FBI chief defends handling of terrorist in Orlando attack
FBI Director James B. Comey said the man who killed 49 people in an LGBT nightclub in Orlando, Florida, was clearly “radicalized” and defended the bureau’s work investigating 29-year-old Omar Mateen, saying he does not think agents should have done anything differently.
During a briefing at FBI headquarters, Mr. Comey described his agency’s first contact with Mateen, who died in a gunbattle with police. He said a 10-month preliminary investigation was triggered when Mateen told co-workers at a private security firm that he had family connections to al Qaeda and had mutual acquaintances with Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bombers.
The investigation, initially authorized for six months and later extended for an additional four months, included use of confidential sources who engaged Mateen, though Mr. Comey declined to describe their specific interactions. FBI investigators did interview Mateen and reviewed his communications and travel he made to Saudi Arabia several years prior.
Mr. Comey said Mateen admitted to making the statements to co-workers but said he did so “in anger, because he thought his co-workers were discriminating against him and teasing him because he was Muslim.”
Mateen was placed on a watch list. Mr. Comey declined to specify whether it was a no-fly list or the Terrorist Screening Database.
During the 10 months the investigation was active in 2013, the FBI would have been notified if Mateen had sought to purchase a firearm, said Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates.
But Mateen was removed from the watch list shortly after the closure of the investigation, so his legal purchase this month of two firearms raised no alarms. The owner of the gun store said Mateen passed a full background check in June.
“Certainly in retrospect in this case, we would have liked to have known about it,” Ms. Yates said of the firearms purchase.
Asked whether she thought policy should be changed to allow flagging of suspects who purchase firearms after they have been dropped from watch lists, Ms. Yates said it was a determination that would take a “longer and more thoughtful look.”
Several months after the closure of the investigation in March 2014, Mateen was on the FBI’s radar again — this time after his name was brought up as law enforcement officials investigated a suicide bomber from Florida and officials learned that Mateen had attended the same mosque as the bomber.
“Our investigation turned up no ties of any consequence between the two of them,” Mr. Comey said.
As part of the 2014 probe, which Mr. Comey said did not amount to a formal investigation of Mateen, agents were told by someone who knew Mateen that they had concerns about him radicalizing. They said he had watched Anwar al-Awlaki videos. But the person told investigators that Mateen had since married and had a child and he no longer considered Mateen a possible threat.
Investigators are looking into Mateen’s motivations, ideological alignments and actions ahead of the deadly attack, which also wounded 53 others.
The gunman, who wielded an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle and a handgun, spoke with a 911 three times while holed up inside the nightclub with hostages, pledging allegiance to the leader of the Islamic State. But he also “appeared to claim solidarity” with the brothers who bombed the Boston Marathon — referring them as his “homeboys” — and a suicide bomber who acted on behalf of the Nusra Front, a group at odds with the Islamic State, officials said. The contradictory allegiances seemed to indicate that Mateen was not officially aligned with any one terrorist group and muddled his motive for the attack.
“So far, we see no indication that this was a plot directed from outside the United States and we see no indication that he was part of any kind of network,” Mr. Comey said, adding that investigators are still working to understand the role that bigotry may have played in motivating the attack on the LGBT nightclub.
At the White House, President Obama called the attack an apparent example of “homegrown extremism.”
More details of the bloodbath emerged. Orlando Police Chief John Mina said Mateen was “cool and calm” during phone calls with police negotiators. The chief said he sent in the SWAT team to bash through a wall after Mateen holed up with hostages in a bathroom and began to talk about bombs and an explosives vest.
“We knew there would be an imminent loss of life,” Chief Mina said. As it turned out, Mateen had no explosives with him.
FBI Director James Comey said a 10month preliminary investigation was triggered when Omar Mateen told coworkers that he had family connections to al Qaeda and had mutual acquaintances with the Boston Marathon bombers.