Investigators continued Wednesday to look deeper at the family of the gunman who carried out a shooting rampage at a nightclub in Orlando, focusing on his wife to see if she had any prior knowledge of his plans before the attack.
Authorities say Noor Z. Salman — who married Omar Mateen, the 29-year-old gunman, in 2011 — went with him at one point to buy ammunition, according to a U.S. law enforcement official familiar with the probe.The FBI has also learned from interviews with Salman, 30, that she accompanied him on at least one trip to Pulse before the attack for what a U.S. law enforcement official described as “reconnaissance.”
The official said that Salman warned Mateen not to carry out the attack, apparently as he was leaving Saturday night for Orlando. This official, who asked not to be identified discussing an ongoing investigation, said the couple surveilled the club between June 5 and June 9. FBI officials said Mateen bought the guns in early June.
Investigators are still working to corroborate Salman’s story, according to authorities, and will try to determine if she suffered any abuse at the gunman’s hands. His first wife – Sitora Yusifiy, to whom he was briefly married in 2009 – said that he beat her repeatedly while they were married.
How authorities ultimately view Salman’s role and statements could potentially shift if she was a victim of abuse or feared for her life, officials say.
Even as investigators looked into Salman, authorities also revealed new details about the attack at Pulse, which left 49 people dead and dozens wounded in what was the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.
After opening fire on scores of people inside a nightclub here early Sunday, Mateen threatened to strap explosives to his hostages and left police fearing possible booby traps even after the attacker was killed, the city’s mayor said Wednesday.
No explosives or bomb vests were found, but suspicions of possible devices forced authorities to wait a “significant time” before entering the club and fully assessing the mayhem after a commando-style raid freed survivors and killed the shooter, Omar Mateen, said Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer.
While the timeline of the attack and aftermath have become clearer, the wider probes moved in various directions — stretching from a quiet town north of San Francisco to a German bank as the gunman’s family came under increasing scrutiny.
Since Sunday’s attack, authorities have confronted a jumble of potential leads and loose ends. Among the unanswered questions were why an earlier FBI investigation into the gunman was closed and whether Sunday’s slaughter was an act of politically driven rage or triggered by personal demons – or even a mix of both.
Without an apparent self-written manifesto or video message by the shooter, investigators have looked for clues among survivors and former friends to dig into his psyche.
Three people identifying themselves as FBI agents conducted interviews Tuesday in the neighborhood in northern California where Mateen’s wife, Noor Zahi Salman, was raised in a family with Palestinian roots, the Associated Press reported.
Video from the Miami-based channel WSVN showed Salman being escorted from her home in Fort Pierce, Florida, shrouding her face with the hood from a white sweatshirt. Her left hand had what appeared to be a silver wedding band.
Salman, 30, has not been placed under arrest, but she has emerged as a possible critical link in the struggle to understand Mateen – a security guard and bodybuilder – and what caused him to storm the crowded club and carry out the deadly attack.
Dyer said 911 calls from inside the Pulse nightclub claimed Mateen was talking about bomb vests and possibly wearing one himself. A robot was used to ultimately clear the club after the siege was over. A backpack and battery were found near Mateen’s body, adding to the initial fears of possible explosives.
“All indications were it was booby trapped,” Dyer said of the club.
Meanwhile, German investigators examined a Düsseldorf bank account held by Mateen’s father, who has claimed that his son visited him at his home in Port St. Lucie, Florida, the day before the attack and showed no hints of anger or anxiety. Germany’s Rheinischen Post reported that Mateen’s Afghanistan-born father, Seddique Mateen, posted the bank account details in a 2013 video soliciting donations – receiving only two payments totaling the equivalent of about $200.
There was no immediate indication of how the money was used, but the elder Mateen has been active in the Afghan expatriate community in the United States and elsewhere as a self-proclaimed political figure and analyst.
As the survivors of the attack recount their stories of raw terror, some possible nuggets have emerged for investigators.
Mateen said he carried out the attack because he wanted “Americans to stop bombing his country,” according to a witness who survived the rampage and heard the shooter make a 911 call — in which he proclaimed loyalty to the Islamic State but also mentioned other Islamist militant factions and the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.
In addition, Mateen made at least one other phone call during the standoff, to an acquaintance he knew in Florida, two U.S. law enforcement officials said. It’s unknown what Mateen told this person. Mateen’s phone has been recovered, and forensic experts were about to access the data, an official said.
President Barack Obama said Tuesday that the gunman “was an angry, disturbed, unstable young man who became radicalized.”
Obama, speaking after a meeting with his National Security Council, also said 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 Thursday to Orlando. Obama said the Islamic State, a militant group also known as ISIS or ISIL, has made its propaganda “pervasive and easily accessible” and that it appeared the shooter in Orlando “absorbed some of that.”
Vice President Joe Biden, speaking at an event in New York, suggested Tuesday that the investigation has shown that the incident was “more straightforward” than it initially appeared.
“We are getting to the bottom of this, and it’s becoming clearer and more straightforward than a lot of us even thought,” said Biden, who attended a national security meeting before the event. He did not elaborate.
The FBI is facing questions over whether it missed warning signs during a 10-month probe of the shooter that ended in 2014 before the massacre. During that investigation, the gunman was placed on a terrorism watch list; Mateen was also interviewed as part of a separate investigation in 2014.
His wife, Salman, had apparently never come to the attention of the FBI. Salman has made no public statements, but a portrait of a shy and sheltered woman has emerged from former neighbors in her home town of Rodeo, California, an area of oil refineries and rolling hills about 25 miles northeast of San Francisco.
Her romance with Mateen began online – as with her first husband – and they were married on Sept. 29, 2011, in an Islamic ceremony in Hercules, California, a town near Rodeo, according to friends and public records. The couple has a 3-year-old son.
Jasbinder Chahal, who has lived across the street from Salman’s childhood home for the last 15 years, told the AP that Salman did not appear to have lofty ambitions beyond marriage after graduating from high school in 2004.
“You know, some kids after high school, they open up the box and the world is theirs,” Chahal said. “She was inside the box, just pack it up and get married.”
She added: “Noor never played in the street, and the girls were never allowed to drive.”
The night of the shooting, Patience Carter, 20, said she heard the gunman explain his motives during a 911 call in which he also pledged allegiance to the leader of the Islamic State.
At one point, while Carter was in the club bathroom with several other hostages, she 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.”
Mateen’s claim that he carried out the shooting to “stop bombing” echoed a message Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev scrawled in a note before he was taken into custody by police. Tsarnaev, who was sentenced to death last year, wrote that the U.S. government was “killing our innocent civilians” and that as a Muslim, “I can’t stand to see such evil go unpunished.”
Even though Mateen was born in New York, 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, Obama dismissed 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.”
And as the shooting propelled a debate over guns back into the presidential campaign, the National Rifle Association said in a statement Wednesday that its position was that “terrorists should not be allowed to purchase or possess firearms, period.”
Mateen had been on a watch list during an FBI investigation that ended in 2014.
“Anyone on a terror watchlist who tries to buy a gun should be thoroughly investigated by the FBI and the sale delayed while the investigation is ongoing,” the NRA said in its statement.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Matt Zapotosky, Adam Goldman, Mark Berman