Omar Mateen: Under FBI surveillance one day, terrorist the next

A careful review of how the FBI conducts business with regard to terrorism is clearly overdue. Boston Bombers, Texas shooters and the Orlando killer - each remained free to inflict damage despite FBI investigations.

Law enforcement personnel arriving at Pulse nightclub, site of an alleged terrorist mass murder Sunday morning, June 12, 2016. (Photo by Orlando Police)

WASHINGTON, June 20, 2016 — The mass murder carried out by Omar Mateen in Orlando highlights the failure of government to identify and monitor potential killers. It is still not clear what motivated his attack, whether it was his own conflicted sexuality, his commitment to Islamic extremism and ISIS, or a combination of factors.

What is clear is that his troubled history made him unfit to work for a security company or to purchase an assault weapon long before he went to the Pulse Nightclub.

But no one paid proper attention, and 49 were killed, 53 wounded.

Mateen’s elementary and middle school records, highlighted not by law enforcement officials but USA Today, show him to be a disruptive student. His behavior, marked by constant outbursts and classroom insubordination, contributed to his academic struggles. A letter sent to Mateen’s father shortly before he withdrew from St. Lucie County’s Southport Middle School in 1999, said,  “The main factor prohibiting Omar from success in school is not that the work is too hard but rather he has difficulties  in conforming to the class/school rules.”

Mateen was disciplined 31 times between 1992 and 1999 for numerous disruptions, for striking a student and for disrespectful behavior. As early as third grade, Mateen was verbally abusive, rude and aggressive. He talked frequently of violence and used obscenities.

Democrat response to terrorism in Orlando contradicts reality

In Dec. 1995, he was referred to a student study team, comprised of a teacher, psychologist, guidance counselor and parent, for continuing to hit students, talking out in class and screaming at teachers and fellow students, according to records.

Warning signs of trouble can be found throughout Mateen’s life. In 2013, he was working as a private security guard for G4S Secure Solutions USA Inc. at the St. Lucie County Courthouse in Fort Pierce, Florida. Mateen made many inflammatory comments at the courthouse in 2013. According to Sheriff Ken Mascara Matten made said that Fort Hood, Texas shooter Nidal Hassan was justified in killing 13 people and injuring more than 30 in 2009.

That shooting took place Nov. 5, 2009. Hasssan was an Army major and psychiatrist.

Mateen also made derogatory remarks about women and Jews, the sheriff said. “That sent red flags to my staff and me and the FBI was immediately notified.” The sheriff’s courthouse supervisor then requested that G4S transfer Mateen out of the courthouse rotation permanently.

The Orlando shooting represents the third time that someone who had been under FBI scrutiny carried out a terrorist attack. The assault in Orlando followed the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 and last year’s shooting at a Texas exhibition of cartoons featuring the Prophet Muhammad. In each case, the FBI had looked at one of the accused assailants, including an intensive 10-month probe of Omar Mateen. Yet each remained free to inflict damage.

Now many are asking how the Orlando killer, who was placed on a terrorist watch list, could undergo lengthy FBI investigations that wrongly concluded he was not a threat to anyone.

Mateen was subject to two separate FBI investigations in 2013 and 2014. A year and a half later he walked into a gun shop, purchased  an assault rifle, and killed 49 people. And all of this time, he continued to work for the G4S security firm, which also works for the U.S. Government. Mateen underwent company screening and background checks when he was recruited in 2007 and the check revealed nothing of concern. His screening was repeated in 2013 with no adverse findings.

“In 2013 we learned that Mateen had been questioned by the FBI but that the inquiries were subsequently closed. We were not made aware of any alleged connections between Mateen and terrorist activities and were unaware of any further FBI interest,” said G4S. Clearly, G4S was not paying attention.

Daniel Gilroy,  who worked with Mateen for G4S, told Florida Today that Mateen was “unhinged and unstable. He talked of killing people.” Gilroy said he complained to G4S “about Mateen’s odd, often bigoted behavior” to no avail. Eventually, Mateen began stalking Gilroy, leaving him 30 or more text messages per day. Gilroy  eventually quit, but Mateen remained employed.

Why does the U.S. Government employ G45? In 2015, an inquest revealed that a G4S subsidiary improperly vetted an employee with a criminal record who later was convicted in Iraq of killing two colleagues. In Florida, G4S guards were found to be abusing children in facilities where the company provides security. At the Palmetto Youth Academy in Manatee County, G4S employee Leroy Boydic, Jr. was arrested in 2014 on charges of sexually assaulting two teenage boys. At a facility in Tampa, G4S employee Vivian Hernandez-Trejo was investigated for engaging in sex acts with a boy under her care. An investigation in 2015 by Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers found records documenting multiple assaults at youth detention facilities G4S managed in Florida against both the company’s employees as well as minors under its charge.

“I’m amazed at the amount of violence that goes on over there, both against staff and other inmates,” Assistant State Attorney Vicki Nichols, Martin County’s juvenile prosecutor said, referring to a girls facility run by G4S that had a history of violent altercations among staff and children.

Omar Mateen was hired by G4S, his behavior was ignored, and the FBI seems to have given him a clean bill of health. The FBI admits that one witness said Mateen regularly watched videos of the terrorist cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki, a leader of Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen. Those who knew him said he was “full of hate” for Americans. His ex-wife said he abused her. He told co-workers he knew the two perpetrators in the Boston bombings. He claimed members of his family were Al Qaeda supporters.

Orlando night club attack: Hate crime or terrorism?

These statements were all reported to the local sheriff’s office and in turn to the FBI. Nothing happened.

Why did the FBI close a case with so much disturbing evidence?  How many more cases like that of Omar Mateen are being handled in the same way? It is clearly time  to re-evaluate how the FBI handles such cases. David Gomez, a former FBI counterterrorism official, wrote in an online posting titled “How Did the FBI Miss Omar Mateen?” that, “Perhaps it is time to revisit” the basic legal standard that the FBI requires probable cause of a likely crime to open full-scale investigations.

James McJunkin, who once headed the FBI’s counterterrorism division, said that if agents didn’t dig deep enough in Orlando, it was probably because they were hampered by FBI guidelines. He said in preliminary investigations there is a cap on the number of hours agents can conduct surveillance.

He notes that,

“Those are rules or guidelines that were written by lawyers who don’t have the responsibility or accountability for doing thorough investigations.  The agents (investigating Mateen) ran out of leads based upon the tools that they applied. But if they had more tools, would they have had more leads?”

The FBI scrutinized Mateen for 10 months beginning in 2013, putting him under surveillance, recording his calls and using confidential informants to determine whether he had been radicalized after he talked at work about his connections with Al Qaeda and dying as a martyr. Then, in July 2014, Mateen surfaced in another investigation into the first American to die as a suicide bomber in Syria.

In both investigations, the FBI found no evidence that Mateen had committed a crime or intended to break the law.

The FBI similarly ended its 2011 investigation of Tamerian Tsarnaev, one of two brothers who placed bombs near the finish line of the Boston Marathon in 2013, killing three people and injuring more than 200. Russian authorities had told the bureau that Tsarnaec was an adherent of Islamist groups and was preparing to travel to Russia to join militants in Dagestan and Chechnya.

Investigators closed the probe after three months, having found no link to terrorism, according to a 2014 inspector general’s report.

Omar Mateen was placed on a terrorist watch list for nearly a year after co-workers alerted authorities in 2013 to inflammatory comments he made. He was taken off the list after intensive investigation concluded that his talk of terrorism was mere bluster. He remained employed by the G4S security firm and passed background checks for the purchase of weapons.

Asked whether things should have been done differently in the Mateen case, FBI Director James B. Comey  said. “So far, I think the honest answer is: I don’t think so.”

If Comey is right and proper procedures were followed, we must ask if these procedures are adequate for the terrorist challenge we face. Were allegations of domestic abuse known and factored in, and should they have been? And how is it that someone on a terror watch list could work for the G4S security firm, where he received professional training in small arms and tactics?

We now know that Mateen received classroom and field weapons training and held state licenses to obtain and carry small arms. Did the FBI know this? This is the third time in recent years that someone who came under FBI scrutiny ended up carrying out a later attack.

The FBI seems uncertain about what to do with someone who hasn’t committed a crime but whom the bureau believes could be a terrorist or could become one. Some veterans of the FBI say too many restrictions remain. Under the latest investigative guidelines, “The FBI has been given more power in theory,” says Tim Murphy, who was the FBI deputy director from 2010 to 2011. “But it’s more restrictive in practice.” In Murphy’s view, FBI guidelines discourage agents from monitoring potential terrorists over the long term. Those guidelines retain the requirement that any preliminary investigation that did not produce evidence of a crime must be closed after six months. “Someone should have been monitoring Mateen’s social media 24/7,” Murphy says, “but under the guidelines that is not allowed. Beyond this, says Murphy, the FBI should have been alerted when Mateen purchased weapons.

As the threat of terrorism grows, FBI procedures must keep pace with the threat. Having recognized Omar Mateen’s potential danger, but permitting him to proceed to commit mass murder, makes clear that something is wrong. The facts speak for themselves. A careful review of how the FBI conducts business with regard to terrorism is clearly overdue.

This, and not the overheated rhetoric from our presidential candidates, is what will make America a safer place for all of us.

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Allan C. Brownfeld
Received B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues.