Pulse Nightclub

Image courtesy of Miami Herald

FBI Director:

Orlando Shooter Radicalized by ISIS

| published June 13, 2016 |

By R, Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

U.S. FBI director James Comey says that Omar Mateen, the terrorist now responsible for the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, was radicalized by Islamic State propaganda and travelled twice to Saudi Arabia during 2011-2013.

Adding to the mix, former co-workers in Mateen’s home state of New York—from where he moved before his arrival in Florida over 10 years ago—described him as being short-tempered and unstable, as well as someone known to often talk about conducting acts of extreme violence. Co-workers in Florida echo this interpretation of Mateen as someone prone to anger and outbursts.

Furthermore, Mateen may have been casing other so-called soft targets for weeks in his quest to unleash a violent attack upon Americans.

Though the FBI has said it finds no solid or specific operational links between the Orlando nightclub shooter and the Islamic State, ISIS has taken full credit for Mateen’s attack, which has left at least 50 people dead and another 54 seriously wounded.

Mateen, who entered the nightclub early Sunday morning and used a high-powered automatic rifle to open fire in the club at a time when it was packed with 300 people, called 911 moments before the shooting—then twice more during the siege—and told the dispatcher that he was pledging allegiance to Bakr al-Baghdadi, the top political leader of the Islamic State.

Police arrived only minutes after an off duty officer engaged in gunfire with Mateen; after a three hour standoff and hostage situation, police and SWAT teams used explosives and an armored vehicle to punch holes in the concrete block wall of the building, whereupon they entered the nightclub and killed Mateen during a brief but violent shootout. Questions remain as to why police waited some three hours to storm the building, though so far Orlando PD and other local law enforcement say that during that period they had hoped to negotiate an end to the siege.

Mateen had been investigated by the FBI and other authorities on at least two occasions between 2013 and 2014 after he made comments to others in Florida believed to have been reflective of an intention to engage in violence. Those investigations lasted for months, but the FBI has said it found nothing conclusive to keep him on their watch list. Both files on Mateen were subsequently closed by the authorities.

Mateen’s several brief conversations with the Orlando police dispatcher may reveal that the suspect improvised his allegiance to ISIS over the course of the previous days and weeks; Mateen is alleged to have pledged loyalty to both ISIS and al Qaeda, and also mentioned respect for a known suicide bomber—one who had once travelled to Florida to recruit new members for jihadist activities—who was in fact an operative for the so-called al Nusra Front, a radical group which opposes ISIS on the battlefields of eastern Syria and some parts of Iraq.

The shooter’s deadly rampage began a few moments after 2 a.m. and ended shortly after 5 a.m., after police and SWAT team members entered the nightclub. The Pulse nightclub is a spot popular with gay people in Orlando, and on weekends it is not uncommon for the club to be packed. Employees and police estimate that about 300 people were inside the club, or in its adjoining covered areas, when the siege began at 2 a.m. The off duty police officer engaged in gunfire with Mateen, but was forced to retreat.

When police arrived, Mateen himself retreated further back into the nightclub, where he corralled scores of people in restrooms along the back of the building, even as dozens more hid in other restrooms or behind bars and counters. At least two of the survivors, still recuperating in hospital beds, have said that on several occasions Mateen walked around the nightclub firing additional shots into bodies strewn around the floor, apparently in an effort to make sure that even the seriously injured would sustain mortal wounds.

Emergency responders were so overwhelmed by the number of injured being removed from the nightclub during the attacks that there were not enough ambulances to transport people to nearby hospitals; police and first responders used police pickup trucks and SUV’s to transport the wounded.

Though scant little information was known about Mateen during the course of the media frenzy on Sunday, by Monday a fuller picture of the shooter was being formed. Born in New York City in 1986 to parents from Afghanistan, Mateen moved with his family to Florida in the mid-aught years, where he took up a peripheral interest in law enforcement and firearms. Mateen worked for at least two years for the Florida Department of Corrections, where he received some firearms and weapons training. He also had a license to carry a handgun—a document known in Florida as a Concealed Carry Permit—and may have already cleared several official background checks prior to his purchases in recent weeks of two of the three weapons used in the nightclub attack.

Mateen worked intermittently as a security guard, had some federally-approved permissions to own firearms, and worked frequently at an entrance kiosk to a gated community, where he often carried a sidearm.

Officials in Fort Pierce tell reporters that Mateen, over time, obtained several licenses which would have allowed him to buy weapons. Ed Henson, owner of the gun store where Mateen bought his weapons, says that the handgun and the long gun were purchased on separate occasions. Henson also says that by law his store was in full compliance with all federal and Florida laws with the sale of those weapons to Mateen. Henson says that the media is in error in its reporting that Mateen was subjected to a cursory or short-form background check for either purchases, which apparently took place about 10 days prior to the shooting.

Mateen’s ex-wife has told authorities and reporters that she filed for divorce based entirely on his violent temper and his erratic behavior; over the course of their brief, four month marriage, she called police at least twice, though she apparently never filed the restraining order recommended by police and her attorney after the divorce was finalized. The restraining order, if it had been properly filed, may have been enough to raise a red flag at the time that Mateen sought to buy his weapons.

The two investigations by the FBI into Mateen included a full battery of checks, including a thorough examination of his digital footprint and social media posts, the use of confidential informants, interviews with friends and family, and even a brief period of surveillance.

The two pictures of Mateen, each seemingly at odds with the other, have brought consternation to political figures and to law enforcement, as a variety of officials attempt to reconcile the Mateen who was permitted to buy guns and authorized to carry weapons, and the Mateen who had twice been on the FBI’s watch list for his apparent emerging levels of radicalization.

On the Presidential campaign trail, the two top candidates sparred intensely over the meaning of the attacks and the primary cause of the massacre; Democrat Hillary Clinton forged a narrative of a gun lobby bent on keeping dangerous weapons in the hands of average Americans; presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump on Monday delivered a blistering speech in which he said Mateen’s attack was symptomatic of a weak policy by President Barack Obama, a policy Trump indicated was being supported by Clinton.

Mateen’s father has been videotaped apologizing for the massacre, and assuring people that his son’s violent actions are not reflective of Islamic beliefs or Muslim law. His father also says that he saw no warning signs that his son would explode in such a violent way, and he told reporters that had he sensed signs of trouble, he would have immediately called the police or the FBI.

Though neither the FBI nor Florida police will confirm it, some media sources are reporting that Mateen may have considered other possible terror venues in the weeks prior to the nightclub attack. Several news sources are reporting that unnamed law enforcement officials have found evidence that Mateen cased Walt Disney World and Universal Studios for potential security weaknesses, but may have later decided that a nightclub would present an easier target, and one with less risk that he would be caught—or that police might intercede prematurely—thus foiling the impact of his attack.

FBI director Comey says that there is evidence that Mateen reached the tipping point of radicalization after viewing ISIS propaganda online. ISIS encourages Muslims to engage in attacks wherever possible, including so-called soft targets.

Though the death toll stands at 50 (49 victims plus Mateen), doctors at Orlando hospitals warn that several of the most seriously wounded patients remain in intensive care units.

On Sunday, thousands stood in lines in intense heat to donate blood in various Central Florida locations. Blood donations were also running at all-time highs in cities as far away as Jacksonville, Tampa and Gainesville.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Gunman Kills 50 in Orlando Nightclub Shooting; Keith H. Roberts; Thursday Review; June 13, 2016.

ISIS Praises Couple in San Bernardino Shootings; Keith H. Roberts; Thursday Review; December 5, 2015.