What motivated Omar Mateen to commit Orlando massacre?
Florida gunman had a complicated identity and did not fit the typical risk profile
Amanda Connell and her family are wearing white T-shirts with “#CoryStrong” printed on them. Some stand silently, reading the handwritten tributes left at the makeshift memorial outside the Dr Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, in downtown Orlando. Some weep openly as they hold each other tightly.
“Cory was the best guy,” Connell says about her older brother. “Cory was the type of guy you would want to bring home to your parents. If you were having a bad day just seeing him smile would light up your whole day.”
Cory James Connell was 21; he had graduated from Valencia College in Orlando and was training to be a firefighter.
He went to Pulse, the city’s popular LGBT nightclub, on Saturday because it was Latin night, and he wanted to learn how to salsa dance. His girlfriend, Paula Andrea Blanco, is Colombian, and she wanted to teach him.
The couple were leaving Pulse shortly after 2am when they ran into Omar Mateen, who was entering the club with a 9mm semi-automatic handgun and an AR-15-type assault rifle, a high-powered weapon more suited for a battlefield.
Mateen, who was 29, shot Blanco first, hitting her in the arm. She tried to grab her boyfriend’s hand, but he pushed her through the door of the club and told her to run. She escaped. Cory didn’t.
“Even though he is not going to be able to be a firefighter, he still was that night. He protected someone,” says Connell.
She was supposed to have joined her brother and Blanco at the club, but she decided to stay at home. His last words to her as he left for Pulse were: “I love you.”
Connell was one of 49 people, most gay and Hispanic, whom Mateen murdered during a three-hour attack on the nightclub in the early hours of Sunday. Blanco was one of 53 injured during Mateen’s rampage.
The dead ranged in age from 18 to 50 and included shopworkers, bartenders, accountants and students: people enjoying a night out at a club popular for its lively entertainment and openness to patrons from the LGBT community and beyond.
The club was a place of “love and acceptance for the LGBTQ community”, its owner, Barbara Poma, said after the attack this week.
She named the club after the heartbeat of her brother John, who died from HIV in 1991.
Social media gave glimpses of the horror that the victims experienced. Amanda Alvear, who died in the attack, sent a Snapchat video of herself looking puzzled as shots rang out; the footage ended abruptly.
Those who did not manage to escape, or were not killed in the initial gunfire, rushed through narrow corridors to hide in bathrooms and cloakrooms.
“Mommy I love you,” was the first text that Eddie Johnson sent his mother, at 2.06am, trapped in one of the club’s toilets. “He’s coming,” the 30-year-old texted a few seconds later. “I’m gonna die.”
“He has us and he’s in here with us,” was his next text. It was also his last.
One wounded survivor, 20-year-old Patience Carter, said Mateen entered a toilet packed with terrified patrons and sprayed the bathroom with bullets.
“Hey, you,” he shouted to one man, then shot him. Then another. Then another.
A police Swat team eventually stormed the club at 5am, fearing that the killer had explosives and could cause further fatalities, and shot him dead. By the end the death toll made Mateen’s massacre the worst mass shooting in modern US history.
This week a grief-stricken but defiant Orlando struggled to come to terms with the attack.
Despite people’s determination not to be defeated, many were confused about why this American-born Muslim, a security guard who lived two hours away, in Fort Pierce, on Florida’s eastern coast, carried out the attack.
There was confusion about why the New York-born son of Afghan immigrants visited the club as a customer many times in the past three years, and communicated with other men on chat and dating apps and in online chatrooms, when his father described his son being enraged once by the sight of two men kissing.
There was confusion about why Mateen told police on a 911 call during the massacre that he was doing it in the name of Islamic State militants, the extremist Sunni Muslim group, while he also claimed solidarity with an American who became a suicide bomber for a group that has fought against Islamic State in Syria.
In Facebook messages posted from the club during the attack, Mateen pledged allegiance to the Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
“The real Muslims will never accept the filthy ways of the West,” he wrote. “You kill innocent women and children by doing US airstrikes . . . Now taste the Islamic State vengeance.”
While carrying out his attack Mateen found time to search Facebook for reports and messages about the atrocity. He and his wife also exchanged text messages that night.
In one, at 4am, two hours into the massacre, he asked her if she had seen news of the attack.
There is further confusion about why a man who was twice investigated by the FBI, in 2013 and 2014, and interviewed three times about threats to colleagues and potential ties to an American suicide bomber in Syria, was later able to buy high-powered weapons legally and carry out the worst terror attack on US soil since 9/11.
President Barack Obama, having to speak publicly about a mass shooting for the 20th time of his presidency, described Mateen as “an angry, disturbed, unstable young man who became radicalised”, taken in by extremist information on the internet.
Obama said the attack was “an act of terror and an act of hate” and described it as “the kind of home-grown extremism that all of us have been concerned about”.
Contacts of Mateen’s who have emerged in the past six days suggest that the gunman was confused, too, not just about what terrorist group he aligned himself with but also about his sexuality.
They have raised questions about whether, as well as a loyalty to Islamic State, he was driven by a deep-seated self-loathing and an uncomfortable awareness that he was gay.
Numerous witnesses who have come forward since Sunday’s attack suggest that Mateen had led a double life, appearing to be an openly gay man on Orlando’s club scene but a devout Muslim and working husband and father in his home town, 200km away.
The contradictions between Mateen’s religious beliefs and his sexuality may go some way towards explaining his recent isolation in his Muslim community, his mental troubles and his abusive behaviour.
Islam not only disapproves of homosexuality but also, in Sharia law, teaches that it is a vile form of fornication and should be punished by death. Homophobia is institutionalised in many Islamic countries.
Ten of the 57 countries in the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation impose the death penalty for homosexual activity, including Afghanistan, the homeland of Mateen’s parents.
His is a complex identity that investigators are still trying to piece together. None is more baffled by Mateen’s attack than the people closest to him.
“I wish he was alive,” his father, Seddique Mir Mateen, told The Irish Times and other media whose journalists called to his home in Port St Lucie, Florida, for interviews this week. “I want to know why did he do this.”
Next door, Tony Schneider, a retired deputy sheriff who is close to his neighbour, said that the father spoke privately with him about his anger for his dead son.
“He doesn’t know what went wrong, or why, and he has been up for days. He wishes his son was alive, so he could slap him in the face,” said Schneider.
Mateen’s father, who admitted in a Facebook post that he could have passed his own anti-homosexual views on to his son, rejected the possibility that his son was gay.
“I don’t believe he was a whatever-you- call-him,” he said, two days after suggesting that his son carried out the attack because of his anger at witnessing two men kissing.
One gay couple, Ty Smith and Chris Callen, dismissed his father’s views as “bullcrap”.
The men, who are drag performers at Pulse, say they had met Mateen at the club several times over the past three years. They remember him enjoying himself there.
“It’s shocking to everyone, because we saw him there before,” Callen told one US newspaper, describing how at one point he had seen Mateen dancing with another guy. “Maybe he got radicalised and hated who he was.”
Daniele Tashner, a 60-year-old transgender woman, recalled speaking to Mateen for about 15 minutes at another Orlando LGBT bar, Parliament House, which he visited last year.
“He was really searching. He wanted to talk. He was curious and everything. But he was real uncomfortable,” she told Yahoo News.
Then there was Mateen’s history of physical abuse and verbal outbursts. His first wife, Sitora Yusufiy, met him online in 2009; she divorced him five years ago, after a nine-month marriage.
She spoke about his violence towards her soon after their marriage and his ambiguous sexuality.
She told CNN that she did not know if he was gay. Mateen had told her when they married, she said, that he “very much enjoyed going to clubs and the nightlife”.
“I feel like it’s a side of him or a part of him that he lived but probably didn’t want everybody to know about,” she said.
The people Mateen prayed with were shocked when they heard of the Pulse attack and Mateen’s involvement.
At his local mosque, the Islamic Center of Fort Pierce, Bedar Bakht recalled Mateen as a very different person as a boy to the very private adult man who prayed at the mosque three or four times a week and kept to himself.
“When I saw him as a kid he was very active – naughty, talkative, playful – like any child would be,” the 56-year-old told The Irish Times.
“The time I remember was when he clogged up the bathroom with tissue. Once he grew up and became a teenager we stopped seeing him socialising.”
The last time Bakht saw him was last Friday. As usual he came in with his three-year-old son, made no eye contact, prayed and then left.
“He didn’t talk to anybody. He used to come, pray – last man to come in and the first one to go. As soon as you say, ‘Salaam, salaam,’ he was gone. It is very unusual,” Aziz Tahir, a 67-year-old retiree said as he entered the mosque on Tuesday night.
Mateen never discussed his politics or extreme religious views at the mosque.
“That is why everyone is surprised at what has happened. Everybody is stunned. Nobody knew that this could happen,” he said, walking into the mosque to pray.
Mateen seems to have lived a normal life in a modest apartment in Fort Pierce. Born in Queens, New York, he lived in Long Island for a time before moving to Florida as a child.
He attended a local high school; contradictory accounts of his childhood suggest that he was both bullied and a bully.
A classmate, Robert Zirkle, recalled Mateen “jumping up and down, cheering on the terrorists” while the class watched the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York unfold on television, and later pretending that Osama bin Laden was his uncle.
His family were moderate Muslims; neither his mother nor any of his sisters wore a hijab, although Mateen’s father has expressed pro-Taliban and anti-American sentiments on a programme he hosts on a California-based satellite TV station aimed at Afghans living in the US.
Mateen studied criminal justice at Indian River State College, near his home, and sometimes went to gay nightclubs with friends after classes.
One former classmate told the Palm Beach Post that he thought Mateen was gay and that he believed Mateen once tried to pick him up at a bar and had asked him out romantically.
“We went to a few gay bars with him, and I was not out at the time, so I declined his offer,” the man told the paper.
After college Mateen worked as a correctional officer at a juvenile detention facility and later landed a job as a security guard with G4S, one of the world’s biggest security firms, passing screenings in 2007 and 2013.
He had a licence to carry a concealed weapon and worked security shifts at a local golf club and courthouse.
The FBI came knocking on Mateen’s door in 2013 after he made inflammatory comments to colleagues who had ridiculed his Muslim background.
He told FBI investigators that he made the remarks “in anger” and wanted to scare them. The investigation was closed, and he was taken off the terrorist watch list.
In 2014 the FBI investigated him again for his connections to Moner Muhammad Abusalha, a young man from Florida who had attended the same mosque as Mateen and carried out a suicide bombing at a restaurant in Syria.
The bureau found that they knew each other only “casually”.
The next time he appeared on its radar was after Sunday’s attack.
Investigators believe that Mateen acted in the name of Islamic State rather than at its behest.
Referring to the complex nature of the new terrorist threat that the US faces, Obama said that these “lone actors” were “very hard to detect and very hard to prevent.” This was despite Mateen being a person of interest to the FBI for a time.
“How you stop viral terrorism?” says Kevin Giblin, a retired FBI counterterrorism expert.
“How do you stop someone who on their own gets recruited through social media, acts on their own, never goes to Syria, never goes to a club meeting of terrorists? This is where we are now right now” with Islamic State.
At the memorial to the victims in downtown Orlando late on Tuesday, Amanda Connell, standing near #OrlandoStrong and “Love Conquers Hate” signs, refuses to contemplate why Mateen killed her brother and the 48 others at the Pulse nightclub.
“I don’t want to talk about the man. The man gets too much attention already,” she says.
“We need to talk about the 49 victims. They are not a statistic, and we need everyone to know they have names. This man was just full of hatred, and he had problems, but we do not need to talk about him. This man deserves nothing.”