WASHINGTON, July 14, 2016 – A month after the tragic shooting in Orlando at the Pulse nightclub, observers are still asking how someone on the FBI’s radar could have purchased weapons and killed 49 people.
The FBI had spoken with Omar Mateen, the shooter, three separate times. On three occasions, the FBI found “no evidence of wrongdoing” and released Mateen. They released him despite the fact that he admitted he lied to agents, that witnesses said he made numerous threats, and that two confidential informants recorded questionable conversations with him.
The FBI specifically released Mateen because there was no indication he had ties to ISIS, Al-Qaeda or any other terrorist group. Even though he pledged allegiance to a host of competing terrorist organizations just before the attack, there is still no evidence he actually had ties to any group or that he was even in contact with jihadists.
Instead, Mateen was a mentally unstable individual who elected to identify with radical Islamic terrorist groups as an excuse for his violent rage.
Even so, how could the FBI meet with him three times and not recognize the simmering danger?
The answer: Intelligence failure.
The FBI had all the information, but lacked intelligence. Intelligence, the analysis of multiple points of information, is critical to creating a complete picture. By focusing on the individual crumbs of information, the FBI missed the larger picture. The threat did not come from radical Islamic ties, but from a violent history and a desire to do harm.
The FBI is, at its heart, a law enforcement organization. It investigates crimes and arrests the perpetrators. It is one of the best organizations in the world at carrying out those duties.
However, analysis is not part of the DNA of the FBI. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the FBI recognized its shortcomings in terms of analysis, and attempted to rebuild itself as an intelligence organization, or at least as an organization that included analysis as part of its problem-solving capabilities. The FBI publicly announced its intent was to move from an organization that investigated crimes to one that could actually prevent attacks.
Despite that effort, the FBI has struggled to include analysis in its crime solving. A report released by the FBI in March 2015 admitted that the Bureau still had not integrated analysts into investigations, and that analysts were not regularly included in investigations. The report stated, “…the Bureau urgently needs to improve its intelligence capabilities.” It further stated that analysts were still excluded from a majority of investigations, and that the Bureau was having difficulty changing old patterns of law enforcement investigation to new strategies involving intelligence and analysis.
In the case of Mateen, the FBI was conducting a criminal investigation. It was attempting to uncover whether Mateen had committed a crime, and the ten-month criminal investigation found no crime.
The FBI conducted a traditional law-enforcement investigation of Mateen. Based on the information now available concerning that investigation, it is unlikely that the FBI included analysts in the investigation of Mateen. Had the FBI called on its intelligence resources, it may have pieced together the history of violence, angry social media postings, efforts to communicate with radical Islamic leaders, threats, weapons purchases, and other activities and recognized that Mateen had committed crimes under the Patriot Act and other laws, and that he was in fact a threat.
The second intelligence failure came from a skewed starting point. The FBI was attempting to investigate whether Mateen had ties to terrorist organizations. This was the problem they were trying to solve, and it guided their collection efforts. This paradigm handicapped officers by blinding them to the ugly reality in front of them. Because Mateen did not have ties to Islamic terrorists, FBI agents did not identify him as a threat. They failed to look beyond the hypothesis to recognize that there were other red flags concerning Mateen that they should have identified.
The Pulse shooting was not a law enforcement failure. It was an intelligence failure because it failed to analyze the disparate pieces of information and create a comprehensive picture of the threat Mateen presented.
Security and law enforcement cannot stop terrorism, whether it is tied to radical Islamists or lone wolves or mentally unstable individuals. The only way to thwart terrorists is with intelligence and information sharing among the various agencies.
Without intelligence, authorities can only clean up after the attack. And by then, it’s too late.