The gunman who opened fire inside a nightclub in Orlando said he carried out the attack because he wanted “Americans to stop bombing his country,” according to a witness who survived the rampage.
This account from Patience Carter, a 20-year-old who was inside the club during a three-hour hostage standoff, offers the first glimpse at what the shooter said spurred him to carry out the deadliest mass shooting in American history. Carter said the gunman made his claims about his motivation during the same 911 call in which he pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.
At one point, while about two dozen hostages were in the bathrooms inside Pulse, Carter said the gunman asked if there were any black people in the room. When one man said yes, the shooter said, “You know I don’t have a problem with black people,” Carter recalled during a news conference. “This is about my country,” Mateen said. “You guys suffered enough.”
These comments further add to the uncertainty regarding what may have inspired the gunman, 29-year-old Omar Mateen, who was born in the United States to parents from Afghanistan. At various points, Mateen invoked opposing militant groups, making “inflammatory and contradictory” comments, said FBI Director James Comey.
Even as investigators continued Tuesday to delve deeper into Mateen’s life, officials have not publicly said what they believe may have motivated him to open fire inside Pulse.
The bloody siege left 49 people killed and more than 50 others injured. Mateen died in a shootout with police after the hostage situation. The FBI has said it is still trying to uncover what inspired him. President Obama said Tuesday that the gunman “was an angry, disturbed, unstable young man who became radicalized.”
During his comments in the bathroom, Mateen also claimed to have “snipers outside” the club. The Orlando Police Department said that despite rumors of multiple shooters, which often emerge after mass killings, Mateen was the only gunman at the club.
“It sounded as if he was communicating with other people who were involved with it. … Maybe he was just deranged, maybe he’s just talking to himself, but I honestly feel like I don’t think he was able to pull that off all by himself,” Carter said.
Investigators from the FBI peered deeper Tuesday into the life of the Orlando nightclub gunman, even as the bureau faced questions and an internal reckoning over whether it missed warning signs during a 10-month probe of the shooter that ended two years before the massacre. During that investigation, the gunman had been placed on a terrorism watch list.
Mateen’s wife, Noor Z. Salman, has increasingly drawn the focus of investigators, officials said. She was involved in helping scout out the club at some point before the attack, according to a U.S. law enforcement official who asked not to be identified. (NBC News first reported that investigators were looking at Salman for this action.)
Seddique Mateen, the gunman’s father, on Tuesday did not respond to questions about whether she hired a lawyer or if he believed she played a role in the attack.
“We’ll wait for the law enforcement,” he said in remarks outside his home in Port St. Lucie, Fla.
A U.S. law enforcement official said Tuesday there were no imminent criminal charges against her.
In Orlando, the toll of the shooting was still unclear. A surgeon at the hospital treating most victims said the number of fatalities could rise.
Hospital officials said Tuesday that six of the people injured in the shooting rampage were still critically ill, while five others were in “guarded” condition. All told, 27 of the 44 patients brought to Orlando Regional Medical Center after the shooting remained hospitalized, said Michael L. Cheatham, the chief surgical quality officer at the facility.
During a news conference Tuesday, doctors recounting what they saw early Sunday said patients arrived “by the truckload.”
They described seeing people riddled with bullets and injuries, victims with gunshot wounds in their chests, abdomens and pelvic areas. “This was somewhat of a surreal experience,” one doctor said. “We were just given patient after patient after patient.”
As hospital workers continue to treat these victims, the sprawling investigation into the rampage will also look back at two other times Mateen was on the FBI’s radar.
Comey, the FBI director, said the bureau would “look at our own work, to see if there is something we should have done differently” during its earlier contacts with Mateen. “So far, I think the honest answer is: I don’t think so,” Comey added. “We will continue to look forward in this investigation and backward.”
The FBI investigated Mateen beginning in 2013, putting him under surveillance, recording his calls and using confidential informants to gauge whether he had been radicalized after the suspect talked at work about his connections with al-Qaeda and dying as a martyr.
It was during this probe, which ended in 2014, that Mateen was placed on a terrorism watch list. Comey, speaking to reporters at the Justice Department, declined to say whether he was also placed on a no-fly list. After the shooting, Congress again began debating whether to prevent people on such lists from buying guns.
After the FBI closed its preliminary investigation into Mateen in 2014, his name emerged months later in a separate probe, this one looking into a Florida man who became the first American suicide bomber in Syria. Investigators said they did not find any significant ties between the two men — who attended the same mosque in Fort Pierce, Fla. — and moved on.
It was the third time in recent years that someone scrutinized by the FBI later carried out an attack, following the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 and a planned attack last year on a contest to draw the Muslim prophet.
President Obama said Tuesday that the American people stood with those injured in Orlando as well as the people who lost loved ones or were targeted in the attack. Obama, speaking after a meeting with his National Security Council, also said that the investigation has not turned up any suggestions that the gunman was directed by a foreign terrorist organization.
“It is increasingly clear, however, that the killer took in extremist information and propaganda over the Internet,” said Obama, who plans to travel to Orlando on Thursday. Obama said that the Islamic State, a militant group also known as ISIS or ISIL, has made its propaganda “pervasive and easily accessible,” and said it appeared the shooter in Orlando “absorbed some of that.”
The investigation into the Orlando shooting is delving into a thorny series of factors. While the gunman pledged allegiance to the Islamic State during during his standoff with police Sunday, during this call and years earlier he referenced rival extremist groups, leaving his precise sympathies unknown, Comey said. Earlier this week, Obama said the shooting appeared so far to be a case of “homegrown extremism.”
Comey said Monday that investigators were “highly confident that this killer was radicalized, and at least in some part through the Internet,” though he said they were still trying to determine his motives and possible sources of inspiration.
The shooting appeared to exist at a grim nexus of horror, connecting the lone attackers — usually young men like Mateen — who carry out shooting rampages with the ongoing challenge of trying to isolate potential threats who may be inspired by the Islamic State or other extremist groups. Late Monday, an allegedly Islamic State-inspired attacker fatally stabbed a police captain and a government official at the couple’s home outside Paris.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott, R, speaking near the scene of the slayings, said Tuesday that investigators were working diligently to sort out what happened in Orlando and why. He said he had been focused on talking to victims’ family members and did not offer any new details on the status of the investigation.
Scott also called for the federal government to share more information with its state counterparts in the wake of the shooting. While he did not specify how more sharing of information might have prevented the massacre, Scott said it was broadly important that federal officials share what they learn with local law enforcement – especially in immigration or refugee cases.
He referred to terrorist attacks in Paris in November that killed 130 people, saying that he told the federal government afterward, “Look, until you can tell me how you’re going to vet people, don’t send refugees into my state.”
Even though Mateen was born in the United States, the shooting has fueled a resurgent debate on U.S. immigration policy. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump called Monday for barring immigrants from areas of the world with a history of terrorism as part of a proposed temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States.
During his remarks Tuesday afternoon, President Barack Obama pushed back against the suggestion from Trump and others that he use the phrase “radical Islam” when discussing attacks.
“What exactly would using this label accomplish?” Obama asked. “What exactly would it change? Would it make ISIL less committed to trying to kill Americans? Would it bring in more allies? Is there a military strategy that is served by this? The answer is, none of the above. Calling a threat by a different name does not make it go away. This is a political distraction.”
In his remarks, Obama was sharply critical of Trump’s comments about Muslims. During a speech a day earlier, Trump had accused American Muslims of harboring terrorists and accused them — without evidence — of knowing about the attackers in San Bernardino, Calif., and Orlando, and not speaking up to stop them.
Trump has pushed back against calls for more gun-control laws in the wake of the shooting. Obama, as he has before, again said Tuesday that the country could do more to reduce gun violence.
The political fallout from Orlando also reverberated on the world stage even as it overshadowed the U.S. presidential race. U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein called on American authorities to adopt “robust gun control measures.”
“It is hard to find a rational justification that explains the ease with which people can buy firearms, including assault rifles, in spite of prior criminal backgrounds, drug use, histories of domestic violence and mental illness, or direct contact with extremists – both domestic and foreign,” the top U.N. human rights official said in a statement.
At one of the many memorials after the massacre, the names of the dead were read aloud at a gathering on the lawn of Orlando’s main performing arts venue. In Paris, the Eiffel Tower was bathed in rainbow colors at night. Hours later, French President François Hollande warned of a “very large scale” terrorist threat facing his nation and the West.
“France is not the only country concerned, as we have seen again in the United States in Orlando,” he said.
Authorities said the investigation into Mateen has expanded to look at other people and stretches from Florida to Kabul.
Comey said Mateen, who worked as a contract security guard at a local courthouse, claimed in 2013 to co-workers that he had family connections to al-Qaeda and was a member of Hezbollah, two opposing terrorist groups that have clashed repeatedly in Syria.
According to Comey, Mateen also told colleagues that he had mutual acquaintances with the Tsarnaev brothers, who were responsible for the Boston bombings. He spoke of a martyr’s death. Co-workers brought his claims to the attention of the local sheriff’s department, which passed them along to the FBI.
The FBI opened what is known as a preliminary investigation – one of hundreds that the bureau handles at any one time and that typically last six months. Comey said the investigation was extended once with the approval of an FBI supervisor at the Joint Terrorism Task Force in Miami.
When interviewed by the FBI, Mateen claimed he made the statements in anger because his co-workers were teasing him about being a Muslim and he felt discriminated against.
“The evidence developed during the investigation was consistent with his explanation that he had said these things to try to freak out his co-workers,” Comey said. The investigation was closed.
The FBI also learned at one point that Mateen had traveled to Saudi Arabia in March of 2011 to make a pilgrimage and again in March of 2012. Comey said the Saudis assisted the FBI investigation but didn’t turn up anything.
“As I would hope the American people would want, we don’t keep people under investigation indefinitely,” Comey said. “If . . . we don’t see predication for continuing it, then we close it.”
During an investigation in 2014 into the American suicide bomber from Florida, a witness told the FBI he had become concerned about Mateen, who had been watching videos of a radical cleric, named Anwar al-Awlaki, who was a top leader and propagandist in al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen.
Awlaki’s rhetoric has been implicated in numerous terrorist attacks, including the 2009 Fort Hood shooting in which 13 people were killed shot dead by Army Maj. Nidal Hasan.
But the witness stopped worrying when Mateen started a family and found steady employment as a security guard. The FBI questioned Mateen again during this probe and found no reason to reopen an investigation.
Comey said the FBI had found nothing in Mateen’s past that would have legally blocked him from purchasing a gun. Mateen purchased two weapons from the St. Lucie Shooting Center, shop owner Ed Henson said at a news conference Monday.
“An evil person came in here and legally purchased two firearms from us,” Henson said, adding that Mateen had multiple security licenses and passed a full background check before he was allowed to buy the guns.
Amid the public outpouring of grief and anger, the Florida Attorney General’s Office opened an investigation into a proliferation of more than 100 requests on the money-raising GoFundMe site claiming to be seeking donations for victims and their families.
It is possible all are legitimate, but “we just need to go through each one of them,” said Attorney General Pam Bondi.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Katie Zezima, Matt Zapotosky, Adam Goldman, Mark Berman