ORLANDO — The gunman who opened fire inside a crowded nightclub here early Sunday morning, launching a rampage that killed 50 people and injured 53 others in the deadliest shooting spree in the country’s history, had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State before the attack, according to U.S. law enforcement officials.
President Obama said the FBI was investigating the shooting as an act of terrorism, an announcement he made about 12 hours after the gunfire began at Pulse, a popular gay bar and dance club.
“We know enough to say that this was an act of terror and an act of hate,” Obama said during remarks at the White House. “And as Americans, we are united in grief, in outrage, and in resolve to defend our people.”
Police said that after a first round of gunshots at 2 a.m., the shooter took hostages for about three hours, until officers who went inside to rescue these people killed the gunman in a shootout. It was not immediately clear if the death toll included the gunman.
The gunman, identified as 29-year-old Omar Mateen, apparently made a 911 call before the attack identifying himself and pledging allegiance to the leader of the Islamic State, according to U.S. law enforcement officials who asked not to be identified to discuss the ongoing investigation.
Mateen also made a reference to the 2013 bombing of the Boston Marathon during this call, officials said. Much like Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older of the two brothers who carried out that attack, Mateen had also been the focus of an FBI investigation before carrying out an attack.
Ron Hopper of the FBI said that Mateen had twice been investigated by the bureau and that in both cases, he was interviewed before the probes were concluded.
In 2013, Hopper said agents investigated Mateen after he made “inflammatory comments to coworkers alleging possible ties to terrorists.” Mateen was interviewed twice and, when investigators were unable to verify the details of his comments, the FBI closed the probe, Hopper said.
Mateen was investigated again in 2014 by the FBI. This time, they looked into potential ties connecting Mateen to Moner Mohammad Abusalha, the first American to carry out a suicide attack in Syria. Like Maten, Abusalha lived in Fort Pierce, Fla.
“We determined that contact was minimal and did not constitute a substantive relationship or a threat at that time,” Hopper said.
Mateen legally bought the two guns believed to be used in the attack legally within “the last few days,” Trevor Velinor of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said during a briefing.
In a message Sunday, the Islamic State appeared to take credit for the attack, but it remains unclear if the gunman had any connections to the group or if they had any prior knowledge.
Police had said earlier Sunday that 20 people were killed before saying that the toll was significantly higher. Until Sunday, the 2007 rampage at Virginia Tech — which saw 32 people killed and 30 others injured — was the country’s worst mass shooting.
Orlando Police Chief John Mina said that the toll from this latest mass slaughter could have been even greater, saying that a SWAT team “rescued at least 30 possible victims and brought them to safety.” Police said they were not able to say if all of the people killed or injured were shot during the initial burst of gunfire at 2 a.m. or during the shootout with 11 police officers three hours later.
“It’s absolutely terrible,” Mina said during a news briefing. “Fifty victims in one location, one shooting, is absolutely one of the worst tragedies we’ve seen.”
In the aftermath of the shooting, officials said many things remained unknown, including:
- Details about a possible motivation for the gunman and more about his background.
- The final death toll.
- Identities of the people killed and injured.
- A clearer timeline of what happened inside the club and when all of the victims were injured.
While authorities have not publicly identified the gunman, law enforcement officials and relatives on Sunday identified him.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said he was briefed Sunday and told that local law enforcement officials said the gunman had “declared his allegiance to ISIS.”
A U.S. official said that Department of Homeland Security reports being circulated to government authorities are “referring to local law enforcement reports saying the shooter pledged loyalty to ISIS and was heard praying in another language in the nightclub.”
Just after a husband and wife killed 14 people last December in a terror attack in San Bernardino, Calif., one of the shooters went on Facebook and pledged her allegiance to the emir of the Islamic State, a militant group also known as ISIS or ISIL. Officials later said the posting was made on behalf of both attackers.
The group said in a message posted Sunday by the Islamic State-linked Amaq News Agency that the Orlando shooting “was carried out by an Islamic State fighter.” The same news agency had released a message showing the Islamic State claiming some credit for the San Bernardino attack two days after that occurred, while Amaq posted a statement from the group asserting responsibility for the Brussels attacksin March within hours.
The Islamic State has repeatedly executed gay people and then released videosshowing these gruesome executions.
Hopper said Sunday that the FBI was still working to determine a motive. He said officials had not found any indications of outside help or another suspect, and added that they were confident there were no additional threats.
Also on Sunday, a man was detained in Santa Monica, Calif., by police while possessing weapons and dangerous material, police said. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department said that they were investigating any possible link between this man and a Gay Pride Parade and Festival in West Hollywood on Sunday, though they added that there have been “no specific or credible threats” in the Los Angeles area.
Mateen’s ex-wife said that he was abusive, saying in an interview Sunday that he beat her repeatedly during their marriage. She said that during their brief marriage, Mateen, who was Muslim, was not very religious and gave no indications that he was devoted to radical Islam.
Mina said it appeared the gunman was armed with “a handgun and an AR-15-type assault rifle” and had additional rounds on him.
“It appears he was organized and well-prepared,” Mina said during another briefing.
An AR-15 is the civilian variant of the military M-16 rifle. It is one of the most popular weapons in the United States and can be customized with a variety of accessories including different grips and sights. A standard magazine for it carries about 30 bullets.
A number of federal agencies were participating in a massive law enforcement response to the shooting in Orlando, authorities said. On Sunday afternoon, Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch, who had been scheduled to attend a meeting in Beijing on cyber-security, said she was returning to Washington so she could monitor the ongoing investigation.
“We stand with the people of Orlando, who have endured a terrible attack on their city,” Obama said during a statement he made at the White House after meeting with FBI Director James Comey.
Obama said it was too early to know “the precise motivations of the killer,” but he said the FBI would investigate any possible links the gunman had to terrorist groups.
During his remarks Sunday afternoon, Obama — echoing comments he has made during numerous other statements given after shooting rampages — said the bloodshed in Orlando served as a reminder of how easily people can obtain guns in the United States. Pope Francis also expressed deep “horror and condemnation” of the shooting on Sunday, according to the Associated Press.
Obama also signed a proclamation honoring the victims and ordering that American flags be flown at half-staff until sunset on Thursday.
(via: Washington Post)