On Saturday, federal authorities filed charges against Esteban Santiago-Ruiz, 26, the shooter who killed 5 people and injured another 8 in a shooting rampage at the Fort Lauderdale airport on Friday, 6 January.
The multiple charges of capital murder could lead to the death penalty for Santiago. That seems to indicate that he is not being deemed mentally ill a priori – in spite of his visit to the FBI in Anchorage two months ago. Santiago left his newborn child alone in the car during that visit (well, alone except for the handgun he left in the car too. The gun was apparently unloaded; Santiago carried the ammunition clip into the FBI offices with him).
Santiago explained to agents that he was being ordered by the government to watch ISIS propaganda videos, along with doing other unspecified things for ISIS. He reported hearing voices, and was eventually turned over to local police for further handling. The police got him a psychiatric evaluation, and he spent a few days in a mental ward. But he was released quickly, and in December, when he went to get his gun back from the police, they reportedly had no reason to withhold it from him. Whatever was going on with his voices, and the illusion of government orders to do work for ISIS (not to mention several domestic violence incidents involving his girlfriend earlier in 2016; see NYT link), the mental health profession and law enforcement between them didn’t find that Santiago constituted a threat.
It’s an interesting question whether there might have been a bigger push to investigate this guy, if the authorities had known about his online trail from nearly 10 years ago. But until 7 January 2017, it’s not clear that anyone had followed through and found that trail. It’s also not clear what it means.
The trail makes a provocative contrast to the picture painted by mainstream media reporting, which has focused on Santiago as a gentle loner, who underwent a profound change – becoming dark, difficult, more withdrawn – after his 2010 deployment to Iraq with the Puerto Rico National Guard. Santiago’s family has been united in describing this alteration in him, and there is no reason to doubt their account.
But forensic evidence from 2007 has been unearthed that strongly indicates Santiago made a declaration of Muslim faith at that time, and showed up at an online forum devoted to “explosives and weapons,” engaging with a post about downloading jihadi videos.
Independent of the tone of writing at GotNews, the case its research team makes in the posts on Santiago is a sound one. They unquestionably identified Santiago’s email firstname.lastname@example.org accurately, based on visual ID of Santiago. And their case that the other associated email – email@example.com – is also Santiago’s is pretty unassailable.
The second email address is the one connected with the declaration of Muslim faith. It was linked to a MySpace user registered as “Aashiq Hammad” of Penuelas, Puerto Rico, who in 2007 loaded his recitation of the shahada – the Muslim declaration of faith – to his account.
The GotNews team provides collateral evidence that this was indeed Santiago’s account; you can read the whole brief at the links above. It’s tight.
Given Santiago’s posted image with the keffiyeh around his neck, flashing the jihadi pointed index-finger sign, and his references to ISIS in the November 2016 FBI interview, the background from 2007 adds up to a troubling history.
Note, as GotNews does, that Santiago’s declaration of faith and (possible) visit to the Explosives and Weapons forum would have occurred three years before he deployed to Iraq. In other words, there’s evidence of a Muslim conversion and possible interest in jihadi violence long before Santiago’s demeanor underwent the significant change noticed by his family, after the 2010 deployment. (The nature of the visit to the Explosives and Weapons forum isn’t necessarily self-evident, it must be noted. If it was Santiago, there’s a possibility, based on some of the user comments, that Santiago’s interest was not in carrying out jihad but in understanding weapons and methods. But as there is nothing to conclusively prove the proposition one way or the other, it remains an open question.)
2007 was also the year Santiago joined the National Guard. We don’t know at this point if he registered with the Guard as a Muslim. But whatever the case, his induction date was probably close enough to the dates of his relatively obscure online interactions that there was no elapsed time for investigative red flags to emerge. It simply isn’t clear, based on the little we know, what the significance of the 2007 activity was.
If I had to bet, I’d bet that the coming days will unearth additional low-level Islamic connections, which will probably map ultimately to at least one mosque or imam with radical ties. That pattern is by far the most common one. The FBI isn’t discounting the possibility that Santiago had terrorist motives (WSJ and NYT links), probably for that very reason.
But this is an odd case, and it may not play out in the usual way. Here’s one thing we can say right now, however. This case isn’t about airport security or carrying handguns. Santiago arrived by plane with a lawfully checked handgun, for crying out loud. This isn’t about perimeter security at the Fort Lauderdale airport. Just stop talking about those things. It’s stupid, and you don’t have to join in.
This case is about what the FBI, the Anchorage police, and the mental health authorities in Anchorage probably should have done when Santiago strolled in carrying an ammo clip in November 2016, announcing that voices from the government were telling him to do work for ISIS.
Taking the case seriously enough to turn up, two months ago, what GotNews has reported about Santiago today would have been a good start. What exactly are we funding this huge Homeland Security apparatus for, if not to follow up on circumstances like these?
Keep in mind that cops making traffic stops can now use commercial apps to check the online profiles of drivers for so-called “extremist” flags, like whether the drivers frequent pro-life or Second Amendment websites. It’s not asking too much to expect at least as much investigative diligence from the FBI, when a walk-in has spotted them the ISIS reference, the “I’m hearing voices” alarm, the handgun, and the ammo clip.