Orlando attack exposes difficult US terror battle

WASHINGTON — On the morning of Sunday, June 12, a delegation of Department of Homeland Security staffers and other U.S. government officials waited at Joint Base Andrews for Secretary Jeh C. Johnson, ready for a trip to China.

But he never showed.

According to a DHS official, Johnson called as they were waiting and said that he was about to take a helicopter to DHS headquarters instead. The Orlando shooting had developed into a crisis.

“I woke up Sunday morning at 5 a.m. expecting to get on an airplane to go to Beijing,” Johnson said. “By 8 a.m., I had canceled that trip because I realized that my place was here in the homeland after the attack in Orlando.”

The early morning carnage quickly altered the course of the day’s events for most Americans — including the nation’s top homeland security and intelligence officials.

Behind closed doors and on secure communications networks around the world, they scrambled to determine the extent of the threat posed by Orlando nightclub shooter Omar Mateen and whether he acted as a lone wolf.

Johnson indicated that there was no greater priority at the time. “Homeland security is the president’s number one priority, so the president is very focused on this,” he said.

The ripples of worry emanated throughout every level of the U.S. intelligence community.

“An attack like this is what keeps us awake at night,” said James R. Clapper, director of national intelligence.

Referring to the intelligence community’s fifth annual IC Pride Summit, Clapper said, “In stark contrast, the attack in Orlando — aimed specifically at the LGBT community — marks a time when our work in the IC has never been more challenging, or more important.”

A source close to the investigation in Orlando told WTOP that residents near the Pulse nightclub were so scared by the attack that “they left their homes and have not yet returned.”

“They are afraid of a broader, organized terror strike,” the source said.

Since that time, according to Johnson, an intense, whole-of-government effort is underway to assess what happened and what might be coming.

“There is, of course, the law enforcement investigative effort, the forensic effort at the club right now, to understand completely what happened in those few hours inside that club,” he said. “There is a continued evaluation of our security posture. There is a lot of information being passed to state and local law enforcement.”

The gunman’s mental state, sexual orientation and affinity for violent extremist organizations dumped a complex mix of factors on police and FBI for them to sort out in a short period of time.

James B. Comey, the director of Federal Bureau of Investigation, said at a news conference on June 13 that the killer made 911 calls from the club during the attack at 2:30 a.m. Sunday.

Some of the gunman’s comments during the calls seemed contradictory, and he was misinformed about some of the terrorism actors he claimed he supported, Comey said.

“There were three different calls.  He called and hung up. He called again and spoke briefly with the dispatcher. And then he hung up. And then the dispatcher called him back again and they spoke briefly. So there are three total calls.”

Comey said that during the call, the gunman said he “was doing this for the leader of ISIL who he named and pledged loyalty to, but he also appeared to claim solidarity with the perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombing and solidarity with a Florida man who died as a suicide bomber in Syria for Al-Nusrah Front, a group in conflict with the so called Islamic State.”

In the hours immediately after the attack DHS, U.S. intelligence agencies and the FBI shared with state and local law enforcement what they knew, to help them make appropriate judgments about their own security postures.

The effort went well beyond police.

“We also share a lot of information with organizations that represent the private sector,” said Johnson.

WTOP has learned that alert information was sent to corporate, educational, religious and other organizations after news of the gunman’s claims of links to ISIL emerged.

A U.S. intelligence official, without speaking to the specifics of the case, characterized the broad outreach effort after the Pulse nightclub shooting.

“Anytime there is or what appears to be a terrorism-related event such as the horrific shootings in Orlando, intelligence community partners immediately come together to start assessing initial information and reports.”

The official said they were looking for any nuggets of information “to determine the identity of the perpetrator, their intentions, and their affiliations and ultimately how we can reduce the potential follow-on attacks.”

Anecdotal evidence indicates people across the U.S. were glued to media for details about what DHS and FBI were learning. But they didn’t have to look far.

“We’re out there in a lot of different communities across this country,” Johnson said.

He said DHS personnel have been in Orlando as well as many other U.S. cities for many months, communicating concerns about violent extremism encouraging citizens to report their concerns.

Johnson said the Orlando attack, as with all others, was preceded by warning signs.

“When someone self-radicalizes, there was somebody close to that person who saw the signs, who saw the gun purchase, who saw the accumulation of materials that could cause destruction, who saw the trouble signs — some of the mental health issues perhaps — and a turn toward violence,” Johnson said.

As DHS and FBI officials continue adjusting their efforts to reach out to communities to engender the trust and confidence to report suspicious activities, ISIL appears to be adapting and responding quickly.

The group appears to use slickly produced online messaging to falsely claim direct responsibility for attacks in and against the U.S., even if it’s not involved.

On Saturday, ISIL released a 7-minute, 47-second video in Arabic, English, Russian, Indonesian, Uzbek and French called “You Are Not Held Responsible Except For Yourself.”  The video extols Muslims to attack the U.S.

At one point, the narrator says, “the United States is ‘at war’ with all Muslims and Islam.” He calls Omar Mateen “a soldier of the caliphate,” suggesting he was directed by ISIL.

Comey said the FBI has seen no direct link between Mateen and ISIL, but a U.S. intelligence source reached by WTOP rhetorically asked, “Will it matter to that isolated, self-radicalized guy on the verge of launching an attack?”

J.J. Green

JJ Green is WTOP's National Security Correspondent. He reports daily on security, intelligence, foreign policy, terrorism and cyber developments, and provides regular on-air and online analysis. He is also the host of two podcasts: Target USA and Colors: A Dialogue on Race in America.

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