ORLANDO — Even as FBI investigators peered deeper Tuesday into the life of the Orlando nightclub gunman, the agency faced its own internal reckoning over whether warnings signs were missed during a 10-month probe of the shooter three years ago.
The expected review of the FBI files into Omar Mateen — including why the investigation was effectively closed — adds another layer of questions into the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.
But it also underscored the challenges confronting authorities trying to isolate individual potential threats amid wider concerns over the reach of terror groups such as the Islamic State — which is suspected of inspiring a stabbing attack in Paris late Monday that killed a couple working for police agencies.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation will “look at our own work, to see if there is something we should have done differently,” the agency’s director, James Comey, said Monday after details emerged of the past FBI review of Mateen, who left 49 people dead in a gay club Sunday before being killed when police stormed the site.
“So far, I think the honest answer is: I don’t think so,” Comey added. “We will continue to look forward in this investigation and backward.”
The FBI investigated Mateen beginning in 2013, putting him under surveillance, recording his calls and using confidential informants to gauge whether he had been radicalized after the suspect talked at work about his connections with al-Qaeda and dying as a martyr.
On another front, Mateen’s apparent previous connections to the Pulse nightclub and gay online sites brought new signals into the investigation. At least two people told The Washington Post that Mateen had visited the popular club, and one of the witnesses — Kevin West, a 37-year-old Navy veteran — said Mateen had made contact with him on Jack’d, a dating app for men.
Florida Governor Rick Scott (R), speaking near the scene of the slaying, said Tuesday that investigators were working diligently to sort out what happened and why. He said he had been focused on talking to victims’ family members. He did not offer any new details on the status of the investigation.
Scott also called for the federal government to share more information with their state counterparts in the wake of the shooting. While he did not specify how more sharing of information might have prevented the massacre, Scott said it was broadly important that federal officials share what they learn with local law enforcement — especially in immigration or refugee cases.
He referenced the recent attacks in Paris, noting that in the wake of those, he told the federal government, “Look, until you can tell me how you’re going to vet people, don’t send refugees into my state.”
Mateen’s family is from Afghanistan, while he was born in the United States. Still, the the shooting has fueled a resurgent debate on U.S. immigration policy. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump called Monday for barring immigrants from areas of the world with a history of terrorism as part of a proposed temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States.
The political fallout from Orlando, meanwhile, moved onto the world stage even as it overshadowed the U.S. presidential race. The top U.N. human rights official, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, called on American authorities to adopt “robust gun control measures.”
“It is hard to find a rational justification that explains the ease with which people can buy firearms, including assault rifles, in spite of prior criminal backgrounds, drug use, histories of domestic violence and mental illness, or direct contact with extremists — both domestic and foreign,” the chief of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said in a statement.
At one of the many memorials after the massacre, the names of the dead were read aloud at a gathering on the lawn of Orlando’s main performing arts venue. In Paris, the Eiffel Tower was bathed in rainbow colors at night. Hours later, French President François Hollande warned of a “very large scale” terror threat facing his nation and the West.
“France is not the only country concerned, as we have seen again in the United States in Orlando,” he said.
As part of the FBI investigation, Mateen was placed on a terrorism watch list and interviewed twice before the probe was closed in March 2014 because agents concluded he was not a threat, the FBI director Comey said Monday in an interview with reporters at bureau headquarters.
Several months later, in July 2014, Mateen surfaced in another investigation into the first American to die as a suicide bomber in Syria, a fellow Floridian. And, again, investigators moved on.
It was the third time — following the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 and a planned attack last year on a contest to draw the prophet Muhammad — that someone who had been scrutinized by the FBI later carried out a terrorist attack.
Comey said that during the three-hour standoff the gunman had with Orlando police officers, there were three different 911-related calls with him. The gunman called 911 at about 2:30 a.m., about half an hour after opening fire, and then hung up the phone. Mateen then called a second time and spoke briefly to a dispatcher before hanging up again, and then the dispatcher called him back and they spoke briefly.
“During the calls, he said he was doing this for the leader of ISIL, who he named and pledged loyalty to,” said Comey, using an another acronym for the group known as the Islamic State.
However, Comey said there were no signs that Mateen was directly tied to any kind of network, and he added that it remained unclear exactly which extremist group he supported. In addition to pledging allegiance to the leader of the Islamic State, Comey noted, Mateen referred to a link to its rival, al-Qaeda — an American’s suicide bombing in Syria. He also expressed solidarity with the Boston Marathon bombers.
President Obama said that the shooting appeared so far to be a case of “homegrown extremism.”
“We see no clear evidence that he was directed externally,” Obama said during remarks in the Oval Office. “It does appear that at the last minute, he announced allegiance to ISIL. But there is no evidence so far that he was in fact directed by ISIL, and at this stage there’s no direct evidence that he was part of a larger plot.”
Law enforcement officials in Florida, meanwhile, offered a new accounting of the shootout. Orlando Police Chief John Mina said that police first encountered Mateen shortly after the initial gunfire at about 2 a.m., when an off-duty officer working at the club exchanged shots with Mateen.
Additional officers called to the scene soon joined in another gun battle, at which point Mateen retreated farther into the building and, eventually, into a bathroom. The police then held back because there were no more gunshots, Mina said, and they tried to negotiate with Mateen to avoid any more bloodshed.
Mateen had been in a bathroom with four or five people, while an additional another 15 or 20 were in another bathroom, Mina said. During these negotiations, Mateen was “cool and calm” and did not make many demands, Mina said.
After about three hours, police said they decided to storm the building after the shooter mentioned bomb belts or explosives. Mina said the police used explosives and then an armored Bearcat to break a hole in the club’s wall. Hostages poured out, and Mateen — armed with a pair of guns — came out as well.
During the gun battle, Mateen was killed and one Orlando police officer was injured when a bullet struck his Kevlar helmet.
However, much still remains unclear, including whether any hostages were might have been injured or killed by crossfire.
In a news conference Monday, Mina said storming the building “was the right decision to make” because police thought other lives might be in danger.
Authorities said the investigation into Mateen has expanded to look at other people and stretches from Florida to Kabul. Mateen’s family is originally from Afghanistan, but he was born in New York and lived for many years in Florida.
Comey said Mateen, who worked as a contract security guard at a local courthouse, claimed in 2013 to co-workers that he had family connections to al-Qaeda and was a member of Hezbollah, two opposing terrorist groups that have clashed repeatedly in Syria.
The FBI director called the comments “inflammatory and contradictory.”
Comey said that Mateen also told colleagues that he had mutual acquaintances with the Tsarnaev brothers, who were responsible for the Boston bombings. He spoke of a martyr’s death. Co-workers brought his claims to the attention of the local sheriff’s department, which passed them along to the FBI.
The FBI opened what is known as a preliminary investigation — one of hundreds that the bureau handles at any one time and that typically last six months. Comey said the investigation was extended once with the approval of an FBI supervisor at the Joint Terrorism Task Force in Miami.
When interviewed by the FBI, Mateen claimed he made the statements in anger because his co-workers were teasing him about being a Muslim and he felt discriminated against.
“The evidence developed during the investigation was consistent with his explanation that he had said these things to try to freak out his co-workers,” Comey said.
The investigation was closed.
“As I would hope the American people would want, we don’t keep people under investigation indefinitely,” Comey said. “If . . . we don’t see predication for continuing it, then we close it.”
During the period of the investigation, Mateen was placed in a terrorism database, but Comey declined to say whether the bureau it also put him on the no-fly list.
The FBI also learned that he had traveled to Saudi Arabia in March of 2011 to make a pilgrimage and again in March of 2012. Comey said the Saudis assisted the FBI investigation but didn’t turn up anything.
Mateen’s name next surfaced as part of the investigation into Moner Mohammad Abusalha, believed to be the first American to launch a suicide bombing in Syria. Abusalha prayed at the same Fort Pierce, Fla., mosque that Mateen attended, friends and authorities said.
A witness told the FBI he had become concerned about Mateen, who had been watching videos of a radical cleric, named Anwar al-Awlaki, who was a top leader and propagandist in al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen. Awlaki’s rhetoric has been implicated in numerous terrorist attacks, including the 2009 Fort Hood shooting in which 13 people were killed shot dead by Army Maj. Nidal Hasan.
But the witness stopped worrying when Mateen started a relationship, had a child and found steady employment as a security guard.
The FBI questioned Mateen again but found no reason to reopen an investigation.
Comey said the FBI had found nothing in Mateen’s past that would have legally blocked him from purchasing a gun.
Mateen purchased two weapons from the St. Lucie Shooting Center, shop owner Ed Henson said at a news conference Monday.
“An evil person came in here and legally purchased two firearms from us,” Henson said, adding that Mateen had multiple security licenses and passed a full background check before he was allowed to buy the guns.
Henson said that if Mateen hadn’t bought the guns at his shop, he would have been able to buy them somewhere else.
“We happened to be the gun store he picked. It’s horrible,” said Henson, who spent two decades with the New York Police Department before retiring in 2002. “I’m sorry he picked my place. I wish he’d picked nowhere.”
Goldman and Murphy reported from Washington. Mark Berman, Greg Miller, Joby Warrick, Sarah Larimer, Julie Tate, Emma Brown, Jenna Johnson, Missy Ryan, and Jerry Markon in Washington; Katie Zezima, Hayley Tsukayama and Amanda Elder in Orlando; Abby Phillip in Cleveland; Tim Craig in Kabul; Thomas Gibbons-Neff in Brussels, and James McAuley in Paris contributed to this report.
[This story will be updated throughout the day.]