In the aftermath of 9/11, the nation’s top domestic security priority focused on stopping foreign sleeper cells planted by al-Qaida or other radical groups.
Now, Omar Mateen defines what anti-terrorism experts say is the most serious and increasing threat for the United States — the “lone wolf.”
One person, perhaps beset by some mix of mental and personal issues, who “self-radicalizes,” proclaiming an affinity for Islamic extremists and acting on it alone with easily accessible high-powered weapons. That’s what investigators believe the 29-year-old security guard from Fort Pierce did on Sunday morning, killing 49 and wounding 53 others at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando to become the nation’s worst mass murderer.
For federal agencies charged with thwarting terrorism, Mateen’s case underlines the difficulty they face in tracking lone wolves. Before Mateen, there have already been a string of similar loners who have been arrested in Florida, including one man who threatened to blow up a Jewish center in Aventura in April.
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On Tuesday, President Barack Obama said “it is increasingly clear” that the killer, a U.S. citizen, became “radicalized” by “extremist information and propaganda over the internet” — noting that such lone-wolf attacks are “the hardest to detect.”
Some critics say the FBI may have dropped the ball with Mateen, who was investigated twice in 2013 and 2014 — first for spewing extremist rhetoric and then for possible associations with another Fort Pierce man who died as a suicide bomber in Syria.
But others working at the front of the nation’s domestic war on terror say today’s No. 1 enemy, the lone wolf, can be so unstable and unpredictable that it’s difficult to track them or predict when or if they might strike — as mass shootings in Orlando, San Bernardino, California, and Fort Hood, Texas, have shown. Typically, there are no complicated plots for agents to uncover, no communications chatter to provide clues of what might be coming.
“Instead of large-scale attacks on landmark targets, we are now seeing these mass shootings,” said Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at American University in Washington, D.C. “The problem in these cases is, the perpetrator is committing the crime the second he pulls the trigger. By then, it’s too late to stop him.”
The horror in Orlando already has renewed political debate about stalled federal legislation that would block sales of firearms to people on the government’s terror watch list. Mateen, who in recent weeks bought an AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle and Glock 9mm pistol from a Port St. Lucie gun dealer, had been on the list but was taken off in 2014 after he was no longer considered a possible threat, according to the FBI.
The legislation, defeated by Republican lawmakers in December, has been embraced anew by Democrats, with presidential nominee Hillary Clinton saying this week: “If the FBI is watching you for suspected terrorist links, you shouldn’t be able to just go buy a gun with no questions asked.”
In Mateen’s case, FBI Director James Comey said on Monday that agents opened a preliminary investigation in May 2013 when he was working as a contract security guard at the St. Lucie criminal courthouse. Co-workers had reported that he made some statements that were “inflammatory and contradictory” about terrorism, including claiming family connections to al-Qaida and then saying he was a member of the West Bank terrorist group, Hezbollah, a bitter enemy of the Islamic State.
Using confidential sources, FBI agents followed Mateen, recorded conversations and reviewed his communications — then interviewed him twice. “He admitted making the statements that his co-workers reported, but explained that he did it in anger because he thought his co-workers were discriminating against him and teasing him because he was Muslim,” Comey said during a news conference.
Deemed no longer a potential threat, the FBI closed the 10-month investigation.
In July 2014, the FBI questioned Mateen again, but this time about possible connections to Moner Mohammad Abusalha, who lived in Fort Pierce and Vero Beach and had blown himself up for the Nusra Front in Syria — a group in conflict with the Islamic State. Agents learned that Mateen knew the man “casually from attending the same mosque” in Port St. Lucie, but the investigation turned up “no ties of any consequence” between them, Comey said.
The FBI director vowed to “look hard at our own work to see whether there is something we should have done differently. So far, the honest answer is: I don’t think so.”
Vladeck, the law professor, and other experts said national security investigators don’t have the manpower or resources to keep a constant eye on every “true believer” or “deranged person” who fits the profile of a self-radicalized, lone-wolf terrorist — with possibly hundreds, if not more, across the country.
“You can’t stop them at the border; they’re already here,” said Miami lawyer Jeffrey Sloman, a former U.S. attorney in South Florida. “You don’t need to go to the Middle East to be trained as a jihadist; you can be influenced by these extremist views on the internet in the confines of your home.”
FBI agents are now combing through Mateen’s computer and other evidence taken from his home to determine the extent to which Islamist extremism downloaded over the internet spurred him to target Pulse, a popular gay nightclub in Orlando. They are also looking into whether Mateen, who several patrons have said was a club regular, may have been gay himself. His mental health also may be a factor — an ex-wife and others have described him as volatile and unstable.
On Monday, Comey, the FBI director, said no evidence gathered so far pointed to a “plot directed from outside the United States” or that the killer was a member of a foreign terrorist organization.
Comey said Mateen seemed to express interest in conflicting, radical Islamist groups, including saying during a 911 call from the club on Sunday morning that he was “doing this” for the leader” of the Islamic state, or ISIS. After a hostage standoff, Mateen was eventually killed by police.
For many so-called lone wolves like Mateen, their “very strong personal agendas” intersect with Islamist extremist ideology trumpeted by social media, said Daniel Byman, a researcher at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institute.
“ISIS is a brand, as well as an organization, and that brand has power. It can make you feel bigger, more important,” Byman said.
Unlike terrorist attacks in Paris, which were organized directly by ISIS members, or earlier al-Qaida plots against strategic targets such as the World Trade Centers, the lone wolves like Mateen hit closer to their own homes.
Byman noted that the attack in San Bernardino, Calif., in which Syed Farook killed 14 people at a county health department where he was employed, might have been considered workplace violence had he and his wife not made a last-minute pledge to the Islamic State on Facebook.
“It's not like in Syria, they are wondering how they can disrupt a Christmas party,” Byman said.
A decade ago, Miami was the venue for the first enemy combatant trial in the country, resulting in the conviction of a Fort Lauderdale-area man, Jose Padilla, for training with al-Qaida and seeking to join a jihad in the Middle East.
But, of late, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies have been contending with a number of lone-wolf terror suspects. Several have been arrested after taking plots far enough to be caught in undercover sting operations.
Among them: Harlem Suarez, a 24-year-old Key West man facing trial on charges of sympathizing with the Islamic State while plotting to set off a backpack bomb on a local beach. Another suspect: James Medina, 40, of Hollywood, who was arrested on charges of plotting to bomb an Aventura synagogue during Passover observance in April.
For authorities, it also can be a challenge to distinguish between angry outbursts, mental health problems and real threats.
Miami-Dade Police's homeland security bureau arrested Kendall Enrique Dominguez in January after he allegedly “pledged allegiance to Allah,” vowing to dress like the comic-book villain Joker before gunning down co-workers.
According to a police report, Dominguez “expressed an intent to become radicalized” and showed off execution videos posted by the Middle Eastern terror group, ISIS. Dominguez, 20, worked at J&B Importers, a company in Southwest Miami-Dade that distributes bicycle parts. For detectives, the threat seemed real enough.
Dominguez's defense lawyer, Saam Zangeneh, acknowledged that police have to do their job in the face of a verbal threat. “You can't yell fire in a crowded theater,” he said.
But he said that Dominguez was no threat, and only “mouthed off” because he got reprimanded at work. He never pledged allegiance to Allah, he said.