Three years before he killed 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Omar Mateen was under investigation by the FBI for a 10-month period. The United States’ domestic intelligence and security service suspected that the gunman had ties to terrorism, but ultimately closed its investigation after following a standard checklist.
“Every day, in FBI offices around the country, agents leaf through classified counterterrorism documents on American citizens one last time,” a new report by The New York Times reads. “They reread informant reports and review surveillance logs. And then they close the case and walk away. It is a weighty decision, one that supervisors closely review. But with up to 10,000 FBI terrorism investigations open at any given time, there is little time for hand-wringing.”
In 2013, Mateen was working as a security guard at the St. Lucie County Courthouse in Fort Pierce, Florida. His coworkers claimed that “he had boasted of ties to the terrorist groups Hezbollah and Al Qaeda,” which resulted in a local sheriff’s request to have him removed from the job. The sheriff also alerted the FBI of the comments that Mateen, who was transferred to work at a residential golfing community, allegedly made.
Government officials doubted Mateen’s claims at the time, but opened a preliminary investigation as a precaution. The FBI dispatched an informant to secretly follow and monitor Mateen, who they later interviewed on two separate occasions, according to the newspaper’s June 14 report.
“I think the FBI has an incredibly hard job, because this guy seems like a lone wolf,” Caroline Fredrickson, the president of the American Constitution Society, told The New York Times. “He was an American citizen born in the United States. Law enforcement has been working its butt off to figure out what else could be done.”
After determining that Mateen did not appear to be a threat, the FBI closed the investigation after less than a year. The Times reported that the decision was approved by supervisors and that managers in Washington were notified.
FBI director James B. Comey told the news outlet that Mateen was subsequently removed from the watch list, which is a standard procedure. “We don’t keep people under investigation indefinitely,” he explained.
Last year, Congress ruled that the FBI cannot block people on terrorism watch lists from buying guns, so even if Mateen was still on the list, he would have been able to purchase a weapon. “Had he been on a watch list, however, agents would have been alerted to the gun sale,” the newspaper noted.
As previously reported, the Orlando gunman reportedly called 911 and pledged his allegiance to ISIS prior to the attack at Pulse nightclub on Sunday, June 12. ISIS later claimed responsibility, but it’s unclear whether they were in communication with Mateen.
FBI officials are now investigating Mateen’s wife, Noor Zahi Salman, after she revealed that she was with him when he purchased ammunition and once drove him to the Orlando nightclub to “scope out” the place prior to massacre. She also reportedly tried to talk him out of committing the crime, but didn’t report it to the police.
“There’s an indication that she was with him in certain parts of the process, and we’re sorting through it,” an anonymous FBI official told the Times. “We don’t know what’s true and what’s not.”
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