Orlando nightclub attack was 'homegrown extremism,' Obama says
Orlando gunman Omar Mateen espoused support for Islamic groups that were enemies of each other
The gunman whose attack on a gay nightclub in Florida left 49 victims dead appears to have been a "homegrown extremist" who espoused support for a jumble of often-conflicting Islamic radical groups, the White House and the FBI said Monday.
As Orlando mourned its dead with flowers, candles and vigils, counterterrorism investigators dug into the background of 29-year-old Omar Mateen for clues to why the U.S.-born Muslim carried out the deadliest mass shooting by a single gunman in U.S. history.
"So far, we see no indication that this was a plot directed from outside the United States, and we see no indication that he was part of any kind of network," said FBI Director James Comey. But he said Mateen was clearly "radicalized," at least in part via the internet.
Comey said the bureau is also trying to determine whether Mateen had recently scouted Disney World as a potential target, as reported by People.com, which cited an unidentified federal law enforcement source.
"We're still working through that," Comey said.
The FBI chief defended the bureau's handling of Mateen during two previous investigations into his apparent terrorist sympathies. As for whether the FBI should have done anything differently, "so far the honest answer is, `I don't think so,"' Comey said.
'Cool and calm'
Wielding a semi-automatic rifle and a handgun, Mateen opened fire at Pulse Orlando early Sunday in a three-hour shooting rampage and hostage siege. During the attack, he called 911 to profess allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria group.
At the White House, U.S. President Barack Obama said there is no clear evidence so far that Mateen was directed by the group, calling the attack an apparent example of "homegrown extremism."
Obama will travel to Orlando on Thursday "to pay his respects to victims' families, and to stand in solidarity with the community as they embark on their recovery," the White House said in a statement Monday.
Meanwhile, more details of the bloodbath emerged, with Orlando police Chief John Mina saying Mateen was "cool and calm" during phone calls with police negotiators. But the chief said he decided to send the SWAT team in and bash through a wall after Mateen holed up with hostages in a bathroom and began to talk about bombs and an explosive vest.
Five of the wounded were reported in grave condition, meaning the death toll could rise. A call went out for blood donations.
In Orlando, mourners piled bouquets around a makeshift memorial, and people broke down in tears and held their hands to their faces while passing through the growing collection of flowers, candles and signs about a kilometre from the site of the massacre.
"We knew there would be an imminent loss of life," Mina said.
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About 300 employees of the Red Lobster restaurant chain — some in business suits, some in chef's uniforms — walked two-by-two across the street to the memorial, each carrying a red or white carnation.
"As the names come out, they are overwhelmingly Latino and Hispanic names," Christina Hernandez, a Hispanic activist, told a gathering. "It was Latino Night when this tragedy occurred. These were not just victims of the LBGT community, but of the Hispanic community, as well. This was senseless bloodshed."
Despite Mateen's pledge of fealty to ISIS, a murky combination of other possible motives and explanations emerged, with his ex-wife saying he was mentally ill — bipolar — and his Afghan-immigrant father suggesting he may have acted out of anti-gay hatred. He said his son got angry recently about seeing two men kiss.
FBI aware of Mateen in 2013
Mateen's grasp of the differences between Islamic extremist groups appeared to be shaky.
During three calls with 911 dispatchers, Mateen not only professed allegiance to ISIS but also expressed solidarity with a suicide bomber from the Nusra Front, and a few years ago he claimed connections to Hezbollah, too — both ISIS enemies, according to Comey.
The Orlando Sentinel and other news organizations quoted regular customers at the gay bar as saying they had seen Mateen there a number of times.
"Sometimes he would go over in the corner and sit and drink by himself, and other times he would get so drunk he was loud and belligerent," said Ty Smith. Smith said he saw the killer inside at least a dozen times.
The FBI became aware of Mateen in 2013 when co-workers told agents about his comments about connections to al-Qaeda and Hezbollah, Comey said.
The FBI launched a 10-month preliminary investigation but closed it after following him, reviewing his communications and questioning him, the FBI chief said.
His name surfaced again as part of another investigation into the Nusra Front bomber. The FBI found Mateen and the man had attended the same mosque and knew each other casually, but the investigation turned up "no ties of any consequence," Comey said.
Mateen worked as a security guard inside the St. Lucie County Courthouse in Fort Pierce, Fla. He was employed by the security firm G4S and worked at the courthouse entrance checking citizens for weapons and sharp objects as they entered the court through security screening for a period of time prior to 2014.
A local resident, JayJay Quartino, recognized Mateen from photographs on TV and told CBC News he was very pleasant and even cracked jokes. The sheriff's office confirmed Mateen was on contract with G4S.
The rampage has renewed the often overlapping debates about gun control in the U.S. and the fight against violent extremism.
Presumptive Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump was quick to say the attack validated his call for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the U.S., and later speculated the death toll would have been lower "if people in that room had guns."
Those remarks brought a sharp rebuke from Orlando city commissioner Robert Stuart on Monday morning.
"I'd like to have Donald Trump in a room of 320 people and try to decide what he's going to do," Stuart said during an appearance on CBC News Network.
"We had a police officer with a weapon at the door. How could you be more safe than that? We saved hundreds of lives."
ISIS hails attack
ISIS hailed the attack and called Mateen "one of the soldiers of the caliphate in America." But it gave no indication the group planned or knew of the attack beforehand.
Counterterrorism experts have been warning in the past few years about the danger of so-called lone wolf attackers who act in sympathy with extremist groups like ISIS but are not directed by them.
Mateen's father, Seddique Mir Mateen, told reporters that the massacre was "the act of a terrorist," and added: "I apologize for what my son did. I am as sad and mad as you guys are."
He wouldn't go into details about any religious or political views his son held, saying he didn't know. Asked whether he missed his son, he said: "I don't miss anything about him. What he did was against humanity."
With files from Susan Ormiston and CBC News Network