US law enforcement officials are investigating reports that the man who killed 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando may have been gay himself, but not openly so, two officials said on Tuesday, with one describing the massacre as a possible “self-hate crime.”
Omar Mateen, who was shot dead by police after a three-hour standoff early on Sunday, left behind a tangled trail of possible motives. He also called police during his rampage to voice allegiance to various militant Islamist groups.
Federal investigators have said Mateen was likely self-radicalised and there is no evidence that he received any instruction or aid from outside groups such as Islamic State. Mateen, 29, was a U.S. citizen, born in New York of Afghan immigrant parents.
Mateen’s wife attempted to talk him out of the attack, MSNBC reported on Tuesday, citing officials familiar with her comments to the FBI.
President Barack Obama has called the attack a case of “homegrown extremism.” He has also called it both a terrorist act and a hate crime – or one targeting a specific community.
The attack on the Pulse nightclub in the central Florida city was the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history, and the worst attack on the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
Soon after the attack, Mateen’s father indicated that his son had harbored strong anti-gay feelings. He recounted an incident when his son became angry when he saw two men kissing in downtown Miami while out with his wife and young son.
The investigation into the possibility that Mateen may have been gay himself follows media reports citing men who said they were regulars at the club and who reported seeing Mateen there before the attack. However, another source who spoke with Reuters disputed the idea that Mateen was a regular visitor to Pulse.
Visiting a gay club in and of itself would say nothing about Mateen’s sexuality, as he could have a variety of reasons for such a visit.
The two US officials, both of whom have been briefed regularly on the investigation and requested anonymity to discuss it, said that if it emerged that Mateen led a secret double life or had gay impulses that conflicted with his religious beliefs, it might have been what the same official called “one factor” in explaining his motive.
“It’s far too early to be definitive, and some leads inevitably don’t pan out, but we have to consider at least the possibility that he might have sought martyrdom partly to gain absolution for what he believed were his grave sins,” one of the officials said.
The official noted that the concept of martyrdom is not confined to Islam, as Christians also venerate martyrs who died for their beliefs, for instance.
A performer at Orlando‘s Parliament House, another gay club, said he had seen Mateen at Pulse occasionally before his rampage, often accompanied by a male friend. He had not seen Mateen in about two years, he said.
“He always introduced himself as Omar,” said the performer, Ty Smith, who uses the stage name “Aires.” He added that Mateen usually was quiet, but sometimes showed flashes of temper.
“He was fine most of the time, but other times, if he was drinking, he’d go all spastic and we’d have to take him out to his car and make him leave.”
But a bartender who worked at a club affiliated with Pulse who visited the club on his nights off said it was not true Mateen had been a regular visitor.
“That’s a lie,” Raymond Michael Sharpe said in a text message. “I would have known him. Somebody stirring the pot. No one knew him.”
SUPPORT FOR MILITANT GROUPS
Mateen worked as a private security guard at a gated retirement community. During his rampage, he made a series of calls to emergency 911 dispatchers in which he pledged loyalty to the leader of Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, whose organization controls large swaths of Iraq and Syria.
He also claimed solidarity in those calls with the ethnic Chechen brothers who carried out the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and with a Palestinian-American who became a suicide bomber in Syria for the al Qaeda offshoot known as the Nusra Front, authorities said.
Mateen was interviewed in 2013 and 2014 by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the first time after co-workers reported that he had made claims of family connections to al Qaeda and membership in the Shi’ite militant group Hezbollah, according to the FBI.
Federal investigators found no evidence connecting him to militant groups, FBI Director James Comey told reporters on Monday, noting contradictions in some of Mateen’s claims of allegiance.
Islamic State and the Nusra Front are at odds in Syria’s civil war, while al Qaeda and Hezbollah are also bitter enemies.
Preliminary findings in the Orlando investigation point to a case of what experts call self-radicalization, officials said.
“It’s not entirely clear at this point just what terrorist group he aspired to support,” Comey said.
Islamic State reiterated on Monday a claim of responsibility, though it offered no signs to indicate coordination with the gunman.
The group also claimed responsibility for an attack in France on Monday in which a suspected Islamist attacker stabbed a French police commander to death and later killed his partner.
GUN LAWS AND HOMELAND SECURITY
Mateen carried out his attack using a legally purchased assault-style rifle, the same style of weapon used in massacres in Newtown, Connecticut, and Aurora, Colorado, a fact that promoted US Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson on Tuesday to call for “meaningful, responsible,” gun control measures.
The massacre reverberated through the US presidential race, with the presumptive major-party opponents in the Nov. 8 election, Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton, clashing over how to confront Islamist militants.
Comey said the FBI closed its earlier investigation of Mateen after 10 months, convinced that his assertions of extremist ties were intended to “freak out” co-workers who he said were harassing him for being a Muslim.
Removal of Mateen from the FBI’s watch list at that time permitted him to buy firearms without the FBI being notified, Comey said.
The Orlando killings came six months after the massacre of 14 people in San Bernardino, California, by a married couple professing Islamist militant ideologies, raising questions about what the United States can do to detect such attackers before they strike.
The global security company GS4S had employed Mateen since 2007 as an armed guard near his home in the Atlantic coastal town of Fort Pierce, Florida, about 120 miles (190 km) southeast of Orlando. The company said he cleared two security background checks, once when he was hired and again in 2013.