
Strict European gun laws didn’t stop the terrorists in Paris and Brussels, the argument goes — so why would American gun laws stop a determined terrorist? It’s a fair point, but analysts say what was unique about the European attacks — what made them so deadly — wasn’t the weapons that were used but the complexity and sophistication of the attacks.
In Europe, ISIS militants were able to take advantage of their numbers. The Paris and Brussels attacks involved dozens of extremists operating a network of safe houses. The militants rented apartments and cars under false names. They covered for each other. They were true sleeper cells that went operational.
Luckily, the United States hasn’t seen anything close to this level of sophistication. Instead, the United States has witnessed, first in San Bernardino and then in Orlando, homegrown radicals — so called "lone-wolves" — who were able to buy weapons and attack on their own.
The lesson in Europe after Paris and Brussels was not that weapons can be bought on the black market — everyone knew that — but how extensive the ISIS networks are on the continent.
The lesson in the United States after Orlando and San Bernardino seems to be that ISIS networks in America are crude and rudimentary, if any exist at all, yet lone wolves can arm themselves for battle without raising any red flags — a threat which General McChyrstal and others warn needs to be addressed.