Top 7 ways to tell if Someone is lying about being a ‘Salafi Jihadi’

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Regulars at Pulse Nightclub are saying that Omar Mateen, the alleged shooter in the early Sunday morning massacre there, was himself a regular! The Orlando Sentinel writes, “‘Sometimes he would go over in the corner and sit and drink by himself, and other times he would get so drunk he was loud and belligerent,’ Ty Smith said.”

So there’s just one thing about his claim to be acting on behalf of ISIL (with whom he appears never to have had any contact): puritanical Muslim fundamentalists of the ISIL sort don’t behave that way. Unbalanced, disturbed young Christian Americans who want to act out power fantasies that end in murder-suicide tend to claim a KKK, neo-Nazi, Christian fundamentalist or other white-nationalist identity in a desperate bid to make their loser lives and loser behavior seem cosmically important. And, Jewish young men with mass murder on their minds tend to do so in the name of some flavor of radical Zionism (Jewish nationalism, which makes Judaism a national identity rather than a private religious one). Muslim American young men with similar power fantasies and violent impulses inflate their egos with reference to al-Qaeda, ISIL, whatever the far right fringe Muslim boogey man of the day is.

As I wrote yesterday, it seems to me a distinction must be drawn between nihilism and terrorism, between the senseless action of a disturbed individual (no matter how he justifies it) and an actual political group to which a suspect actually belongs that deploys terrorism to achieve a deeply political goal.

So here are some tips for recognizing a Muslim fundamentalist who has turned to terrorism, i.e. what most counter-terrrorism experts call a Salafi Jihadi (I prefer the term fundamentalist vigilante). (Note: Only 15% of Muslims are fundamentalists; only 9 million out of 1.5 billion are Wahhabis; and the vast majority of Muslim fundamentalists are peaceful. ISIL in Syria and Iraq is estimated to have on the order of 25,000 fighters).

1. Salafi Jihadis don’t drink alcohol.

2. Salafi Jihadis don’t hang out in bars.

3. Salafi Jihadis don’t, in particular, frequent gay bars.

4. Salafi Jihadis don’t text potential hook-ups using a gay dating app.

5. Salafi Jihadis aren’t usually clean shaven.

6. Salafi Jihadis belong to a fringe interpretation of Sunni Islam and despise Shiites; they don’t typically claim to have an affiliation with a Shiite group such as Hizbullah, which is fighting ISIL in Syria. (Here “typically” means, like, “ever.”)

7. Salafi Jihadis don’t express a hope that non-Muslim police will assault their wives. In fact, they wouldn’t want men other than close relatives to so much as see their wives unveiled.

This is what a real Salafi Jihadi looks like, ie. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi

Omar Mateen was a disturbed person, likely brought up a nationalist rather than a fundamentalist, and didn’t have the slightest idea of what a Salafi Jihadi was. He was a fraud in every way. Likely the failure of his first marriage came from his mistreatment of his wife because deep down he was not straight and his self-betrayal made him hate her. When he felt bullied at work for his race or religion, he talked big, invoking Salafi Jihadi groups, without any understanding of them. He never adopted that lifestyle or joined any such group. He didn’t even know the difference between Sunni and Shiite.

It is possible, in fact, that his psychotic break came from being jilted at the club, and the massacre was his revenge.

To put all this on Muslims and Islam in general is frankly absurd.

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Related video:

Inside Edition: “Ex-Wife of Orlando Gunman Omar Mateen: He Was Mentally Ill and Unstable”

57 Responses

  1. He didn’t know the difference between Sunni and Shiite?? Likely this and that.

    Rubbish Mr. Cole. Way to too early for such.

    • An experience I had may illuminate this problem: in an engineering company lunchroom, I was politely discussing a question of Islam with a Pakistani engineer, when a plainly gay male approached, threw his arm out violently, and angrily denounced the man for discrimination against gays. I pushed his arm down to the table in alarm, told the gay that “He isn’t responsible for that,” and the next day apologized to both of them. The gay did not know anything about the accused person, nor about Islam.

      From the facts given, I would guess that despite his presence at a gay bar, the shooter may have been discriminated against for his Muslim beliefs by others there, and may have been driven to outrage by their treatment of him. This would explain the assertion of a jihadist intent without pretense.

    • Just because someone is born into a religion, doesnt mean they know it or know the rules of their particular faith.

      How many Catholics in the US know there are some sects of Catholicism where the priests CAN marry? Probably zero (it’s some of the eastern rite branches of the Catholic Church, comprised of over 20 groups actually). Some don’t even know they have to go to confession first if they missed a prior mass before going up to receive communion.

      In Central Asia, understanding of Islam is uneven, partly because of geography and political history. Many people do not know the finer points or the actual difference between Shi’a and Sunni. When I was a Peace Corps volunteer in an Uzbek village, people were worried about wahhabi/salafi groups but didn’t know what they were per se – they thought of them as political trouble makers. My female counterpart once confided she didn’t like the Wahhabis – they would make her veil and convert to Baptist faith. At that point, I released she had heard these terms but didn’t know a Baptist was very different than a Wahhabi. Can you imagine a Catholic having to explain the difference between a Baptist and a Wahhabi???

      • Yes that would be true normally, but ISIS is a group that sees all Shia as their sworn enemies. To them Shia are at best deviants and at worse infidels. To an ISIS supporter there is no difference between gays and Shia as they are both infidels. For someone to claim allegiance to ISIS and then claim allegiance to Hezbollah is either a seriously uninformed person or like some have concluded about this fellow, insane.

    • Damon Brown, if he had known the difference between Sunni and Shi`a, he would not have both claimed to be a member of Hezbollah, and “pledged allegiance” to Da`sh. And if he had known anything about, let alone subscribed to the actual ideologies of the groups he claimed to support, he would have known that Da`sh is the greatest enemy to Shi`a Islam, and has as a goal to remove everything Shi`a from the earth.

      So, it is quite reasonable to say that he did not know the difference between Sunni and Shi`a.

    • Such behavior is not unusual for Americans. There are many cases where black student militants change their name to an African name and end up with a first name from one tribe and a second name from a tribe that’s an enemy of the other tribe.

  2. It is highly possible, given the reports of his cruising on gay apps & hanging out in the bars, that this was an act based on internalized homophobia. Not uncommon for “conflicted” men to act violently towards gay people out of fear/anger associated with their own homosexual feelings. Not necessarily terror -related at all.

    • The shooter wouldn’t have been there if he was “conflicted.” While discrimination based upon fear of one’s self is certainly possible, the notion of “internalized homophobia” is usually psychomythology as propaganda. Gays often claim falsely that everyone is secretly gay, to avoid admitting that circumstances drove them that way, not genetics.

      • Wow, “circumstances drove them that way”? That theory was discarded by the medical and psychiatric/psychological professionals decades ago. Sexual orientation is an in-born characteristic, independent of a person’s religion, race, social status, or how they were raised. LGBT youth growing up in an anti-gay culture or family environment will experience internalized homophobia. When that homophobia is based on fundamentalist religious reliefs it is especially damaging to their self-worth and mental health. It is well known that some of the worst gay bashing youth are fighting against their own homosexual feelings. But, this is the exception, not the rule. The most common violent act by individuals experiencing deep internalized homophobia is suicide.

      • I have to think you know zero gay people. Every gay person I know, and I know several, came from stable homes without “circumstances” that drove them into gayness. They were born that way. Many tried to avoid it but ultimately could not

  3. Only one thing to note, respectfully, re: “mistreatment of his wife because deep down he was not straight and his self-betrayal made him hate her.” It’s true that, being gay and forced to marry by two cultures, he was caught in an insanity-making trap. But it’s also important to take his ex-wife at her word, that he was seriously mentally ill for years, had horrible psychotic breaks even then (that seem to terrify her still), and was sadistic; and that she barely escaped with her life. He mistreated her because he was mentally ill (like his father also may be, and who possibly raised him in an environment of abuse and abused his mother). Psychotic or bipolar mental illness gets worse over time if untreated, and that seems to have happened. Then on top of that, being a gay man he was tortured by two homophobic cultures–the Afghani one and this American one, without escape. So those vectors together increased the force that disintegrated him, but I suspect that self-hate was not the “cause” of his psychosis and violent sadism, instead only one part of the biological and environmental forces that broke him.

  4. As you have said, “terrorism” has been politicized, thus causing confusion. Even the federal code is ambiguous with many A, B, .. and such. But I have simpler solution to recognize terrorism (many thanks to various spoke persons at DOS and DOD) if you cannot apply freedom fighting or revolutionary to their action, then it is not terrorism, the late allegiance to DAESH could have been cover for his own sexual conflict and his constant anger worry me about his kid which could have been another one of his victims. Hope he gets more professional care and consoling then his family can provide.

  5. A failed Muslim could still go straight to heaven if he died a martyr. Right?

  6. Well said. However, it also has to be pointed out that not all those who are drawn to Salafi jihadism these days are disciplined practitioners of the puritanical ideology, unlike al-Zarqawi for instance. Many are lost, confused, schizophrenic individuals who find in violent jihad an excuse or a vehicle for their anger, resentment, boredom, etc. Think Jihadi John. Does his type not count as part of the phenomenon? It certainly does and should and as these people contribute to much of the violence. And as they do, they also re-define what it means to be a jihadist in the 21st century. So perhaps drawing the line between nihilism and terrorism is harder than you suggest in this piece.

  7. You say that Salfists “don’t” drink alcohol. Then why do groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS report that they frequently have to “punish” their fellow salfists/wahhabis for drinking alcohol?

    They are *supposed* to not drink, but they do. It’s incorrect and misleading to say that they are not salfists. It’s entirely possible for someone to be salafist and sin. In fact it’s the norm.

    I’m not saying your article is apologetics, but it’s apologetics.

    • Because alot of the guys who join up — were not particularly observant or practicing Muslims, except in name only. The further you go outward from the heart of the Middle East (and im simplyfing this) the more likely you are to find people who do not understand the regulations and basis of their own faith.

      In addition, religious education varies country to country and in many cases, people do not undergo any religious instruction so what they learn is from the western media with fantastic irony, and they wind up subscribing to stereotypes about their own faith

      Lastly what is drawing people to join ISIS and the radicals from other countries? Often lack of economic empowerment/jobs in their own countries and being guys — a sense of boredom and wanting excitement

      Part of the real failure of our occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan. We built a few forts, hunkered down, and failed to transform the economies in a way to benefit the local populaces (ie the majority community numerically compared to us). The only economic changes we made were with an eye on the US voter and benefiting American businesses. You might as well build a skyscraper on an active fault line

      You can’t expect to invade, retroactively announce plans to build an infrastructure then do nothing. Its a recipe for disaster

    • Well Prof Cole got the anti-Shia ideology of ISIS/Al Qaeda etc right though. It is a fundamental tenet of Wahhabism, much easier to adhere to than abstaining from alcohol. Afterall don’t the various acts of terrorism against Shia civilians throughout the Muslim world by Wahhabi adherents confirm this. For someone to claim allegiance to ISIS and Hezbollah at the same time shows that this individual was a bit confused to say the least.

  8. Your seven rules should hang in the editoral,(that is if they actually have one) rooms of Fox News, RedState, Breitbart, etc etc and tattooed on Donald Trump’s tiny hands.

  9. Juan: Evidently the Arabic pejorative used only by ISIS was not used in a fraudulent ISIS posting supporting his attack. I have no idea which special word ISIS uses to describe gays. Do you? Thanks.

  10. Would that clear thinking get in the way of Trumpism! Thank you, Juan, for the clear thinking. Let’s hope it can sway a few people to abandon the hate-narrative.

  11. Is it conceivable that Daesh, having been on the receiving end of thousands of US air strikes ( about 40,000 bombs or other munitions), would contemplate a retaliation on the US homeland? Without getting into strategies and individuals, isn’t that part of warfare?

  12. “3. Salafi Jihadis don’t, in particular, frequent gay bars.
    4. Salafi Jihadis don’t text potential hook-ups using a gay dating app.”

    “It is possible, in fact, that his psychotic break came from being jilted at the club, and the massacre was his revenge”

    This is a completely different narrative than what we are hearing in the media and from the LGBT community: this was a hate crime from a bigoted individual who hates the LGBT lifestyle. However, now we’re finding out that he was one of them, got jilted (perhaps his lover broke up with him?), and had a psychotic break down and committed an act of revenge.

  13. Nevertheless, Muslim scholars need to address the issue of same-sex relationship. There are too many horrible things that have been written over the course of history.

    • Oh please! Why are you singling out Islam for this/ Did you not hear the disgustingly violent thing that “Christian” pastor in Sacramento said in his Sunday sermon – you know, about lining all the homosexuals up against a wall and blowing their brains out?

      And haven’t you heard about all the violently anti-homosexual material in the Jewish Bible? Or the sometimes deadly attacks on homosexuals by religious Jews in Israel?

      There is a lot of ugly anti-homosexual bigotry running pretty rampant in all the Abrahamic religions, so my single out Islam?

  14. There isn’t enough evidence to rule out the fact that this may very well have been a terrorist attack.

    Also, you should have mentioned that terrorists have, in the past, been encouraged to frequent bars and nightclubs; to remain clean shaven; and to act in a “secular” way so as to remain discreet. It’s a basic tactic that they use.

    Otherwise, thanks for your contextualized analytical pieces. Every Arab, Arab American, and Muslim out there, I’m sure, loves reading your blog and is grateful for your hard work.

  15. Isn’t it true however that the Saudi terrorists who were responsible for the attack on 9/11 were clean shaven, drank alcohol, went to strip clubs, looked at porn, and frequented prostitutes in the time leading up to their attacks?

    I completely agree with your assessment that the Orlando shooter Mateen did not behave over a considerable period of time as a Muslim, but rather was leading contradictory double lives.

  16. Thank you for putting into words what I’ve been trying to get my head around, and using the analogy of white’s who use an affiliation such as KKK or Christian fundamentalism. “desperate bid to make their loser lives and loser behavior seem cosmically important.” Hits the nail on the head. This was a hate crime, pure and simple, by a very disturbed and mentally unstable individual.

  17. OMG Juan, you’re so off the mark. By you’re reckoning, the 9/11 terrorists weren’t jihadis either. They hung out in strip clubs, drank alcohol, and even ate pepperoni pizza! For Allah’s sake, Juan!

    • They were in an organization, received extensive training over years, and did those things to throw off surveillance (it is called false flag tradecraft). This guy was just a troubled loner who didn’t know anything at all about political Islam.

  18. Danny Postel

    Any thoughts on these comments from Monica Marks, Juan?

    “Self-proclaimed Salafi jihadis and ISIL devotees often live a schizophrenic morality, oscillating wildly between fundamentalism and abuses of alcohol and drugs in their own lives. In fact, one of the reasons some young people in countries I’m most familiar with (Turkey, Tunisia) have joined ISIL is precisely because its barriers to entry are lower than other jihadist groups (like Nusra, AQ) so it’s easier to join as a disaffected young person with little knowledge of Islam or long-term devotion to ultra-strict interpretations of its practice. I think I get where Cole was coming from – guys like Mateen, the 9/11 bombers, and perhaps even the majority of jihadi terrorist perpetrators in Muslim countries – aren’t what most Muslims would define as good practitioners of Islam. But it seems in his eagerness to make that point, he blurs the fact that today’s self-proclaimed Salafi jihadists & ISIL devotees are often “bad Muslims” in the traditional sense, who use the crazy ideology du jour to justify & give higher purpose to their own violent impulses – impulses which often stem from a criminal past, mental health issues, socio-economic displacement, sexual frustration, violent machismo, desperation for meaning, etc…”

    • What I would say to Monica is that there is a difference between bad Muslims joining an organization, getting training, and carrying out operations with a political goal, and bad Muslims just hanging out at clubs and then going postal in the name of some organization they’ve never had any contact with.

  19. I would change “his psychotic break came from being jilted at the club” to “his psychotic break came after being jilted at the club”.

    People get jilted all the time without having psychotic breakdowns!

    • If you haven’t already, try a different browser.
      I keep Firefox, Chrome and IE available and at least one of them can usually and properly open a problem site site.

  20. Interesting that you should mention Abu Musaw al Zarqawi. He also led a fairly dissolute life before becoming a Salafi, so that doesn’t really support your argument.

    • Someone who supports Salafism would want to think of themselves as religious. They are writing their own narrative, so to speak

      Most Muslims don’t buy Salafism, however, and might say it’s hypocrasy. ‘Do as I say, don’t look at what I do’

  21. ANYONE as unstable and angry as Omar Mateen can purchase a KILLING MACHINE in Florida and repeat or exceed this infamous slaughter with very little effort or expense.

  22. I would not rule out Islamic influence as a factor in his killing spree. There is a strong element of homophobia in Islam, and if he had homosexual tendencies, they may have conflicted with his understanding of how forbidden it is under Islam and, therefore, led to a double-bind of self-loathing that led to his egregious act of slaughter of gays.

    Moreover, his father, via Islam, may have influenced him regarding reports from school mates who have stated that at the time of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, he celebrated and cheered right in class as they watched it on TV. He would have been 14 years old, and it is unlikely that his cheering of this horrible event was self-generated. It is much more likely that he had heard his father (or both parents) at home criticize the “infidel” U.S. Why else would he cheer such an event at such a young age?

    • There is also a strong element of anti-homosexual bigotry (I don’t care for terms like homophobia and Islamophobia) in Christianity and Judaism based on certain passages in the Bible. in fact, a number of “Christian” individuals actually applauded or otherwise justified the massacre in Orlando, and one preacher in Sacramento, CA made some very violent anti-homosexual statement in his sermon this last Sunday.

      And then there are the sometimes-deadly attacks on homosexuals in Israel by religious Jews.

  23. That this shooter did not understand the differences between Sunni and Shite reminded me of similar deficiencies in far too many of our politicians.

    It was so true of John McCain, which became obvious when he was running for president.

    In the case of people who have an ethnicity from a predominantly Muslim region of the planet, I can at least appreciate they might be secular unlike their family members.

    But this doesn’t seem to be a good fit for this man. I can only believe it would have been better for him if he had been able to be independently secular.

    It might have altered the misdirection of his life.

  24. Josh Marshall from the TPM site put it succinctly: This is not about the radicalization of Islam but the islamisation of radicalism.

  25. I read that this guy’s father came to the US after or during our last war in Afghanistan.

    If so, how? I’m worried this may be yet another case where we pick the wrong crowd to back and what needs to be reformed is our foreign and intel policy. Too often we align with human rights abusers and they get immigration or other perks to the US. We need to be better discerners whom we support but we seem to be making the same mistakes today – ie supporting allies of Al Qaeda in Syria and 9/11 anniversary is 3 months away

    Another famous example are the Salvadoran military officials who were responsible for the rape and murder of seven American nuns in El Salavador — and who were rewarded with citizenship in the US! The US ambassador at the time, Robert White, lost his job because he tried to advocate justice for our compatriots. Ambassador White died last year, I believe, but devoted his life after being fired for taking a moral stand to obtaining justice for these poor souls.

    Something is broken. It’s hard to hear people say ‘never again’ but allow things to continue

    • The guy’s parents came to the US in the ’80’s when the US was using Afghan mujaheddin in its battle against the Soviet Union.

  26. “Salafi Jihadis belong to a fringe interpretation of Sunni Islam and despise Shiites; they don’t typically claim to have an affiliation with a Shiite group such as Hizbullah, which is fighting ISIL in Syria. (Here “typically” means, like, “ever.”)”

    This should be no.1 in my opinion but thank you Professor for highlighting this. Salafists, especially of the ISIS breed hate Shia Muslims with a passion. This is most evident with the various terrorist attacks carried out by these radicals against Shia civilians in Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia and other places. That is why I believe that this individual was just a disturbed individual.

  27. Holy Cow!! Lots of analysis that defines this person as a ‘gay’ rather than a gay man, who had frequented the club, been jilted and returned for revenge. All of this without a half-ounce of proof. There are elements I can accept of this person not being a well trained Muslim or a well put together person. There is a report from his first wife that he had psychotic breaks and may have been bipolar. He also appears to have been conflicted about his sexuality. In this case, “appears” is a very important word as we do not know for what purpose he was on these dating sites. Regardless, we have no evidence that he had sex with a single male person ever. What he may have felt emotionally is unknown at this time. His current wife states that she had driven Mateen to the club “to case the joint.” Again, this may be what he told her as he did not want her to think or tell others that he was gay or frequenting a gay establishment. This is something that needs more clarification. I think in truth that this was a crime that was premeditated focused on hatred of LGBT people which could have been a lone wolf as desired by the ISIS leadership. Some Muslims and Christians are approving of his target to reduce the number of LGBT people and to make them fearful (terrorized) about further efforts to congregate at a bar and think they were safe from possible mayhem. This is a situation that everyone faces whenever they are in large crowded events or on underground transport. Two days ago, I was stuck in the subway and thinking how this was a set up for a potential bombing. I didn’t get over wrought about it as the chances wee so slim, but they existed. This potential existed at Pulse as well. There was no expectation that it should happen, but there also was never a guarantee that nothing bad would ever happen there.

  28. Mateen apparently claimed to be a member of Hezbollah (Shi`a group), Al Qa`eda (very anti-Shi`a Sunni group), Al Nusra (Sunni group fighting against Da`sh – aka ISIS – in Syria), and Da`sh (aka ISIS), a group that is ideologically so anti-Shi`a that one of its goals is to remove all traces of Shi`a Islam from the earth. Obviously he was not attracted to any of these groups because of their ideologies, or their identities, and likely knew nothing about them.

    This behavior is consistent with that of a person suffering from paranoid delusions, as is other behavior of his.

    Most likely he was suffering from psychotic delusions, not “Salafi jihadism”.

    • Your pointing out the difference between being drawn to an ‘identity’ vs. “ideology’ is great. It’s a really good way to fight back against him being an ‘Islamic jihadist’ coming from conservatives. It’s similar to ‘copy-cat’ mass shootings that followed Colubine. Thanks.

  29. There are indications from Mateen’s ex-wife that he was “bipolar”.

    In fact, mental illness has been implicated in a number of mass killings in the U.S.:

    (A) Andrew Kehoe, a school board treasurer in Bath Township, Michigan, had a history of severe traumatic brain injury when he killed 38 schoolchildren in 1927 before killing his wife and himself;

    (B) U.S. Marine Corps veteran Charles Whitman had a brain tumor the size of a walnut when he shot numerous persons at the University of Texas from a tower in 1966;

    (C) James Huberty shot dozens in a McDonald’s in San Ysidro, California in 1984 shortly after unsuccessfully trying to obtain mental health treatment and reporting hallucinations;

    (D) Jared Loughner had clear signs of mental illness prior to going on his shooting spree in Arizona and killing a U.S. House member.

    As the FBI investigation unfolds, it may become clearer whether or not a psychological disorder played a role in this tragedy.

    • Bipolar is a dreadful desease, going from depressive lows to manic highs. An usually high number of bi=polar adults take their own lives in their 40s or so. David Foster Wallace is a well-known example. Most are not homicidal, but when they imagine themselves part of a messianic cult…..

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