Evidence is building that Esteban Ruiz Santiago, the Puerto Rican former soldier who shot to death five people at the Ft. Lauderdale Airport on January 6 may be a convert to Islam. Citing a report by GotNews, the Judicial Watch organization indicated that before Santiago joined the U.S. Army, he took an Arabic name -- Aashiq Hammad -- and downloaded Muslim music and terrorist propaganda. Federal law enforcement is now investigating whether Santiago did indeed have ties to Islamist terrorist groups. Santiago reportedly lived very close to a mosque in Anchorage, the only mosque in Alaska.
Various media reports indicate that Michelle Quinones, who is the mother of his child, believes that his behavior changed radically after he returned from a tour in Iraq where he served with a National Guard combat engineering unit.
Investigators have retrieved from a pawn shop a computer Santiago used and are seeking to find out whether he created a “jihadist identity” for himself as far back as 2007, according to an ABC News report. A photo of Santiago has surfaced wherein he made a gesture associated with the Islamic State (ISIS), and wore a Palestinian keffiyeh scarf, which is a garment frequently associated with Islamist extremism.
ABC News has reported that Santiago may have intended to conduct an attack in New York City. Investigators announced that he had cancelled a ticket to fly to New York City on New Year’s Eve.
Santiago was living in Anchorage, Alaska, where he became the unmarried father of a child. It was there that he gained a police record for domestic assault on his 40-year-old girlfriend. Santiago is 26 years old. Esteban Santiago’s brother, Bryan Santiago, told Telemundo that police took the former soldier into custody for a mental health evaluation at a local hospital, which released him after only four days. Esteban Santiago had walked into an FBI office in Anchorage on November 7, according to FBI Special Agent in Charge Marlin Ritzman, "to report that his mind was being controlled by a U.S. intelligence agency." Bryan Santiago told Telemundo, "Four days for a guy who talked to the FBI [about] those things ... that is a serious argument, you know? He goes to the FBI saying that he [was] hearing voices, that the CIA are saying that he needs to join ISIS."
Bryan Santiago told ABC News that the accused shooter said that he was being followed by the CIA and that the agency wanted him to watch videos and that it wanted him to join ISIS. The visit to the FBI, said the brother, was Santiago’s unconscious plea for help. Bryan Santiago asked why did the government return the pistol to the suspect. He said that the tragedy “could have been avoided.”
Police in Alaska kept Santiago’s pistol during the time of his treatment but returned it to him in December. After the November incident, the FBI investigated Santiago and found no ties to terrorism. Special Agent Ritzman told reporters that Santiago did not break any laws when he entered the FBI office and made “disjointed comments about mind control." Ritzman added that Santiago claimed that he did not want to hurt anyone.
On January 6, Santiago flew to Fort Lauderdale where he had concealed a handgun in his checked baggage. He began shooting repeatedly in the baggage area, allegedly killing five people and wounding seven more. He stopped to reload his 9mm pistol and continued shooting until he exhausted his ammunition. He surrendered to police without further incident.
At a hearing on January 9, he said that he did not own a car or a home. He is facing the death penalty on two of the three charges against him. He is charged with using and carrying a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence; performing an act of violence against a person at an airport serving international civil aviation that caused serious bodily injury; and causing the death of a person through the use of a firearm. The latter two are punishable by death. The first charge is punishable with a maximum penalty of life in prison.
Authorities say that he has confessed to the crimes. The FBI has not ruled out terrorism.