The FBI’s near-miss investigation of Orlando nightclub shooter Omar Mateen reflects a US counterterror effort swamped by potential targets and struggling to separate lethal Islamic State recruits from hotheads venting their spleen.
After dropping its 2013 scrutiny of Mateen, the bureau is under fire for not doing more to prevent the worst mass shooting in modern US history. Yet on other occasions in recent months, the FBI has been criticised for its handling of domestic terror probes, including the use of controversial sting operations.
“They’re in a very hard position right now,” says David Gomez, who retired in 2011 after a 28-year FBI career and who once headed the Joint Terrorism Task Force in Washington State. “They’re being criticised for doing what they’re legally entitled to do.”
Orlando marks the third attack — including the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings and the shootings last year at a Garland, Texas, exhibit of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed — involving an individual who had been interviewed by the FBI. Amid an avalanche of terror tips, James Comey, the bureau’s director, says that tracking the “troubled souls” drawn to radical Islam represents a vexing challenge for his agents.
“The number of Isis cases in the US is unprecedented,” said Seamus Hughes, deputy director of George Washington University’s programme on extremism.
The US has charged 88 individuals with Isis-related crimes over the past two years, said Mr Hughes. In the past year alone, there have been 61 arrests, two or three times the typical figure, he added.
Some of those caught in the anti-terror dragnet were deadly serious. In February, John Booker, 21, of Topeka, Kansas, pleaded guilty to charges of planning to detonate a car bomb on a nearby US Army base. Booker — also known as Muhammad Abdullah Hassan — planned to use half a tonne of ammonium nitrate in an explosion that would have killed US soldiers and himself, according to the justice department.
Others hardly seem like terrorist masterminds. Emanuel Lutchman, 25, was arrested on December 30 on charges of planning a machete attack on patrons at a Rochester, NY, diner. An ex-convict and convert to Islam, Lutchman had a history of mental illness and was so short of cash that an undercover agent covered the $40 cost of ski masks, knives, duct tape and other supplies for the planned attack, according to court documents.
In the Orlando case, Mateen was interviewed twice by the FBI in 2013 after his coworkers alerted authorities to his claims of terror links. After a 10-month probe, agents closed the investigation having found no indication Mateen had committed a crime or posed a threat. Mateen’s name also surfaced in a separate investigation one year later of an American man who travelled to Syria to become a suicide bomber, but agents concluded the two men had no significant relationship.
As Mr Comey reviews his agents’ handling of Mateen, the investigation of the killings has broadened to include the killer’s wife, Noor Salman. Senator Angus King, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which was briefed on the probe, told CNN that Ms Salman had “some knowledge of what was going on” and is “a person of interest” for investigators.
During its 2013 investigation, the FBI introduced an undercover agent to Mateen, a tool used in 56 per cent of investigations over the past two years. The bureau says its operatives give suspects several opportunities to abandon their plans before arresting them. But Michael German, a former FBI undercover agent, says the increasing reliance on undercover agents is a mistake.
Sting operations are “less about identifying and mitigating real threats than intended to manufacture a case that the government can then point to as evidence of an effective counterterrorism posture”, says Mr German, now a fellow at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice.
Still, courts so far have sided with the government whenever defendants have claimed they were entrapped by agents. In 2014, the Supreme Court let stand a lower-court ruling in the case of four men accused of plotting to shoot down military aircraft and blow up two New York synagogues. Known as the “Newburgh Four”, the Muslim converts were convicted in 2010 of terror charges. They are now serving 25-year sentences in federal prison after failing to convince an appeals court that an undercover FBI agent had entrapped them with a promise of $250,000 to launch the attacks.
Since Islamic State leaders began calling on sympathisers to stage attacks in their home countries, the FBI has confronted a growing workload. The Mateen case demonstrates that agents face a daunting task. “We are looking for needles in a nationwide haystack, but we are also called up to figure out which pieces of hay might someday become needles,” Mr Comey told reporters this week.
Agents are working on more than 900 active investigations in all 50 states, the FBI says. Under protocols established following the attacks on September 11 2001, every tip must be checked. The agents investigating Mateen were likely handling an additional 15 to 25 cases at the same time. “The bureau’s stretched thin because the threat continues to grow,” said retired FBI agent Jeffrey Ringel, now a director of the Soufan Group.
It also may take years for someone to move from spouting offensive, though constitutionally protected, views to embracing violence. The killings in the Pulse nightclub occurred more than three years after the FBI closed its investigation of Mateen, having concluded that his contradictory remarks about ties to terror groups were incoherent and not threatening. At the time, it seemed like the right call.
“Up until 2 O’clock Sunday,” says Ringel, “he was a law-abiding citizen.”
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