The first information we were given about the Orlando killer was an offhanded comment from the FBI that he might have some Islamist “leanings.”
He turned out to be a veritable Leaning Tower of Pisa of Islamist leanings, capped off with a formal vow of allegiance to the Islamic State as he launched his bloody jihad attack, and the FBI was well aware of his history, having interviewed him three times.
Once again, we are told after the fact that a jihadi was “on the radar screen” – not a lone wolf, but a known wolf. This is apparently supposed to make us feel better, reassured that the FBI was not taken completely by surprise, and has other potential terrorists under surveillance.
Instead, our jaws fall steadily closer to the tops of our shoes with each new revelation of Mateen’s dubious history, each new co-worker that describes him as “unhinged and unstable,” every new revelation about his Taliban-supporting father, every new law-enforcement source that admits he was a “known quantity.” How was this “known quantity” free to plan a horrific terrorist attack, while working for a security company that did government work?
We have heard the Known Wolf story before. Garland, Texas jihadi Elton Simpson was convicted of making a false statement involving international and domestic terrorism in 2011, four years before he died trying to perpetrate domestic terrorism. In 2011, he lied about plotting to travel to Somalia to hook up with jihadis; in 2015, he was free to swear allegiance to ISIS and attack a group of law-abiding citizens because they dared to violate Islamic law.
The CIA wanted the older Boston Bomber, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, added to a terror watch list, after receiving a heads-up from Russian authorities. That was after the FBI had already received a similar warning and closed their preliminary inquiry. Somehow the fabled counter-terrorism radar screen did not light up when three of Tsarnaev’s friends turned up with their throats cut in 2011, on the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
Carlos Bledsoe, aka Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, was on the “radar” for the better part of a year before he shot up a military recruiting center in Arkansas in 2009. The authorities thought he might have been training as an al-Qaeda operative during a trip to Yemen. It turns out they were right.
Mohammad Youssuf Abdulazeez, who killed four Marines in an attack on their recruiting center in Chattanooga last year, was the son of a man who was investigated by the FBI for financing terrorists in the Nineties. Abdulazeez himself made a number of mysterious trips to the Middle East during the years before he launched his attack.
The most notorious Known Wolf to be rendered invisible by bureaucracy was surely Major Nidal Hasan, who was exchanging emails with al-Qaeda guru Anwar al-Awlaki – and those emails were seen by FBI anti-terrorism task force agents a year before Hasan perpetrated the Fort Hood jihad attack. Of course, Hasan was also giving seminars that justified suicide bombing, dispensing what his students described as “vile ideology,” and handing out business cards that described him as a “Soldier of Allah,” which were also obvious danger signs in retrospect.
Sometimes the red flags are less obvious, and law enforcement officials point out that they simply do not have the resources to track everyone who comes into contact with extremists online, or journeys to extremist hot spots, as was the case with San Bernardino jihadi Syed Farook. Farook’s activities before the attack are sometimes explicitly described as insufficient to get him on the counter-terrorist “radar screen,” especially since his neighbors professed themselves nervous about reporting suspicious activity from his house to the authorities, fearing they would be labeled insensitive or paranoid.
Known Wolves roam far beyond the boundaries of North America, of course. Just about every major terrorist action in Canada and Europe involves a few figures who were “known to the authorities.” Australia’s hostage-taking imam, Man Haron Monis, had a lively rap sheet that included involvement in the murder of his ex-wife, who was stabbed 18 times and then set on fire in 2013, plus dozens of sexual and indecent assault charges. Also, he was convicted in 2009 of sending offensive letters to the families of soldiers who died fighting in Afghanistan.
The most unsettling thing about the Known Wolf phenomenon is that it keeps happening. It does not seem like lessons are learned. One reason is that investigators do not have the resources to track every suspect. FBI Director James Comey has admitted his agency has been overwhelmed by the caseload, citing the shift in ISIS tactics that encouraged aspiring jihadis to remain home and plot domestic strikes instead of traveling to Syria or Iraq.
Also, the FBI relies heavily on electronic surveillance to spot potential terrorists. It is almost surprising how often it works, but there have always been fears that jihadis will catch on, and either stop blabbing about their lust for righteous slaughter online, or move their communications to encrypted platforms the government cannot monitor.
The problem we should be able to address is politically-correct institutional blindness, but that probably isn’t going away any time soon. We’ll keep hearing stories of investigations that were quashed because they seemed rude, and citizens who hesitated to Say Something when they Saw Something, afraid they would be labeled bigots.
The Known Wolf problem suggests Islamist radicalization isn’t quite as sudden as we’ve been led to believe, but it can still be a relatively swift process for young recruits, and our government will never understand how it works, as long as politicians force law enforcement to pretend the enemy is “generic violent extremism,” or “nihilism,” as President Obama put it on Monday. Early warning signs of jihadi radicalization cannot be detected by investigators trained to look for “nihilism.” As long as the enemy has a pretty good idea of where we refuse to look for them, they’ll be able to hide.