Spy agencies struggle to spot threats from lone, mentally ill attackers

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Recent attacks on civilians in the US and Europe have exposed a gap in the intelligence community’s efforts to track suspected extremists and prevent mass killings, a half dozen American, British and French counterterrorism officials told Reuters.

The attacks have a common theme of being carried out by actors with an apparent history of mental illness – but few if any direct links to extremist groups, the officials told Reuters. From both a legal and a strategic perspective, counterterrorism investigators globally are focused on plots by established violent groups with known ideologies, such as Islamic State. In the US, laws designed to protect citizens from intrusive government spying can limit investigations of individuals unless they have provable ties to foreign terror groups.

Counterterrorism officials told Reuters that the assailants in a recent spate of mass killings all had histories of apparent mental illness. They included the mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida; the murder of a British parliamentarian in Northern England; the killings of police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Dallas, Texas; the Bastille Day truck attack in Nice, France; and Friday’s mass shooting at a German shopping mall.

The counterterrorism officials in the US and Europe spoke on condition they and their organizations remained anonymous.

Yesterday, Munich police chief Hubertus Andrae said the Munich mall gunman, identified in news reports as Ali David Sonboly, had undergone psychiatric treatment before the attack and was obsessed with mass killings. He had no criminal record, and had no known connections to extremist groups.

The German-Iranian 18-year-old, a local resident, shot and killed nine people after opening fire near Olympia shopping mall. The tactics in such attacks contrast sharply with the attacks in Paris last November and Brussels in March, which were carried out by groups of militants with direct links to Islamic State. Existing systems for collecting intelligence on extremists are not set up to identify individuals with a history of mental illness who come into contact with people or propaganda that could incite them to engage in violence, the intelligence officials told Reuters.

In the attack in Orlando, the perpetrator had viewed online jihadist propaganda, possibly produced by the Islamic State, the investigators said. But subsequent probes turned up no evidence the Orlando shooter, Omar Mateen, had any significant connections with Islamic State or any other militant organizations.

French investigators have arrested five alleged accomplices in the Nice attacks, but they have so far found no evidence that the attack was directed by foreign militants, according to a US counterterrorism official and a French official.

The case of Mateen perhaps best exemplifies the difficulty in detecting and preventing attacks by single perpetrators with a history of mental illness.

Federal officials have acknowledged that, for about 10 months in 2013 and 2014, the FBI investigated Mateen after he allegedly boasted to co-workers about supposed connections to Al Qaeda and other militant groups. While he was under investigation, the FBI placed Mateen’s name in three government databases, one of which is intended to trigger additional scrutiny if an individual passes through airport or border checkpoints. But having found no evidence that Mateen had any real connections to militants, the FBI closed its investigation and his name was removed from the databases, two US intelligence officials told Reuters.

The U.S. officials said those decisions were made to comply with laws designed to limit invasive government surveillance on all Americans. Neither the CIA nor National Counterterrorism Center are allowed to collect and retain information on American suspects who have no provable links to international terrorist groups, the two US officials said.

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