As they did eight years earlier in the Fort Hood shootings, federal investigators looking into Orlando, Fla., nightclub shooter Omar Mateen cleared a terrorism suspect who went on to commit mass murder.
Mateen, who authorities say was responsible for Sunday’s attack on a gay nightclub in Orlando, had been on the FBI’s radar since 2013, according to the agency. Federal investigators interviewed him twice that year about alleged ties to terrorism and once in 2014 for having contact with an American suicide bomber. In both cases, agents closed their investigations after concluding that the evidence linking Mateen was minimal or not substantive.
Those efforts echo the FBI’s investigation of Nidal Hasan in 2008, when investigators learned that he was in contact with al-Qaeda-linked cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, asking the American-born cleric his thoughts on American Muslim soldiers killing their non-Muslim counterparts.
Instead of interviewing Hasan or his commanding officers, FBI agents conducted a brief investigation and determined Hasan was not a threat.Not only did Washington agents incorrectly conclude that Hasan was conducting research on behalf of the Army, but they worried that an interview would “harm Hasan’s career,” according to an unclassified FBI report released in 2012. Hasan was found guilty of killing 13 people and wounding more than 30 others. He is on the military’s death row at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
It’s not clear, however, whether any of the specific lessons from the Hasan case would have aided agents as they investigated Mateen, a civilian security guard.
Jeffrey F. Addicott, director of the Center for Terrorism Law at St. Mary’s University School of Law in San Antonio, said American law enforcement agencies are facing a tsunami of possible terrorism cases that require careful investigating. FBI Director James Comey has said his agency has about 1,000 active investigations regarding jihadists.
“Add to that thousands and thousands of others on the watch list and no-fly list, and our law enforcement is simply overwhelmed,” Addicott said.
The Hasan and Mateen investigations also highlight the difficulty of identifying when someone has crossed the line from talk to action.
Jihadists “hide behind our freedom of speech and freedom of religion protections,” Addicott said, adding that where “there is ‘smoke’ (free speech) there is not always ‘fire’ (violence).”
According to the FBI, Mateen landed on the radar after allegations of “inflammatory comments to co-workers alleging possible terrorist ties.” Officials were unable to verify the comments and closed the investigation.
A year later, when the agency interviewed Mateen again over an alleged association with an American suicide bomber, authorities concluded that “contact was minimal and did not constitute a substantive relationship or threat at that time.”
The FBI has had success in thwarting would-be domestic terrorists, including then-Army Pfc. Naser Jason Abdo, who was arrested in Killeen while preparing to set off a bomb at a local restaurant popular with Fort Hood soldiers.
The commission investigating the FBI’s handling of the Hasan case, led by former FBI and CIA Director William Webster, did not call for discipline against specific agents. Instead, it took aim at bureaucratic stumbling blocks that allowed the Hasan case to slip through the cracks, including clashes between field offices and lack of access to Hasan’s entire Army personnel file.
In the end, FBI agents concluded that the communications between Hasan and the cleric were benign. Agents in Washington reportedly told their San Diego counterparts they couldn’t “go out and interview every Muslim guy who visits extremist websites. Besides this guy has legitimate work related reasons to be going to these sites and engaging these extremists in dialogue.”
After the report was released, the FBI said it had already acted on many of the report’s recommendations, including requiring leads to be followed within specific timetables. The FBI also said it has enhanced its information-sharing agreement with the Department of Defense, giving agents access to fuller personnel records.
(via: My Statesman)