US investigators on Tuesday were digging into what motivated a Florida man to slaughter 49 people at a LGBTI nightclub, including evidence that he had become absorbed in militant Islamist ideas and reports he might have been gay himself, but not openly so.
US law enforcement officials are investigating reports that the man who killed 49 people at a LGBTI nightclub in Orlando may have been gay himself, but not openly so, two officials said on Tuesday, with one describing the massacre as a possible “self-hate crime.”
Omar Mateen, who was shot dead by police after a three-hour standoff early on Sunday, left behind a tangled trail of possible motives. He also called police during his rampage to voice allegiance to various militant Islamist groups.
Federal investigators have said Mateen was likely self-radicalised and there is no evidence that he received any instruction or aid from outside groups such as Islamic State. Mateen, 29, was a US citizen, born in New York of Afghan immigrant parents.
“We currently do not have any information to indicate that a foreign terrorist group directed the attack in Orlando,” President Barack Obama told reporters after a meeting of the National Security Council. “It is increasingly clear, however, that the killer took in extremist information and propaganda over the internet. He appears to have been an angry, disturbed, unstable young man who became radicalised.”
An official familiar with the investigation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said investigators are only beginning to delve into the contents of Mateen’s cellphone and other electronic devices. The source said they believe Mateen browsed militant Islamic material on the internet for two years or more before the Orlando shootings.
Mateen’s wife attempted to talk him out of the attack, MSNBC reported on Tuesday, citing officials familiar with her comments to the FBI.
The attack on the Pulse nightclub in the central Florida city was the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history, and the worst attack on the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
Soon after the attack, Mateen’s father indicated that his son had harboured strong anti-gay feelings. He recounted an incident when his son became angry when he saw two men kissing in downtown Miami while out with his wife and young son.
Angel Colon, who was in Pulse with friends at the time of Mateen’s attack, described hearing gunfire and falling to the floor, shot in the left leg.
“I couldn’t walk at all,” Colon told a news conference at Orlando Regional Medical Centre, where he is one of 27 survivors being treated. “All I could do was lay down. People were running over me.”
Colon said he had a hopeful moment when Mateen went into a bathroom – where he later took hostages – but the gunman then emerged, systematically making his way through the club shooting people who were already down, apparently to ensure they were dead.
“I look over and he shoots the girl next to me and I was just there laying down and thinking, ‘I’m next, I’m dead,” Colon said.
Mateen shot him twice more, one bullet apparently aimed for Colon’s head striking his hand, and another hitting his hip, Colon recalled.
“I had no reaction, I was just prepared to stay there laying down so he wouldn’t know I was alive,” Colon said. When police drove Mateen back into a restroom, an officer dragged Colon to safety, he said.
The investigation into the possibility that Mateen, who worked as a security guard at a gated retirement community, may have been gay follows media reports citing men who said they were regulars at the club and saw Mateen there before the attack. However, another source who spoke with Reuters disputed the idea that Mateen was a regular visitor to Pulse.
Visiting a gay club in and of itself would say nothing about Mateen’s sexuality, as he could have a variety of reasons for such a visit.
The two US officials, both of whom have been briefed regularly on the investigation and requested anonymity to discuss it, said that if it emerged that Mateen led a secret double life or had gay impulses that conflicted with his religious beliefs, it might have been what the same official called “one factor” in explaining his motive.
“It’s far too early to be definitive, and some leads inevitably don’t pan out, but we have to consider at least the possibility that he might have sought martyrdom partly to gain absolution for what he believed were his grave sins,” one of the officials said.
The official noted that the concept of martyrdom is not confined to Islam, as Christians also venerate martyrs who died for their beliefs.
A performer at Orlando’s Parliament House, another gay club, said he had seen Mateen at Pulse occasionally before his rampage, often accompanied by a male friend. He had not seen Mateen in about two years, he said.
“He always introduced himself as Omar,” said the performer, Ty Smith, who uses the stage name Aries. He said Mateen usually was quiet but sometimes showed flashes of temper.
“He was fine most of the time but other times, if he was drinking, he’d go all spastic and we’d have to take him out to his car and make him leave.”
But a bartender who worked at a club affiliated with Pulse and who visited the club on his nights off said it was not true Mateen had been a regular visitor.
“That’s a lie,” Raymond Michael Sharpe said in a text message. “I would have known him. Somebody stirring the pot. No one knew him.”
Support for militant groups
During his rampage, Mateen made a series of calls to emergency 911 dispatchers in which he pledged loyalty to the leader of Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, whose organisation controls large swaths of Iraq and Syria.
He also claimed solidarity in those calls with the ethnic Chechen brothers who carried out the deadly 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and with a Palestinian-American who became a suicide bomber in Syria for the al Qaeda offshoot known as the Nusra Front, authorities said.
Mateen’s name was listed on an unclassified federal database for nearly a year between 2013 and 2014 after he allegedly told co-workers of possible sympathies he had with militants overseas, three federal officials familiar with the investigation told Reuters.
He was removed from this so-called selectee list after the FBI completed a nine- or 10-month investigation and concluded he had no connections with known terrorist groups, two of the officials said. One added that investigators concluded that Mateen, who at times claimed ties to groups that are fighting one another, may have been a “fantasist.”
Islamic State and the Nusra Front are at odds in Syria’s civil war, while al Qaeda and Hezbollah are also bitter enemies.
Islamic State reiterated on Monday a claim of responsibility, although it offered no signs to indicate coordination with the gunman.
Comey said the FBI closed its earlier investigation of Mateen after 10 months, convinced that his assertions of extremist ties were intended to “freak out” co-workers who he said were harassing him for being a Muslim.
Removal of Mateen from the FBI’s watch list at that time permitted him to buy firearms without the FBI being notified, Comey said.
The Orlando killings came six months after the massacre of 14 people in San Bernardino, California, by a married couple professing Islamist militant ideologies, raising questions about what the United States can do to detect such attackers before they strike. – Reuters