The FBI has told members of the LGBT community it will pursue accounts that the Orlando nightclub shooter was partially motivated by internal conflict over his own sexuality, the Guardian has learned.
A conference call held late Monday pulled together representatives from the FBI and departments of justice and homeland security with 358 civil-rights-minded leaders, particularly from the LGBT and American Muslim groups, a senior US official told the Guardian, to share information and hear concerns from communities reeling from one of the worst incidents of gun violence in recent US history.
FBI officials on the call “indicated they would follow up” on reports that shooter Omar Mateen had on a number of occasions visited the LGBT nightclub Pulse where he killed 49 and wounded 52 on Sunday. That focus is thus far unprecedented in nearly 15 years of post-9/11 counterterrorism, which has yet to confront a known case of a suspected closeted LGBT individual ostensibly committing a mass murder in the name of a homophobic terrorist organization.
According to a readout of the call, the Department of Homeland Security also said it was receiving “reports of anecdotal backlash from Muslim-American, Sikh, South Asian and Arab-American communities”. The US official said that on the call, Muslim leaders expressed “condolences and significant support” for LGBT communities in Orlando and beyond.
As the FBI continued to sift through evidence on Tuesday, Mateen’s second wife told investigators she attempted to dissuade his Sunday attack on revelers at Pulse, according to NBC.
In a statement in Washington, Barack Obama said there was as of yet no indication that Mateen had any ties or support from any terrorist group.
Officials close to the investigation note that unlike traveling to Iraq or Syria, there is no barrier to claiming inspiration from Isis, even as a pretext.
Disentangling Mateen’s motivations, at this point a major focus of the inquiry, is likely to be a complicated task, one that does not resemble the straightforward ideological drivers familiar to years of terror inquiries.
The FBI described the Orlando attack as an act of terrorism by midday Sunday, an unusually rapid assessment. Evidence supporting the claim came from a 911 phone call Mateen placed in which he declared allegiance to Isis, and because the FBI had previously interviewed him on three occasions in 2013 and 2014. The bureau had even watch-listed him for much of 2013 but ultimately determined any connection to terror was insubstantial and did not consider him a threat.
New information has complicated that initial assessment. Several attendees of the Pulse nightclub have said Mateen was a frequent, often belligerent, presence. “He was a homosexual and he was trying to pick up men,” one told the Associated Press. A police academy classmate said Mateen had asked him out, and the two attended LGBT clubs together, though he considered Mateen closeted. He was abusive to his former spouse, a woman, was married to another woman at the time of the slayings, and is said to have maintained a profile on an LGBT dating app.
Additionally, Mateen’s tenuous terror ties raise questions about his adherence to a virulent religious-based ideology.
He had falsely boasted in 2013, and again on the pre-shooting 911 call, of connections to the Boston Marathon bombers. On the 911 call, according to FBI director James Comey, Mateen expressed sympathy with terrorist groups of opposing ideologies and goals, from the Shia Hezbollah to the Salafists Isis and al-Qaida, all of which are at war with one another. He is said to have enrolled in online courses taught by a homophobic imam.
In his statement on Tuesday, Obama called Mateen an “angry, disturbed and unstable young man” who absorbed “extremist information and propaganda over the internet”.
Homophobia and jihadism are anything but mutually exclusive. Isis executes people it says are gay, stones them and throws them from roofs. But Seamus Hughes, a former congressional homeland-security staffer who studies extremism at George Washington University, said he could not think of a previous known case of a closeted individual committing an act of domestic terrorism after claiming affinity with a jihadist militant group.
“It appears to be a unique case, at least in the recent American jihadi context,” Hughes said.
Obama, who on Sunday called the mass shooting an “act of terror and an act of hate”, challenged Congress to reinstate the pre-1994 assault weapons ban after conferring with his national security council at the treasury department.
“Enough talking about being tough on terrorism. Be tough on terrorism,” Obama said.
Obama also ridiculed what he called the “political distraction” that using the nebulous phrase “radical Islam” to describe Isis and related US adversaries would provide counterterrorism advantages. Obama has faced repeated criticism from Republicans, including Trump and other former presidential candidates, over his refusal to identify the threat posed by Isis and other extremist groups as “radical Islam”.
“The reason I am careful has nothing to do with political correctness and everything to do with defeating extremism,” an angry Obama said, before calling out Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump over his proposal for banning on Muslim immigration to the United States.
“We are now seeing how dangerous this kind of mindset and this kind of thinking can be,” Obama said.
“Where does this stop? The Orlando killer, the San Bernardino killer, the Fort Hood killer – they were all US citizens. Are we going to start treating all Muslim Americans differently? Are we going to subject them to special surveillance? … Do Republican officials actually agree with this? Because that’s not the America we want.”