From Boston, it sounds very familiar.
Omar Mateen slipped through the hands of federal law enforcement authorities — just like Tamerlan Tsarnaev.
But FBI Director James Comey insists his agency didn’t miss any signals that could have stopped Mateen from carrying out the deadliest shooting attack in US history. Still, following the massacre in Orlando, which so far has left 49 dead and at least as many wounded, Comey said the FBI will “look hard at our own work.” So should others charged with protecting the country from terrorists, whether “lone wolf” or officially directed by foreign entities.
“There’s a time to reflect and mourn. But there’s also a time to look at what they [the FBI] told us in terms of information-sharing and breaking down roadblocks,” said US Representative William Keating of Massachusetts, who serves on the House Committee on Homeland Security and pushed for more accountability from federal law enforcement after the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.
Indeed, a government report issued a year after the Boston attack concluded the FBI missed key opportunities to stop Tamerlan and his brother, Dzhokhar, from carrying through on their plot to set off pressure-cooker bombs at the Marathon finish line. The report also called for greater cooperation between federal and local officials. Has anything changed? “That’s what we want to know,” said Keating.
The April 2014 report concluded that federal law enforcement officials failed to see a future terrorist in Tamerlan Tsarnaev — even after the Russian Federal Security Service told the FBI that Tamerlan and his mother were “adherents of radical Islam” and Tamerlan was planning a trip to Russia to connect with unspecified underground groups in Dagestan and Chechnya. The FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Force in Boston conducted an assessment of Tamerlan to determine whether he posed a threat to national security, but closed it three months later “having found no link or ‘nexus’ to terrorism.” Later that year, Tamerlan traveled to Russia, but those travels “did not prompt additional investigative steps to determine whether he posed a threat to national security.”
The FBI did not share any of this information with state and local law enforcement prior to the bombings. That was supposed to change after the report was released.
Comey didn’t address that issue during a televised press briefing Monday. He said Mateen was interviewed three times by the FBI — twice in 2013 and once in 2014. The 2013 interviews were triggered by complaints by co-workers who said Mateen made statements that suggested he had terrorist ties. Comey said Mateen admitted making statements, described by the FBI director as “inflammatory and contradictory,” out of “anger” because his co-workers were discriminating against him. After a thorough FBI review, the case was closed, said Comey.
In 2014, the FBI also investigated a possible tie between Mateen and Moner Mohammad Abusalha, who became the first American suicide bomber in Syria. After the FBI concluded the contact was casual, said Comey, “there was no further focus” on Mateen. He was on an FBI watch list from May 2013 — the month after the Boston bombing — to March 2014 — a month before the report on missed intelligence opportunities connected to Boston.
Mateen kept his job and license as a security officer, along with his Florida firearms license. He legally purchased the two guns he used in the Orlando attack.
Now Comey is telling Americans that there are “strong indications of radicalization,” and the FBI is “trying to understand the path” to Orlando. During a series of 911 calls during the attack, Mateen declared his solidarity with the leader of ISIS; with the Florida man who died as a suicide bomber; and with the perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombing, whom he called his “homeboys.”
Comey said the combination “adds a little bit to the confusion about his motives.’’ However, there’s no confusion about Mateen’s intent — to kill. He shared that desire with the Tsarnaev brothers, as well as the ability to elude detection by the nation’s top law enforcement agents.Joan Vennochi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.