Law enforcement officials have yet to confirm that Esteban Santiago Ruiz, the shooter allegedly responsible for killing five people and injuring another six at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport last week, posted any content linked to radical Islam or jihad on his social media platforms.
Officials have not dismissed radical Islamic terrorism as a potential motive for the mass murder, however, as Santiago had previously reached out to the FBI, insisting that the CIA was forcing him to join the Islamic State (ISIS) and watch propaganda videos.
“It’s way too early in the investigation. We’re looking over all of his social media, things like that. It’s giving us a picture of the individual, but it’s way too early for us to rule out anything,” George Piro, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Miami field office, told reporters on Saturday. The Associated Press notes that Piro’s illustrious FBI career includes interrogating late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein following his capture.
Santiago was deployed to Iraq in 2010, reportedly working to diffuse improvised explosive devices. He received a Meritorious Unit Commendation award following his deployment, though he was subsequently discharged from the Alaska National Guard for “unsatisfactory performance.”
A Miami Herald report reiterates that law enforcement officials “have discovered no information on Facebook and other online sites to suggest the Iraq war veteran was radicalized by the Islamic State or any other terrorist organization,” despite a wide array of Internet rumors linking Santiago to jihadist sentiments online. The report notes that officials have since shut down his known social media accounts and have not completed their review of the available material.
What his social media did reveal, however, is that Santiago had some ties to Florida, despite being born in New Jersey, raised in Puerto Rico, and currently living in Alaska. Local affiliate Fox 4 reports that his Instagram account featured photos of himself in Naples, Florida – an hour-and-a-half drive from Fort Lauderdale – visiting cousins.
Authorities have interviewed 175 people and counting about Santiago’s behavior and mental state, including a number of family members and Santiago himself. The Associated Press describes Santiago as “cooperative” with authorities, revealing that he bought a one-way ticket to Fort Lauderdale specifically to commit the mass shooting.
The most prominent bit of evidence linking Santiago to the global jihad movement is his own confession to the FBI that he had been hearing voices encouraging him to commit acts of terrorism in the name of the Islamic State. He walked into an FBI office in Alaska, where he had been living, and told agents that the American government was forcing him to watch the signature gruesome propaganda videos for which the Islamic State is known. The FBI then confiscated his gun and scheduled him to undergo a psychiatric evaluation. While the details of that evaluation remain unknown, Santiago was allowed to remain free, and officials returned his gun to him. “Officials told a news conference the gun was returned to the suspect because the Iraq war veteran had not committed a crime,” Fox News reports. Law enforcement officials have not confirmed whether the gun returned to him following that evaluation is the same weapon he used in the Fort Lauderdale attack.
The claim that he had not committed a crime also raises some questions. Santiago had been arrested in January and charged with “misdemeanor counts of property damage and assault” for allegedly strangling his girlfriend and breaking down her bathroom door. Santiago has since had a son, currently believed to be in Alaska. The Associated Press notes that he had brought his infant to the FBI offices when he turned himself in for watching ISIS videos:
“He was a walk-in complaint. This is something that happens at FBI offices around the country every day,” FBI agent Marlin Ritzman said.
Santiago had a loaded magazine on him, but had left a gun in his vehicle, along with his newborn child, authorities said. Officers seized the weapon and local officers took him to get a mental health evaluation. His girlfriend picked up the child.
On Dec. 8, the gun was returned to Santiago. Authorities wouldn’t say if it was the same gun used in the airport attack.
Santiago may face the death penalty if found guilty of a premeditated mass homicide at the airport.