- Two U.S. investigations before attack didn’t turn up evidence
- FBI compiles suspected domestic terrorists in U.S. watch lists
Once the FBI concluded there wasn’t enough evidence to link Omar Mateen to terrorism, that meant the man who later swore allegiance to the Islamic State during a murder spree on Sunday wouldn’t be prohibited from airline flights.
Mateen had twice been investigated by FBI agents for suspected terrorist leanings and was for a time listed on a government watch list, but he was removed because agents closed the initial case in 2013 without confirming he was a danger, FBI Director James Comey told reporters in Washington Monday.
“He was watchlisted with the opening of the preliminary investigation and he was taken off the watchlist when the investigation was closed,” Comey said. Comey declined to name the watchlist.
Mateen, who killed 49 people in an Orlando gay bar early Sunday before being shot dead by police, wasn’t on the no-fly list maintained by the U.S. Terrorist Screening Center, according to a government official. The official wasn’t authorized to comment on the list and asked not to be named.
The man now identified as the shooter telephoned police early Sunday and said he supported the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. Supporters of the group launched attacks over the last year in Paris and Brussels.
The TSC was created in 2003 as a result of concerns raised after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that there wasn’t a centralized government list of potential terrorist suspects. It is run by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The center’s primary watch list, the Terrorist Screening Database, contained about 400,000 people in 2008, according to FBI testimony before Congress.
Only a small number of those listed in the main watch list are selected for the no-fly list, according to the FBI. They must meet specific criteria indicating they are a threat to the aviation system, according to the bureau.
It’s not surprising that Mateen wasn’t on the no-fly list, according to John Halinski, a former deputy administrator at Transportation Security Administration who is now a security consultant. Multiple agencies review names before they’re placed on the list and justification has to be “very, very strong,” Halinski said.
“There are a lot of folks who might have some social media leanings or some trips to the Middle East,” he said. “If he didn’t have any more than that, it would have been very hard to get him on the no-fly list.”
If Mateen wasn’t on the FBI’s broader watch list, it would have been impossible for him to be placed on the smaller no-fly list, according to the government official.
The FBI also maintains a second database designed to protect the aviation system known as the selectee list. Those included may still fly, but they’re subjected to additional scrutiny during security screening. Just like the no-fly list, people who aren’t on the FBI’s broader watch list wouldn’t be placed on the selectee list.