After Orlando Shooting, Law-Enforcement Agencies Debate How to Stop Lone-Wolf Terrorists (Wall Street Journal)

Federal authorities had investigated Omar Mateen long before he burst into a nightclub and killed 49 people, but the probe wasn’t enough to prevent an attack. The failure to prevent the shooting has spurred fresh debate within law-enforcement circles over how to ferret out and stop lone-wolf assailants.

Some say current counterterrorism techniques aren’t geared toward finding individuals bent on mass violence who lack solid links to terrorist groups like Islamic State. Some law-enforcement officials and experts are pushing for more resources and flexibility in maintaining investigations of seemingly low-level threats.

Others say it is impossible to conduct surveillance of such vast numbers, and are advocating for a “third way”—a mechanism that would rely on community members and family to report people who may be displaying radical leanings to mental-health officials or social workers.


The debate exemplifies the thicket of logistical and legal challenges law-enforcement agencies face in trying to determine how far to take investigations.


There are up to 1,000 active Islamic State-related probes open in all 50 states, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.


Beyond that, law-enforcement officials are increasingly concerned with people on the sidelines who may be cheering on terror attacks or expressing support for Islamic State over social media but who don’t appear to be immediately dangerous.


One former FBI official who focused on counterterrorism says it can be “enormously challenging” to separate people who are espousing extremist rhetoric from those who may act on it.


Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Chief Michael Downing, commanding officer for the agency’s Counter-Terrorism and Special Operations Bureau, said there are legal and practical limits to what law enforcement can do.


“You open a case, and then you close it,” he said. “It’s a matter of how long do you keep it open? How do you prioritize them, and do you have enough resources?”


Mr. Downing favors an outreach model that combines mental-health resources with robust investigations of high-priority cases.


Jeffrey Danik, a former FBI counterterrorism supervisor in Washington, said many agents are frustrated with what they perceive as restrictions the bureau places on them during initial “assessments” into suspected terrorists.


Agents must swiftly establish the need for a more comprehensive investigation—often within 30 days—or the inquiry is closed, he said. Other investigative techniques, like surveillance, are restricted during that period, he said.


“The overall environment is ‘either establish something or close it,’ ” said Mr. Danik, who helped design the bureau’s computer system that helps track such inquiries. “They don’t want to keep hanging onto investigations to see what happens next.”


Even with lengthier investigations—investigators looked into Mr. Mateen for 10 months—it is still difficult to determine how dangerous someone will become.


FBI Director James Comey said Mr. Mateen was scrutinized after telling co-workers of his alleged links to terror groups. After months of studying actions, surveillance and using informants, the FBI concluded he represented no imminent danger, Mr. Comey said.


“The poker factor is kind of huge sometimes,” said the former FBI official, who maintains close ties to the bureau and didn’t want to speak publicly on the issue. “You’re trying to show they pose a threat in order for the investigation to continue.”


He expects that after the Orlando shooting, all terror probes—from initial assessments to full-blown investigations—are likely to receive more FBI scrutiny before being closed.


Law-enforcement officials are also discussing sharing information around firearms purchases. The FBI is typically notified anytime someone on a terror watch list buys a gun. The bureau currently has no way of alerting agents if that person buys a gun after he’s removed from the list.


Mr. Mateen was placed on a terror watch list for one year, but purchased two of his weapons after the investigation was closed. Some now say it would be helpful for federal agents to also be notified if the subject of a past terror investigation, like Mr. Mateen, purchases an assault weapon.


U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said he pressed Mr. Comey on the issue after a briefing Tuesday, and asked if such a policy would require a legal change. Mr. Schiff indicated the FBI would have to do further research.


“Given some of the radical statements that have been reported in the past, the purchase of that kind of weapon would at least for many of us have set off an alarm bell,” Mr. Schiff said.


Some law-enforcement officials and Muslim groups have been pushing for some type of program to identify those who may be vulnerable to radicalization, without involving prosecutors. But other Muslim groups are wary of such a plan, saying it unfairly singles out Muslims.


Sgt. Mike Abdeen, who heads Los Angeles County Sheriff Department’s Muslim outreach unit, said outreach to the Muslim community is critical.


“There is no single solution to this problem, but the community knows itself better than anyone else,” Mr. Abdeen said.


New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton said the pressure on law enforcement to figure out who is truly a credible threat is immense. He noted that police aren’t expected to prevent every illegal act—except when it comes to terrorism.


“In the area of terrorism, there is an expectation that you shouldn’t have any,” he said. “The world has changed. We are going to have it…and with more casualties, as we saw in the events of Orlando.”