The FBI twice interviewed Orlando nightclub shooter Omar Mateen for possible ties to terrorism and twice found nothing to substantiate the ties.
That’s not unusual. The FBI had interviewed one of the Boston Marathon bombers, two years before the 2013 attacks that killed two people but took no action.
Instead, the freedom that enabled Mateen to descend early Sunday on a gay nightclub in Orlando and shoot more than 100 people, killing 50, speaks to the balancing act the FBI must maintain between upholding the rights of U.S. citizens while keeping all other citizens safe.
FBI agents are under tremendous pressure to both thoroughly investigate potential terrorists and come to a conclusion quickly, said Jeffrey Danik, the former head of the West Palm Beach FBI office who also worked counter-terrorism cases in Saudi Arabia.
Almost all terrorist complaints start as “assessments,” not formal cases, and that’s likely what happened with Mateen, Danik said.
With assessments, agents are not allowed the bureau’s full legal resources to investigate someone because of concerns of violating the person’s rights. They’re also monitored by a supervisor every 30 days.
“The bureau’s bureaucracy does not let you keep open an assessment for very long,” he said. “They’re under the gun to get the assessment closed. You do all the baseline collection — check his phone number, ‘OK we don’t have his phone connected to Osama bin Laden.’ You might check a few other things, to see if his name is in FBI files.”
Unless there were signs the person had committed a crime or was going to commit a crime, the assessment would not evolve into a formal case, and it would be closed.
“You can’t be looking at somebody forever,” Danik said. “They’ve got rights. They’re U.S. citizens.”
In Mateen’s case, the FBI investigated him in 2013 and 2014.
In 2013, it was for “inflammatory comments to co-workers alleging possible terrorist ties,” an FBI official said at a news conference Sunday.
In 2014, it was for Mateen’s ties to Moner Mohammad Abusalha, who grew up in Vero Beach before going to Syria, joining an Al Qaeda affiliate and becoming a suicide bomber. Abusalha’s final address was in Fort Pierce, according to TCPalm.com, where Mateen also lived.
The FBI officials said Mateen “did not constitute a substantive threat at that time.”
Danik said the Fort Pierce office of the FBI has hard-working and dedicated agents, “but they’re small and could easily be overwhelmed.”
He said the agents would have looked for other signs of terrorist ties, such as travel to terrorist hot spots in the Middle East.
“There’s no question that if you had somebody from here traveling there, to these hot spots, and there’s any indication or doubt about the purpose of the trip, that should have gotten some kind of law enforcement interest,” he said.
On the other hand, “If you’re Muslim and you go to Saudi Arabia and you go to the hajj (the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca), that’s completely explainable. That’s their religion.”
There’s no indication yet that Mateen, who was born in New York to Afghan parents, traveled to such hot spots.
But his father, Seddique Mateen, had made multiple trips to Afghanistan, according to a fellow Afghan expatriate interviewed by The Palm Beach Post, and he had declared his candidacy from abroad for president of that country last year.
The Washington Post reported that the elder Mateen also praised the Taliban in a YouTube video: “Our brothers in Waziristan, our warrior brothers in (the) Taliban movement and national Afghan Taliban are rising up,” he said.
The fellow Afghan expatriate said Omar Mateen’s father wasn’t a radical, though.
“He’s obviously against Taliban and ISIS and all that,” said Qasim Tarin, who appeared on Seddique Mateen’s YouTube show and followed him on Facebook. “I’ve known him for a long time. To his Facebook and all, he is absolutely against ISIS and Pakistanis and, of course, ISI intelligence.”
Because the FBI did not take action against Mateen, he was allowed to legally buy the rifle and the handgun used to carry out Sunday’s attacks, which killed 50 and wounded 53 more.
Legal access to guns for terrorist sympathizers is something President Barack Obama lamented during a January town hall discussion on CNN.
He told the audience that he had just been briefed on Americans who sympathize with the Islamic State, and who the government has placed on no-fly lists.
“But because of the National Rifle Association, I cannot prohibit those people from buying a gun,” he said. “This is somebody who is a known ISIL sympathizer. And if he wants to walk in to a gun store or a gun show right now and buy as much — as many weapons and ammo as he can, nothing’s prohibiting him from doing that, even though the FBI knows who that person is,” Obama said.