One of the FBI's most critical functions is to monitor for and hopefully prevent terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. But there's been a hard reality in recent years: Too often, after deadly terrorist attacks, we learn the FBI had advance warnings that somehow slipped through the cracks. Today, our investigation into the FBI's Big Misses, what's driving them, and what should be done.
November 5, 2009, U.S. Army psychiatrist Nidal Hasan shouts ‘‘Allah Akbar,’’ and opens fire at Ft. Hood, Texas, killing 13, wounding 42. It’s the deadliest terrorist attack in the U.S. since 9/11.
Adding to the horror: the FBI had been looking at Hasan due to his chilling communications about suicide bombings with a top al-Qaeda terrorist. But, five months before the shooting the FBI Washington Field Office concluded he was of no threat.
The failure to led to massive investigations and in 2012, a Congressional hearing: Lessons from Fort Hood.
Rep. Michael McCaul (Sept. 14, 2012): In the Hasan case, both the FBI and DOD had important pieces to the puzzle that, if put together, maybe just could have possibly saved the lives of 12 soldiers and one civilian.
But less than seven months after that Congressional hearing about Ft. Hood failures, it happened again.
April 15, 2013, two Russians living in the U.S., the Tsarnaev brothers, set off two bombs at the Boston Marathon killing three and injuring hundreds.
It turns out Russian intelligence had repeatedly warned U.S. officials about the Tsarnaevs. The FBI questioned one of them as well as family members, who said they feared the brothers were radicalized Islamic extremists interested in terrorism. But the FBI said it found no reason to monitor them.
Tom O'Connor: The Boston Marathon bombing kind of really struck home.
Former FBI agent Tom O’Connor wasn’t part of the case leading up to the Boston Marathon attacks, but worked the crime scene.
Sharyl: How could we have been warned specifically about them and yet, it looks like, missed them?
O'Connor: I wouldn't say that there were missteps. There were definite warnings enough to that something was going on with these two brothers. There were investigations that were done. And there wasn't that the shining next step that is going to lead you to say, "Hey, these guys are going to do something.”
Pete Hoekstra: This happens once or twice, it's understandable. It starts happening multiple times, it's kind of, "Okay, we need to change how we operate.”
Pete Hoekstra sees the FBI misses as a pattern and a problem. He was the lead Republican on the House Intelligence Committee when Ft. Hood happened.
Hoekstra: Because obviously we're getting good information, but we're not being able to decipher how we respond to it. What's good information, what's bad information. And they need to get better at it and I think the threat environment is actually getting more difficult. It's getting more dangerous today, that the FBI needs to step up and be able to do this even better or to begin doing it better than what they have in the past.
A Full Measure investigation has identified 13 cases over 13 years where the FBI allegedly had close brushes with the suspects, family members or contacts before mass attacks.
One of the most shocking: May 3, 2015. Two Islamic extremists (Elton Simpson and Nadir Hamid Soofi) began shooting at a free speech event in Garland Texas that featured cartoons of the founder of Islam. The FBI had been monitoring the men for years, and an FBI agent was right there, in a car following them, the moment they opened fire. The FBI agent fled when the shooting started, but was stopped by local police.
June 17, 2015: White Supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine people at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina. He was only was able to buy the gun because an FBI agent fouled up the background check.
July 16, 2015, Islamic extremist Muhammad Abdulazeez opened fire and murdered five troops at two military installations in Chattanooga, Tennessee. It turns out his father had once been on a terrorist watchlist.
December 2, 2015: An Islamic extremist partnered with his wife and murdered 14 people at a Christmas party in San Bernardino, California. It turns out he’d been communicating with targets of FBI terrorism investigations.
June 12, 2016 Omar Mateen, an Islamic extremist terrorist who’d pledged allegiance to ISIS killed 49 people and wounded 53 in a mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando. For a 10 month period prior to the attack, the FBI had monitored Mateen, secretly recorded his conversations, and interviewed him twice concluding he wasn't a threat.
September (17-19) 2016 Islamic extremist Ahmad Rahimi wounded 31 people in three bomb explosions in the New York city area. His father had reportedly alerted the FBI to his son’s radical tendencies and interest in terrorist videos, but the FBI allegedly cleared him.
January 6, 2017, Esteban Santiago-Ruiz opened fire at a Florida airport murdering five people. Two months earlier, he’d visited an FBI field office and told agents he'd been watching ISIS videos and that voices in his head were telling him to commit violence.
Oct. 1, 2017 Stephen Paddock opened fire at a Las Vegas music festival killing 60 people and wounding 411. A hair stylist claimed to have spoken to the FBI in advance after hearing Paddock and his girlfriend talk about a plan to shoot into a crowd.
February 14, 2018 Nikolas Cruz opened fire at a high school killing 17 people. The FBI received a warning five months before about a YouTube user named Nickolas Cruz who'd threatened a school shooting. A month before the murders, the FBI received a hotline tip about Cruz's gun ownership, desire to kill people, disturbing social media posts, and the worry he might conduct a school shooting.
March 22, 2021, Ahmad Alissa allegedly murdered ten people in a mass shooting at a Boulder, Colorado supermarket. Alissa was reportedly already on the FBI’s radar because of his links to another target.
And April 15, 2021 Brandon Hole killed eight people at an Indianapolis FedEx facility. The FBI had questioned him the year before after his mother alerted police, but agents detected no threat.
Sharyl: One might say, what are the odds the FBI questioned or knew about a mass killer before it happened? And in looking at the record, the odds are pretty good.
O'Connor: Yeah. I mean, these are people who may have interactions with law enforcement. They may have come up on the radar screen, but does that radar actually bleep to the point where something can be done to stop this? Are there charges that can be brought against this person? Beforehand that's, in general, First Amendment protected activity. And I've had cases where, members of extremist groups that are not illegal and making comments that I felt were threats, but legally were not. And you really wait for the ability to find something criminal to go after this person for it, because otherwise you don't have anything. And that is frustrating.
Hoekstra says he doesn’t think it’s a coincidence that 9 of the 13 FBI misses involve Muslim attackers-- an infamous blind spot.
He points to FBI efforts to throw the book at every pro-Trump Capitol rioter versus the treatment given to Antifa riots in Oregon that burned, looted, and attacked for months.
Hoekstra: The same priorities that they establish there in terms of what they're going to follow up and where their agents are going to get the star— "Okay, hey. You found another four people who attacked the Capitol. You get the star. You found four more people who did things in Oregon? That's not as important”— that same mentality, is then going to drift over into these other areas because you know where the FBI and other law enforcement people have placed their priorities. It becomes the culture of the organization.
Sharyl: And you suspect that's played a role?
Hoekstra: I think so, I think there's enough evidence to show that. Yes.
All told, the 13 missed cases involve 194 innocent lives lost, and hundreds of injuries. In the end, advice from the 2012 Ft. Hood investigation was similar to that after the 9/11 attacks— where advance warnings were also missed. The importance of better information sharing at every level.
O’Connor: In most cases, I think you'll see that law enforcement did their due diligence, but under the constraints of law enforcement's ability to investigate. There are some times misses and it's a fact that's going to take place in the future and it's a fact that has taken place in the past.
Sharyl (On-Camera): The FBI has announced it’s developing a new national framework to fight domestic terrorism. When FBI Director Wray testified to Congress about it, he said “Our goal is to bat 1,000” and anytime there is an attack “we consider that to be unacceptable."