Orlando Florida police

Police officers on the street near Pulse Sunday morning/
image courtesy of NPR

Orlando Shooter Considered
Attack on Disney World

| published June 14, 2016 |

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

Omar Mateen’s wife reportedly told authorities that she attempted to dissuade her abusive, violent husband from further planning of his proposed mass attack, and may have accompanied him to the gun store when he purchased some of the ammunition believed used in what became the worst mass shooting in U.S. history. Law enforcement also believe that Mateen may have seriously weighed the complexity of launching an attack on Walt Disney World in the weeks and days prior to his deadly rampage in downtown Orlando.

Early last Sunday, a heavily armed Mateen entered the Pulse nightclub in central Orlando and opened fire. In a siege that lasted roughly three hours, Mateen killed 49 people before police and SWAT team members stormed the nightclub and killed the perpetrator in a hail of heavy gunfire.

Noor Salman, who was married to Mateen at the time of shootings, told police that prior to his attacks this weekend, she accompanied him to buy ammunition, holsters, and other accessories, and even rode with him when he scouted out possible locations for his planned terror attacks, including a reconnaissance drive to the Pulse nightclub. During both the drive to the nightclub and the trip to the guns store, Noor allegedly attempted to talk him out of the attack. She said that it appeared that he had already concluded that his primary target would be the nightclub, since it offered very little in the way of security.

Mateen was heavily armed when he entered the nightclub around 2 a.m. Sunday morning when more than 300 people were packed into the nightspot popular with gays. Mateen opened fire with an AR-15 high-powered assault rifle and a handgun, both of which he apparently purchased legally. After a brief but violent encounter with an off duty uniformed police officer, Mateen took hostage some 120 or more people. According to police and FBI, he phoned a 911 dispatcher, at which time he pledged his allegiance to Bakr al-Baghdadi, the highest ranking leader within ISIS in Syria and Iraq. By the time police stormed the building around 5 a.m., 49 people were dead and 53 seriously wounded.

FBI director James Comey told the press on Monday that Mateen, though he appears to have had no operational links to ISIS, was nevertheless radicalized by Islamic State social media and online materials, and may have had brief associations with known terrorists, including one who travelled from Florida to Syria in 2014. Mateen also may have travelled at least twice to Saudi Arabia, though law enforcement have little information about those two visits to the Middle East.

Co-workers in both his home state of New York and his adopted state of Florida have told police and the media that Mateen was prone to extreme rage and often engaged in bellicose and abusive language. He was also reported to have made threats to co-workers on numerous occasions, and has been described by many who knew him as a bully and a virulent hater of minorities and gays.

Mateen’s first wife, Sitora Yusufiy, filed for divorce from Mateen after she reported to police that he had become abusive and violent, calling him “dangerous” and “bi-polar,” and prone to unpredictable fits of rage and violence. Yusufiy has told authorities that immediately after she filed for divorce her attorney recommended that she file a restraining order against her ex-husband, but she apparently filed no such papers. It is unclear that such a restraining order would have served as a sufficient flag when Mateen bought the guns he used in the mass shooting last weekend.

Mateen’s digital footprint shows someone who may have stalked several potential soft targets for a terror attack. Records show that he visited properties and crowded areas around Walt Disney World on several occasions in early June, including the period when the park openly encourages gay people to attend events at the Magic Kingdom. Some in law enforcement, including the FBI, believe that those visits to Disney were “working” visits, giving him an opportunity to consider security measures and look for weaknesses in Disney’s security systems.

For reasons unclear at this stage of the investigation, however, by early June Mateen had chosen instead to attack the Orlando nightclub instead of the theme park. Indeed, many people who frequented Pulse—a nightclub extremely popular with gays and lesbians in Central Florida—say that Mateen had become an infrequent visitor during late May and early June.

Several survivors of the attack say that they recognize Mateen’s face from his past visits, and several people who performed music at the club, as well as some patrons, suggest he had been scoping the area for some time. A few recall him as being a loner who would sit quietly in uncrowded areas of the bar, where he would nurse his drink. At least one witness has reported that he may have visited the nightclub on a dozen occasions during May and June. Indeed, initial investigations of his cell phone show that he may have visited the club between six and ten times in less than one month. There may also be evidence that he had downloaded a gay dating/nightclub app on his smartphone only a few weeks prior to the attack on Pulse.

On Monday, Islamic State media took full credit for the attack, and called Mateen “a soldier” in the service of the jihadist cause. ISIS also praised Mateen’s initiative in locating a target of such magnitude. ISIS frequently uses social media and its internet outreach to encrouage individuals to carry out acts of terror on targets outside the Islamic State.

Law enforcement officials have indicated that Mateen’s wife, though she is apparently cooperating with police and FBI investigators, may yet be charged as an accessory or as an accomplice, since she failed to inform police that her husband was already in the planning stages of a violent act of terrorism. The FBI will retrace Salman’s digital footprint to see if her version of events aligns with what she has so far told authorities.

Many of Mateen’s former co-workers in New York and in Florida tell similar stories of a short-fused individual with an extreme temper and someone intolerant of disagreements. Though not known by friends or co-workers as being particularly religious, or even deeply knowledgeable about Islam, he was also known to have frequently made threats on behalf of Islamic extremism. Mateen often bragged that he was “connected” to operations within ISIS, even as he occasionally boasted of his admiration of al Qaeda, a rival extremist group. He was twice investigated by the FBI for his comments and his correspondence, but both those files were closed after agents found little hard evidence that he was capable of an act of terrorism.

Though his parents emigrated from Afghanistan in the early 1980s, Mateen was born in New York City in 1986. He moved to Florida with his parents in the early aught years, and later worked as a security guard. Mateen not only had a license to carry a concealed weapon, but had also completed several state-approved courses on gun handling and gun safety. He also worked as a security guard at the entrance kiosk to a gated community, where he routinely wore a sidearm.

Mateen, who lived in Fort Pierce, rented a car on the day of the attacks, driving from his home to Orlando. During his 911 calls to police, Mateen rattled off a litany of allegiances, not merely to ISIS, but also to al Qaeda. He also expressed sympathy for the Boston Marathon bombers.

Related Thursday Review articles:

FBI Director: Orlando Shooter Radicalized by ISIS; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; June 13, 2016.

Gunman Kills 50 in Orlando Nightclub; Keith H. Roberts; Thursday Review; June 12, 2016.