27 October 2016
An undated photo from a social media account of 29-year-old gunman Omar Mateen. Photo: Reuters
An undated photo from a social media account of 29-year-old gunman Omar Mateen. Photo: Reuters

FBI interviewed Orlando gunman twice on suspected Islamist ties

The US Federal Bureau of Investigation twice interviewed Omar Mateen, the 29-year-old gunman who killed 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida on Sunday.

The first investigation took place in 2013 when Mateen made inflammatory comments to co-workers that indicated sympathy for Islamist militants, Reuters reports, citing FBI special agent in charge Ron Hopper.

The FBI interviewed Mateen again in 2014 about a potential connection he may have had with Moner Abu Salha, also from Florida, who killed himself and several Syrian troops with a truck bomb in Ariha, Syria, in May of that year.

‘“We determined that contact was minimal and didn’t constitute a substantive relationship or threat at that time,” Hopper told a press conference in Orlando.

“The FBI thoroughly investigated the matter including interviews of witnesses, physical surveillance and records checks.”

Mateen’s transformation from high school football player to perpetrator of America’s worst mass shooting raises questions about whether red flags were missed over the depth of his apparent sympathies with Muslim extremists, the news agency said.

But US authorities said on Monday they had found no direct links between Islamic State militants and Mateen, describing him as a homegrown extremist who was inspired by radical Islamist groups.

As families of the victims grieved and the nation recoiled at the scale of yet another mass shooting, a picture began to emerge of the killer as a quiet, devout person who in recent years displayed a hateful and violent streak.

Early on Sunday, he stormed a packed gay nightclub in Orlando, with a handgun and AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, fatally shooting 49 people before police killed him. Fifty-three others were wounded, many critically.

Mateen was shot and killed by police who stormed the club with armored cars early on Sunday morning after a three-hour siege.

His ex-wife, Sitora Yusufiy, described him as “bipolar”, and emotionally disturbed with a violent temper.

She said she had been beaten and otherwise physically abused by Mateen during outbursts in which he would “express hatred towards everything”.

She was “rescued” by family members just four months into a stormy marriage that began in 2009 and ended in divorce, she said.

“He would often get into fights with his parents, but as I was the only one in his life most of the violence was directed towards me,” she told reporters in Boulder, Colorado outside a home where she was staying.

She said he aspired to be a police officer and had worked as a correctional officer at a detention center for juvenile delinquents in Fort Pierce, Florida, and had once sought admission to a police academy.

In Fort Pierce on Florida’s southeast coast, 195  kilometers from the shooting, the imam at the mosque that Mateen attended for nearly 10 years described him as a regular worshipper who was quiet and rarely interacted with the congregation.

“He hardly had any friends,” Syed Shafeeq Rahman, who heads the Islamic Center of Fort Pierce, told Reuters. “He would come with his little son at night to pray and after he would leave.”

Rahman said Mateen never approached him regarding any concerns about homosexuals.

He usually prayed at the mosque a few times a week, mostly in evenings and as recently as Friday, but he didn’t display signs of radicalism, according to fellow worshippers interviewed by Reuters.

Mateen was born in New York of Afghan descent but spent most of his life in Florida, attending Martin County High School in Stuart, a small city about a 20-minute drive from the Fort Pierce condominium where had most recently lived.

A classmate described him as a typical teen who played football.

Samuel King, who was one year ahead of Mateen, said the two often spoke after Mateen graduated in 2004.

King waited tables at Ruby Tuesday’s restaurant at Treasure Coast Square, a mall where Mateen worked at GNC, the nutrition store, he said.

King, who is openly gay, said the Mateen he knew until 2009 did not appear to be anti-homosexual.

“What is shocking to me is that the majority of the staff at Ruby Tuesday’s when I worked there were gay. He clearly was not anti-[gay] at least not back then. He did not show any hatred to any of us.”

While at GNC, Mateen lifted weights and “got really buff”, King said, describing Mateen as gregarious and talkative in the immediate years after high school.

“Something must have changed” since he last saw him, he added.

Mateen’s father, Mir Seddique, told NBC News the massacre was not related to religion.

He said his son turned angry when he saw two men kissing in Miami a couple of months ago.

The FBI and other agencies were still looking at evidence inside the club and on the closed-off streets around the Pulse nightclub, where the killings took place.

“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,” FBI Director James Comey said in Washington.

“We’re highly confident this killer was radicalized at least in some part through the internet.”

Islamic State reiterated on Monday a claim of responsibility, although it offered no signs to indicate coordination with the gunman.

The bloody rampage reverberated on the presidential campaign trail, where presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton, his likely opponent in the Nov. 8 election, clashed over how to confront violent Islamist extremists.

Trump proposed to suspend immigration to the US from countries with a proven history of terrorism, while Clinton warned against demonizing Muslims and called for tougher gun safety measures.

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