Considerable time and attention will be devoted over the coming weeks and months to understanding whether more should have been done to prevent Sunday’s attack on an Orlando LGBT nightclub. And in particular, why an individual previously investigated by the FBI for his links to violent extremism was able to carry out such a brutally effective attack.
The FBI is already on the front foot, releasing a detailed account of when and why Omar Mateen was investigated, and why its investigations ceased. This proactivity is in large part due to the anticipation of criticism — already signalled in the comments of both US Presidential candidates — that this was an intelligence failure.
Quite apart from the obvious dangers of drawing conclusions before all relevant facts have emerged, there appear to be a number of issues with this 'intelligence failure thesis.’
Firstly, this kind of post-attack review always ignores the question of relativity. How did the known intelligence picture of Omar Mateen compare with other individuals investigated by the FBI in 2014?
What we know so far about Mateen’s activities — an isolated reference to martyrdom, viewing of extremist material, domestic violence allegations and racist and homophobic comments — might from the outside appear to be obvious precursors to the type of violent act witnessed at the weekend.
But while they were sufficient to spawn a FBI investigation, the sad reality is such actions are unexceptional in the context of other domestic counter-terrorism investigations. They would not have been the glaringly obvious ‘red flags’ so easy to spot in hindsight.
The FBI statement describes in detail a 10 month 'preliminary investigation' which included wiretaps, liaison with foreign intelligence services, the use of undercover informants, a review of his personal and financial records and two interviews. This was no cursory background check. And during this — and a subsequent investigation into Mateen’s possible links to an American suicide bomber in Syria — the FBI uncovered no indication that his sporadically expressed extremist views would translate into violent action.
Critics of the FBI’s decision-making need to articulate what the FBI could or should have done differently once its investigations drew a blank in mid-2014. When there are few remaining investigative avenues, for how much longer should law enforcement and intelligence agencies monitor an individual? And how much further can those agencies conceivably go in restricting the activities of an individual guilty of no crime?
The sad reality is that despite the tragic outcome, the decision to close the investigation may have plausibly been a correct one at the time.
Criticism of the FBI’s decision is also born out of the misconception that radicalisation is a linear pathway with one set destination. This view is understandable; the public hears a lot more about the few individuals who make the leap from violent rhetoric to violent action than the many who don’t.
In the case of Omar Mateen, we do not yet know enough about what happened in the period between his comments in 2013 about seeking martyrdom and last weekend’s tragic events. But we should resist the idea that his use of large-scale violence was an inevitability. Or that, based on a relatively flimsy intelligence picture, the FBI should somehow have been able to predict his behaviour two years hence.
It is right and proper that a thorough investigation into the FBI’s handling of the case takes place as soon as practicably possible. If mistakes were made or critical opportunities missed, then these should be addressed.
Regardless of the investigation’s outcome, the FBI and intelligence agencies across the world will no doubt be asked to re-assess individuals they have previously ruled out as potential terrorists. Mateen is not the first individual to carry out terrorist attacks having previously been investigated by counter-terrorism authorities, and he is unlikely to be the last.
This is in part because the extraordinary powers afforded to counter-terrorism agencies do not extend to reliably predicting the future behaviour of often unstable individuals. Difficult as it might be in the aftermath of a terrorist attack, we need to break the cycle that seeks to immediately apportion blame to individuals or organisations other than those directly responsible.
As I’ve argued before, to survive, counter-terrorism agencies must be able to rule people out as well as rule people in (based on an informed risk assessment). Knee-jerk public criticism in cases like Orlando only makes that complex process still harder.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Victoria Pickering