After the Orlando terror attack, the FBI has received a sum of 10,000 terror tips. Now, they’re investigating all of them. Wonder if they would have done that if the attack never occurred?
The FBI’s near-miss investigation of Orlando nightclub shooter Omar Mateen reflects a US counterterror effort swamped by potential targets and struggling to separate lethal Islamic State recruits from hotheads venting their spleen.
After dropping its 2013 scrutiny of Mateen, the bureau is under fire for not doing more to prevent the worst mass shooting in modern US history. Yet on other occasions in recent months, the FBI has been criticised for its handling of domestic terror probes, including the use of controversial sting operations.
The US has charged 88 individuals with Isis-related crimes over the past two years, Mr Hughes said. In the past year alone, there have been 61 arrests, two or three times the typical figure, he added.Some of those caught in the anti-terror dragnet were deadly serious. In February, John Booker, 21, of Topeka, Kansas, pleaded guilty to charges of planning to detonate a car bomb on a nearby US Army base. Booker — also known as Muhammad Abdullah Hassan — planned to use half a tonne of ammonium nitrate in an explosion that would have killed US soldiers and himself, according to the justice department.
Others hardly seem like terrorist masterminds. Emanuel Lutchman, 25, was arrested on December 30 on charges of planning a machete attack on patrons at a Rochester, NY, diner. An ex-convict and convert to Islam, Lutchman had a history of mental illness and was so short of cash that an undercover agent covered the $40 cost of ski masks, knives, duct tape and other supplies for the planned attack, according to court documents.
Since Islamic State leaders began calling on sympathisers to stage attacks in their home countries, the FBI has confronted a growing workload. The Mateen case demonstrates that agents face a daunting task. “We are looking for needles in a nationwide haystack, but we are also called up to figure out which pieces of hay might someday become needles,” Mr Comey told reporters this week.
Agents are working on more than 900 active investigations in all 50 states, the FBI says. Under protocols established following the attacks on September 11 2001, every tip must be checked. The agents investigating Mateen were likely handling an additional 15 to 25 cases at the same time. “The bureau’s stretched thin because the threat continues to grow,” said retired FBI agent Jeffrey Ringel, now a director of the Soufan Group.
It also may take years for someone to move from spouting offensive, though constitutionally protected, views to embracing violence. The killings in the Pulse nightclub occurred more than three years after the FBI closed its investigation of Mateen, having concluded that his contradictory remarks about ties to terror groups were incoherent and not threatening. At the time, it seemed like the right call.
“Up until 2 o’clock Sunday,” Ringel says, “he was a law-abiding citizen.”