Before Omar Mateen gunned down 49 patrons of the LGBTQ Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, the FBI attempted to induce him to participate in a terror plot. Sheriff Ken Mascara of Florida’s St. Lucie County told the Vero Beach Press Journal that after Mateen threatened a courthouse deputy in 2013 by claiming he could order Al Qaeda operatives to kill his family, the FBI dispatched an informant to "lure Omar into some kind of act and Omar did not bite."
While self-styled terror experts and former counter-terror officials have criticized the FBI for failing to stop Mateen before he committed a massacre, the new revelation raises the question of whether the FBI played a role in pushing Mateen towards an act of lethal violence.
Since 9/11, the FBI has relied heavily on informants to entrap scores of young, often mentally troubled Muslim men and send them to prison for as long as 25 years. As Aviva Stahl reported for AlterNet’s Grayzone Project, the FBI recently encouraged an apparently mentally disturbed recent convert to Islam named James Medina to bomb a South Florida synagogue and pledge allegiance to ISIS, a militant group with which he had no prior affiliation. On trial for planning to commit an act of terror with a weapon of mass destruction, Medina has insisted through his lawyer that he is mentally ill.
Trevor Aaronson, a journalist and author of “Terror Factory: Inside the FBI’s Manufactured War on Terror,” revealed that nearly half of terror cases between 9/11/01 and 2010 involved informants, including some with criminal backgrounds raking in as much as $100,000 from the FBI. The FBI's assets have often preyed on mentally ill men with little capacity to resist their provocations. “Is it possible that the FBI is creating the very enemy we fear?” Aaronson wondered.
The revelations of FBI manipulation have cast Mateen’s case in a troubling light. Though he refused to bite when an FBI asset attempted to push him into a manufactured plot, he wound up carrying out an act of spectacular brutality years later and allegedly swore loyalty to ISIS in the midst of it.
“It looks like it's pretty much standard operating procedure for preliminary inquiries to interview the subject or pitch the person to become an informant and/or plant an undercover or informant close by to see if the person bites on the suggestion,” Coleen Rowley, a former FBI agent and division counsel whose May 2002 memo to the FBI Director exposed some of the FBI’s pre-9/11 failures, told AlterNet. “In the case of Mateen, since he already worked for a security contractor [G4S], he was either too savvy to bite on the pitch or he may have even become indignant that he was targeted in that fashion. These pitches and use of people can backfire.”
To highlight the problematic nature of informants, Rowley pointed to the case of Humam Khalil al-Balawi, a Jordanian physician whom the CIA used to gather intelligence on Al Qaeda,. The CIA ignored obvious warning signs like Balawi’s extremist online manifestos and never subjected him to a vetting process. While Balawi claimed to have penetrated Al Qaeda’s inner circle, he was actually exploiting his CIA security clearance to plan a major attack. On December 30, 2009, Balawi strode into Camp Chapman in Khost, Afghanistan, and detonated an explosive vest that killed seven CIA agents and wounded six more -- the deadliest attack on CIA personnel in 25 years.
Mateen, for his part, displayed many of the psychological characteristics that typify both FBI informants and those they attempt to ensnare in bogus terror plots. Raised in a troubled home by an abusive mother and an apparently eccentric father, Mateen exhibited signs of erratic, violent behavior throughout his life. His ex-wife told reporters that he physically abused her and was “unstable and mentally ill.” He transformed from a chubby adolescent to a burly young man with the help of steroids, yearning for a career in law enforcement.
Seven months into a job as a prison guard in 2007, Mateen was fired for threatening to bring a gun to class. He settled on a career as a low level security guard for G4S Security Solutions, a global security firm that employed him for nine years. Though Mateen’s applications to two police departments were rejected, he was able to pass a G4S background check and receive several guard assignments. (The world’s third largest private employer, G4S has accumulated a staggering record of human rights abuses, including accusations of child torture.)
While the full extent of Mateen’s contact with the FBI is unknown, the fact that an informant encouraged Mateen to agree to carry out a terror attack should provoke serious questions and further investigation. Whether or not manipulation by a FBI informant had any impact on Mateen’s deadly decision, there is no denying that the attempt to entrap him did nothing to protect the public.
“The FBI should scrutinize the operating procedure where they use undercovers and informants and pitch people to become informants,” said Rowley. “They must recognize that, in this case [with Mateen], it had horrible consequences if it did, in fact, backfire.”
Max Blumenthal is a senior editor of the Grayzone Project at AlterNet, and the award-winning author of Goliath and Republican Gomorrah. His most recent book is The 51 Day War: Ruin and Resistance in Gaza. Follow him on Twitter at @MaxBlumenthal.
Sarah Lazare is a staff writer for AlterNet. A former staff writer for Common Dreams, she coedited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahlazare.