Why Did FBI’s Multiple Informants Fail to Catch Omar Mateen in a Sting?

One detail of the FBI’s 2013 investigation into Omar Mateen that seems to be getting inadequate attention is that they used multiple informants with him, per Jim Comey’s press conference on Monday:

Our investigation involved introducing confidential sources to him, recording conversations with him, following him, reviewing transactional records from his communications, and searching all government holdings for any possible connections, any possible derogatory information. We then interviewed him twice. [my emphasis]

Normally, when the FBI identifies a Muslim mouthing off about joining ISIS, they throw one or more informants at him, develop his trust, then have him press a button or buy a plane ticket to Syria, which they use to arrest the guy.

That didn’t happen here. While they did record the conversations between these informants and Mateen, they never got him to do something they could arrest him for.

And I suspect we won’t get answers why they didn’t, though it seems an absolutely critical question for assessing how the FBI investigates terrorism. If FBI’s chosen method of using informants only works with the dopes and not the real threats, all it does is juice the FBI’s prosecution numbers, without keeping us safe. Alternately, it’s possible FBI assumes certain things about a potential “Islamic” threat, which turned out to be wrong in this case.

I can think of several possible reasons why FBI’s informants might not have worked the way they normally do (these are speculative):

  • Mateen was just not serious about terrorism in 2013, but something since then (perhaps the decline in his marriage, perhaps the US launching yet another war against Muslims in the Middle East) led him to embrace it in 2016
  • Mateen, who went to cop school, recognized the informants for what they were
  • The prominent reporting on FBI’s investigations into Ibragim Todashev and their infiltration of his circle of friends (the FBI’s investigation would have lasted from July 2013 until May 2014) made Mateen vigilant enough to resist the informants’ appeals
  • The informants tried to entice Mateen via Islamic ideology and not homophobic self-hatred (that is, they used the wrong trigger)
  • The process of being investigated — and interviewed 3 times — actually further pissed off Mateen, leading him closer to violence

Again, these are all speculative. We can’t know without more detail why the FBI’s typical use of informants failed this time.

But we deserve answers to the question, because if the Muslim community is going to be riddled with informants, they had better be serving some purpose other than selective surveillance of a minority group.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

7 replies
  1. Les says:

    He has a well-paying job which makes it hard for them to entrap.

    He has a wife which makes him hard to isolate.

    It’s possible his wife knew of his plans and decided to help him get out of the marriage and recover custody of the child.

  2. Les says:

    He was rejected by the police academy last year as a potential terrorist infiltrator.

    On the other hand, his employer never carried out a follow-up psychological evaluation based on his co-workers complaints and subsequent FBI investigations.

  3. Mannix says:

    You missed the big one: he went to KSA not once, but twice [just like the (former) unassuming PAK pharmacist in San Bernadino, who studied there]

  4. DMC says:

    They were looking for a Salafi jihadi or someone who might become one. There’s no evidence that suggests this is the case with Mateen. He wasn’t religious, didn’t wear a beard, hung around in gay bars and drank alcohol. Not the description of someone in thrall to political Wahabism, in other words. The whole “Islamic terror” aspect of this case is a complete red herring. Much more likely is a scenario involving a deeply conflicted individual, torn between cultural norms of a country he never knew(Afghanistan) and the immediate gratification culture of the US in general and the Orlando gay scene in specific. I expect that a lot of first generation Americans feel alienated but that being in this degree of denial and/or self-loathing about who he fundamentally was compounded that to the point of psychotic break. Add in self-loading weapons and presto!

  5. Franklin says:

    I also wouldn’t rule out that it “didn’t happen here” only because Mateen committed an unplanned act — as opposed to an act being pushed by an informant which would have resulted in his arrest — and caught the feds by surprise.

    If so, there is no way they could admit it because of the possibility their informant inspired it.

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