The FBI spent 10 months investigating Omar Mateen in 2013 and 2014 — including secretly recording his conversations and monitoring his Internet communications — after the Orlando nightclub killer had claimed to co-workers that he had “family connections to al-Qaida” and made “inflammatory” statements that raised concerns about possible ties to terrorism, FBI Director James Comey said today.
The FBI closed out that probe in May 2014 after Mateen, during the course of two FBI interviews, told agents he had made those statements “in anger” because he thought his co-workers were discriminating against him and were “teasing him because he was a Muslim,” Comey said.
Comey revealed those details — as well as evidence uncovered during a second aborted FBI probe of Mateen that took place just a few months later — during the course of a news conference at bureau headquarters. He told reporters that the FBI’s investigation has uncovered “strong indications” that Mateen had become radicalized and potentially inspired by foreign terrorist groups.
But, he added, “so far, we see no indication that this was a plot directed from outside the United States and we see no indication he was part of a network.”
And, Comey emphasized, the investigation is far from over. “We are going through the killer’s life, especially his electronics, to understand as much as we can about his path and whether there was anyone else involved, either in directing him or in assisting him.”
Comey also revealed new details about Mateen’s conversations with a 911 dispatcher early Sunday morning as the American-born perpetrator was carrying out the bloodiest gun massacre in U.S. history, killing 49 people and wounding more than 50 others, at Pulse, a popular gay nightclub.
During the course of three phone conversations with the dispatcher, Comey said, Mateen pledged allegiance by name to the head of the Islamic State group, a reference to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Mateen also claimed solidarity during those calls to the Boston Marathon bombers and an American suicide bomber who blew himself up in Syria in 2014, the FBI director said.
But Comey also noted that some of Mateen’s comments, both Sunday morning and in the earlier statements that had triggered the FBI’s previous investigations, were “contradictory” and raised questions about precisely what terrorist groups he supported. For example, Comey noted, Mateen had been reported by his co-workers in 2013 to have claimed he was a member of Hezbollah — a Shia terrorist group that, Comey said, was a bitter enemy of the Islamic State.
Comey’s comments will probably invite more scrutiny of the bureau’s handling of its probes of Mateen — both of which were “preliminary” investigations. Mateen was on a terror watch list during the first probe but was taken off when the investigation was closed. Nor did either of the two probes into Mateen lead to further inquiries.
Just two months after the first investigation into Mateen was closed, the bureau in July 2014 opened up a second probe after Miami-based FBI agents learned he had ties to Moner Mohammed Abusalha, an American suicide bomber who blew himself up in Syria that year fighting for the Nusra Front, the al-Qaida affiliate in that country. Mateen and Abusalha had known each other — “casually,” Comey said — because they both attended the same south Florida mosque, the Islamic Center of Fort Pierce.
Once again, the FBI questioned Mateen and then closed out the probe after concluding he did not have “any significant ties” to Abusalha, Comey said. But during the course of that second probe, the FBI director added, one witness told agents that he had become concerned after Mateen mentioned to him that he had listened to videos made by Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born radical cleric who played a key role in radicalizing multiple terror suspects and was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in 2011.
The witness, however, told agents his concerns about Mateen abated after the suspect “got married and had a child and got a job as a security guard.”
Comey acknowledged that the bureau’s earlier contacts with Mateen would invite scrutiny. “We will continue to look forward in this investigation and backward,” he said. Even as the bureau seeks to determine what caused Mateen to commit the massacre, “we’re also going to look hard at our own work to see whether there is something we should have done differently. So far, the honest answer is, I don’t think so. I don’t see anything, in reviewing our work, that our agents should have done differently. But we’ll look at in an open and honest way, and be transparent about it.
“Our work is very challenging,” he added. “We are looking for needles in a nationwide haystack, but we are also called upon to figure out which pieces of hay might some day become needles. That’s hard work.”
Slideshow: Victims of the Florida nightclub shooting >>>