By now, the details of what has become the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history are well known. A man named Omar Mateen, armed with two firearms and apparently possessed by a loyalty to the Islamic State, killed 49 people as they danced in a club in Orlando, Florida. He injured at least another 50 before the police shot him — fatally — in the ensuing standoff.
News agencies have done a decent job of answering the questions that naturally arise when the Islamic State is invoked prior to a mass murder. It wasn't so long ago that similar questions were raised after the shootings in San Bernardino, Calif. If the U.S. government knows the Islamic State is dangerous — which it does — how could someone ostensibly affiliated with the group go unnoticed? How far is the Islamic State's reach? The search for those answers has, in fact, revealed a history of jihadist sympathy in the culprit. Mateen was the subject of two FBI investigations in 2013 and 2014 into allegations that he was connected to militants in Syria and that he knew the Boston Marathon bombers. The FBI, however, found no conclusive evidence of wrongdoing.
It's not that the focus on Mateen's political ideology is misplaced. Ideology, particularly one as violent as the one professed by the Islamic State, is an aspect that cannot be ignored. It's that the answers to the questions are not entirely correct, since they give the Islamic State a little more credit than it deserves. The events in Orlando do not suggest that the Islamic State is somehow stronger or more capable or more determined to kill Americans. The group did not, as far as anyone can tell, plan, execute or fund the attack. (In fact, the Islamic State probably didn't know that Mateen existed until his assault ended, but that didn't stop the group from claiming responsibility for the attack.) It couldn't, even if it wanted to. The group is simply not as strong as it once was, at least not as a conventional military force, thanks in part to territorial losses around its base of operations in Syria.
What the Orlando attack proves more than anything else is that the Islamic State's message has lost little of its potency. The group still commands the respect of aspiring grassroots jihadists the world over. Its media machine, noted so often for its acumen, continues to fire on all cylinders, masterfully using social media, and even print, to spread its word. And it is through such channels that the group encourages its followers in the West, particularly in the United States, to take up arms on their own accord — an act that is in itself an admission of weakness.
There is another aspect to the attack, one that has gone mostly overlooked but one that nonetheless explains why ideology alone is not solely responsible for the magnitude of the bloodshed. Simply put, Mateen was a trained shooter, a rarity in the sordid annals of grassroots attacks. He had worked for a security contractor company called G4S for nearly a decade. As a private security guard, he possessed two firearms licenses, a statewide firearms license and a security officer license, which requires passing a criminal background test. He was a decent marksman and knew how to handle his weapons. That is all that was needed to create carnage with so many people trapped inside the nightclub.
Past attacks employing small arms by lesser trained perpetrators were not nearly as deadly as was the one in Orlando. James Holmes, for example, who in 2012 famously attacked a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., was also well armed. Like Mateen, he fired into a compact target set, but because he was unable to clear a malfunction in his rifle he failed to kill as many people as Mateen.
Hoping that an attacker isn't very good with weapons, of course, isn't much of a comfort, nor is the fact that attacks such as the one in Orlando are practically impossible to prevent in every instance. But what's truly discomforting is that the public's reaction — the well-founded anger, resentment, distrust, sadness and fear — can add fuel to the Islamic State propaganda machine, especially if the reaction, justified though it was, leads to rash policy decisions or imbues the group with more power than it actually has. When that happens, the Islamic State has no trouble inspiring more attacks, even if it cannot carry out those attacks itself.