Orlando shows how terror is evolving. Can FBI keep up?

The Orlando shooting did not fit into a single category of hate crime, mass shooting, or jihadist act of terror, the FBI says. This makes its job  harder.

Adrees Latif/Reuters
Federal Bureau of Investigation officials collect evidence from the Pulse gay night club, the site of a mass shooting days earlier, in Orlando, Fla., Wednesday.

In a single moment, the Orlando shooting brought together three of the most contentious issues in the United States.

Within 12 hours of the attack, President Obama disparaged lax gun laws, Donald Trump tweeted about radical Islamic terrorism, and gay and lesbian celebrities decried a hate crime that took the lives of 49 people at a popular gay nightclub.

In the days since the attack, it has become increasingly clear that the actions of Omar Mateen did not fit into a single category of hate crime, mass shooting, or jihadist terror.

“I would call it a hate crime. I would call it terrorism. It’s both,” said Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Ronald Hopper on Wednesday.

The question for federal officials now is: How should they respond?

Orlando is further evidence that the nature of terrorism in the US is changing, making the job of federal investigators harder.

The Islamic State, in particular, is less concerned with strategic goals than simply spreading fear as widely as possible. It preys on any disgruntled Muslim angry enough to pick up a gun.

It doesn’t require them to go to Syria for training. It doesn’t require them to talk to jihadists online for instructions. It doesn’t require them even to know how to build bombs; guns will suffice.

Federal agencies are coping with this evolving threat. But the fact that Mateen was investigated twice by the FBI but not stopped speaks to vulnerabilities. Without more resources to cope with an exploding caseload, federal agencies will be hard-pressed to do more.

For this reason, the ultimate solution lies in fixing the issues in American society that are giving rise to lone wolf terrorists, some say.

There have been signs this was coming. “The threat has changed from simply worrying about foreigners coming here, to worrying about people in the United States,” said then-Attorney General Eric Holder to ABC News in 2010. “You didn’t worry about this even two years ago – about individuals, about Americans, to the extent that we now do.”

The mutations of terrror

What's made the issue much more urgent is the rise of Islamic State and its approach to terrorism. While Al Qaeda aimed at winning the hearts and minds of Muslims, the Islamic State is determined to scare them – and everyone else – into submission.

“Most people, al-Qaeda’s leaders among them, can’t imagine that political success could come from enraging the masses rather than charming them,” wrote William McCants, a terrorism expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, in a Politico article last year.

Since the goal is pure terror, there's no need for spectacular, highly planned attacks like 9/11. Any act of mass violence will do. Proper training is no longer a must, only the will to commit violence.

“The biggest change in terrorism since 9/11 is the jihadists’ embrace of mass shootings,” Mr. McCants writes in an e-mail. “They, like many other terrorists, used to be fixated on building bombs. But they’ve learned that mass shootings are easier to organize without detection and generate just as much media attention. ISIS has been exceptionally good at inspiring young men to carry out these attacks in its name.”

Portrait of a lone wolf

Mateen, an American citizen born to Afghan parents in New York, offers a picture of the difficulties in sniffing out such terrorists.

The FBI put him on a watch list in May 2013 after he made comments to coworkers claiming he had family and friends affiliated with Hezbollah and Al Qaeda. (That seemed unlikely since the two groups are enemies.)

Agents interviewed him twice before closing the investigation in March 2014 with too little evidence, according to FBI Director James Comey.

Mateen again came to their attention shortly afterward when the agency found he attended the same mosque as a Syrian suicide bomber. Again, the investigation was closed when the agency found “no ties of consequence,” according to Director Comey.

So, two years later, when Mateen walked into the St. Lucie (Fla.) Shooting Center to purchase a semiautomatic rifle and pistol, it raised no flags. He had the valid licenses. He passed the background check.

The owner of a different local gun store, however, says that his employees refused to sell Mateen body armor and bulk ammunition after he began asking "suspicious" questions, according to ABC News. Robert Abell of Lotus Gunworks in Jensen Beach, Fla., says he contacted authorities about Mateen before the massacre; the FBI did not respond to ABC News's request for comment.

How the FBI is responding

In its defense, the FBI notes that it is already stepping up antiterror efforts. As of last fall, there were some 900 active investigations of ISIS sympathizers who live in the United States, according to the report from George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. Last year, officials arrested 56 of them, the highest number of terror-related arrests in any year since the 9/11 terror attacks.

Yet the FBI has to walk a fine line, says Seamus Hughes, deputy director of the program and coauthor of the report. The FBI investigates thousands of potential domestic terrorists at any given time, the vast majority of whom never plan a terrorist act.

Deciding where to draw those lines is difficult.

Frances Townsend, who served as Homeland Security adviser to President George W. Bush, worries that the current guidelines for domestic counterterror investigations may constrain investigators. Specifically, she says they harm agents’ ability to include social media activity and postings in their investigations.

“We have to make sure we don’t let the attorney general’s guidelines become what ‘the wall’ was to 9/11,” said Ms. Townsend, referring to the firewall preventing the sharing of information among intelligence agencies that existed before the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

But even if everything works, there’s an element of guesswork in figuring out who will move from being a mere sympathizer to taking up arms. “In most cases the motivations are complicated,” says Mr. Hughes at George Washington University. “People are complex and they do things for a variety of reasons.”

That’s certainly true for Mateen, who proclaimed allegiance to ISIS in a 911 call during the shooting and often angrily denounced gays to friends and family, but also frequently attended the gay nightclub he attacked, according to reports.

Addressing the rising lone wolf threat isn’t just a matter of what can and can’t be done in an investigation but will almost certainly entail additional resources, said Ms. Townsend.

“The question is, if we want the FBI to cover more threats, do we give the FBI more resources, more agents?” she asked in a conference call with reporters Monday.

Looking beyond law enforcement

Others suggest that the answers could lie beyond law enforcement alone.

Many lone wolf terrorists are driven to suicide for the same reasons that ordinary people are, as they try to cope with depression and marital strife, argues Adam Lankford, a University of Alabama criminology professor and author of a 2013 book, “The Myth of Martyrdom.”

“The Orlando shooter and many mass shooters fall within this demographic and seek to die, even when they claim to be ‘martyrs’ or attempt to hide their psychological pain,” says Mr. Lankford, via e-mail. “If we can make major progress on reducing suicides and helping people with suicidal thoughts, that would be an incredibly important step for America, and I believe a side effect would be a reduction in mass shootings.”

Another option is a comprehensive preventative approach to radicalization, argues Hughes of George Washington University. “You have a number of cases where there’s not enough evidence to prosecute, but the FBI is still concerned about the individual.”

That would mean targeted intervention from other groups than law enforcement. For example, the World Organization for Resource Development and Education has developed an innovative program in Maryland's Montgomery County that aims to empower community members to intervene with vulnerable youth before they choose a path of violence.

The model could spread to other jurisdictions. It's better that it's a local rather than federal government solution, Hughes says, reducing the footprint of government intervention. At the federal level, too, he is confident Congress can push beyond partisan divisions to come up with ways to reduce lone-wolf terrorism.

“You tend to see a coalescing of congressional and other leaders to search for solutions” after events such as the Orlando shooting, Hughes says. “I am ever the optimist.... I think there’s always going to be a reevaluation.”

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