Did Omar Mateen Fall Through the Cracks?

by Emile Nakhleh

Omar Mateen’s horrible terror attack at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando last Saturday night reflected first and foremost his sick attitude about gays and lesbians as well as his religious and cultural intolerance toward the LGBT community. His conflicted personality added to this deadly mix of homophobia, personal anger, and availability of assault weapons. Declaring allegiance to the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) during his 911 call before the attack doesn’t diminish the hatefulness of his crime or validate his Islamic credentials. Putting a religious patina on his evil act doesn’t make him more of an IS “martyr” or an IS “soldier” in the “American caliphate.”

Although his ISIS “allegiance” and the terror group’s claim that he was their “soldier” lack credibility, several issues must be addressed.

Hate Crime

It seems clear at this stage of the investigation that the assault on the nightclub was a hate crime against a specific group of people because of their lifestyle and sexual orientation. The attacker did not, for example, target random groups of people at a mall, a movie theatre, or a sporting event. He had cased the gay club on several occasions before his premeditated crime. Yet, preliminary investigation indicates that he exhibited a proclivity toward homosexuality by visiting the club several times in the past.

Perhaps he couldn’t square these tendencies with his perceived religious belief, including his father’s, that homosexuality is repugnant to Islam. He could have justified his heinous act on homophobia alone, which would put the attack in the categories of hate crimes and domestic terrorism. It would also mean that he acted alone. Of course, more information is needed before a thorough assessment can be made. Furthermore, Mateen’s warped mind could have pushed him to use a religious justification for his act—either to repent for his “sin” or to cover up his homosexual feelings.

The Islamic State and other Muslim radicals view homosexuality as an unnatural condition punishable by death. IS has killed people suspected of being homosexual. Some have been stoned to death; others pushed over a roof. The Wahhabi Salafi ideology, prevalent in Saudi Arabia and other places including Afghanistan and Pakistan, also condemns homosexuality.

Unfortunately for the global LGBT community, many non-Wahhabi Muslims, like some Christian and Jewish groups, also condemn homosexuality as a perversion of God’s teachings. Mateen’s father most likely holds similar views and might have imparted them to his son. Homosexuality may be punishable by death in at least 10 Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq. Fortunately for homosexuals, not everyone who exhibits this intolerant attitude commits mass murder, especially in the US and other Western countries.

Islamic Terror

If Mateen’s horrendous act was an expression of radicalization and “jihad,” the connection, if any, between him and IS or other terrorist groups must be thoroughly investigated. Was he inspired or enticed by the Islamic State’s online postings, or did the terror group direct him to commit this act? If the latter is the case, IS must have had a prior knowledge of the terrorist attack and must have been complicit in it. Such planning, if proven, would have ominous implications for the United States. Recruiting US-born potential “jihadists” on American soil without being immediately detected by the law enforcement authorities and the Intelligence agencies poses a serious threat to the security of the country and its citizens.

Even if there is only a slight probability that IS had established a connection with Mateen, how did this happen without the US intelligence agencies getting wind of it? One of the key recommendations of the 9/11 Commission’s report called for closer cooperation between the FBI and the Central Intelligence Agency and the wider intelligence community. Did such cooperation occur in this case?

If it’s shown after a thorough investigation that IS did not recruit the Orlando perpetrator, self-radicalizing online in one’s bedroom using one’s computer or smart phone would pose a more difficult challenge for law enforcement. Short of having a young person’s parents or close acquaintances inform the authorities of the person’s change in behavior, it would be extremely difficult for the authorities to detect such a behavioral shift in its early stages.


According to media reports, the FBI twice questioned the 29-year-old Omar Mateen in 2013 and 2014 on suspicion of ties to terrorism. He was let go without any charges for a lack of evidence. Yet he traveled to Saudi Arabia twice in those years to do the Minor Hajj or Umrah. Did the FBI alert the intelligence community to Mateen’s case?

Intelligence sharing among the FBI, CIA, and NSA, and between US intelligence and friendly intelligence agencies in applicable Middle Eastern countries would have been the norm in this case. If intelligence sharing did occur, it’s legitimate to ask why Mateen fell through the cracks. If not, why not?

As a former intelligence officer, I am familiar with the “lessons learned” process that follows every major tragedy that smacks of “intelligence failure.” I am sure the Orlando massacre will result in an assessment report about what fell through the cracks. Intelligence and law enforcement officers, as President Obama said Tuesday, “spend countless hours disrupting plots and protecting all Americans.” In light of the president’s accurate statement, the post-massacre assessment report becomes critically important in finding out what actually happened.


First, Mateen’s bloody assault could have been driven by his deep-seated hatred of homosexuals pure and simple, thereby making the act a domestic hate crime. If this is the case, questions should be raised about the availability of military-style weapons to the public and the right of such a person to carry a gun license or to purchase these weapons. By quickly concluding that “Islamic radicalism” was involved in this case, conservative media and the Republican presidential candidate have muddied the issue, diverting the national debate from gun control to Islamophobia. Politicizing the tragedy does a disservice to the nation and undermines the principle of inclusion and diversity on which the country rests.

Second, law enforcement and intelligence agencies must deepen their cooperation in cases of US citizens suspected of potential ties to terrorism. Nearly a decade and half has passed since the 9/11 Commission report was issued. Fresh emphasis must be put on implementing the recommendations.

Third, law enforcement—local police departments and the FBI—should broaden the lines of communication and pursue a robust partnership with Muslim communities across the country for the purpose of identifying potentially troubled young people. Only close families and friends can detect a change in the behavior of some of these kids. They must have confidence to communicate such information to law enforcement authorities. In order for this to work, the rhetoric of hate and Islamophobia must be curtailed. The success and strength of America’s democracy are inherent in its diversity.

Emile Nakhleh

Dr. Emile Nakhleh was a Senior Intelligence Service officer and Director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program at the Central Intelligence Agency. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a Research Professor and Director of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at the University of New Mexico, and the author of A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World and Bahrain: Political Development in a Modernizing State. He has written extensively on Middle East politics, political Islam, radical Sunni ideologies, and terrorism. Dr. Nakhleh received his BA from St. John’s University (MN), the MA from Georgetown University, and the Ph.D. from the American University. He and his wife live in Albuquerque, New Mexico.



  1. Unfortunately, the terrorist angle is misplaced. This was an act of murder where rage simmered underneath his cool exterior until that breakpoint where his rage erupted in a sea of blood. His narcissism was displayed by his abusive behavior toward his first wife. Whatever inspiration Marteen may have received by IS propaganda, it was to justify his blood lust. His predisposition toward fits of anger, some instigated by imaginary insults to him, is an indication that he was emotionally impaired. In the end, this mass murder could not have been prevented unless his current wife did have information of his plans, as further investigation will soon find out.

  2. “Even if there is only a slight probability that IS had established a connection with Mateen, how did this happen without the US intelligence agencies getting wind of it?”

    How, indeed. David Gomez, writing in Foreign Policy a couple days ago, maintains that “post-9/11 restrictions on ‘probable cause’ limit the FBI’s ability to investigate would-be terrorists.” That, of course, begs the question: Since when did ‘probable cause’ have anything to do with the American surveillance of everyone on the planet (and their heads of state) with a phone and/or an Internet connection? Nothing much has changed since Snowden, reports FRONTLINE on their PBS webpage: the government can still gather data on Americans without a warrant, and bulk collection of telephone metadata is still in place. Yet the intelligence community was surprised by the Boston Marathon bombers, the San Bernardino couple, and the Orlando shooter – and two of those three were already known to the FBI.

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