FBI director talks about 'homegrown extremist'
Orlando gunman was investigated in 2013-2015
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Orlando mourning the 49 people slaughtered in an attack on a gay nightclub and the White House and the FBI portrayed the killer Monday as an apparent "homegrown extremist" who espoused support for a jumble of often-conflicting Islamic organizations.
Wielding an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle and a handgun, Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old American-born Muslim raised in Martin County, Florida, and living in Fort Pierce, opened fire at the crowded Pulse Orlando club early Sunday. He was killed in a gun battle with a SWAT team after police used explosives and a small armored vehicle to punch a hole in a wall and allow dozens of clubgoers to escape, police said.
The tragedy shocked the nation and cast a pall over Orlando, known all around the globe as the home of Walt Disney World and other theme parks.
"We will not be defined by the act of a cowardly hater," Mayor Buddy Dyer vowed.
FBI Director James Comey said that Mateen had "strong indications of radicalization" and was probably inspired by foreign terrorist organizations.
He said Mateen called 911 around the time of the attack and not only pledged loyalty to the Islamic State group but also expressed solidarity with the Tsarnaev brothers who carried out the Boston Marathon bombing and a suicide bomber who died on behalf of the al-Nusra front, a group at odds with the ISIS.
In the past few years, Mateen also expressed support for both al-Qaida and its enemy Hezbollah, Comey noted.
The FBI investigated Mateen for 10 months beginning in May 2013 after co-workers reported he made inflammatory remarks in support of terrorists.
Comey said investigators introduced him to confidential sources, followed him and reviewed some of his communications, but Mateen claimed he made the remarks in anger because co-workers were teasing and discriminating against him because he was Muslim. The investigation was brought to a close.
Two months later he popped up on federal radar again for attending the same mosque as a Florida man who conducted a suicide bombing for ISIS in Syria, but investigators say in the end they couldn't pin anything on him and they said the link to the bomber was minimal, so he was dropped from the terror watch list completely.
As for whether the FBI should have done anything differently, "So far the honest answer is: 'I don't think so,'" Comey said.
Toni Chrabot, a former special agent in the Jacksonville FBI office who now runs a security firm called Confidence, said how the Mateen investigation was handled will likely be reviewed.
"For me it would make it where you want to put it under a much bigger microscope," Chrabot said, but he added there are limits to what the government can do when there's no indication a crime was committed.
"What's available to the public could be monitored; may be monitored," Chrabot said. "If you're going farther then that, the rules, guidelines and laws were all put in place to protect citizens' rights. So you have to meet certain investigative thresholds before it becomes more intrusive."
One issue that's still unclear is whether the FBI connected his purchase of AR-15 rifle and a Glock handgun last week to the fact that he had previously been on a terror watch list. While he legally could purchase the guns, but no word yet from the bureau if that set off red flags.
At the White House, President Barack Obama said there is no clear evidence so far that Mateen was directed by the Islamic State. He said Mateen was inspired by radical information over the internet, calling it another apparent example of "homegrown extremism."
Counterterrorism experts have been warning in the past few years about the danger of so-called lone wolf attackers who act in sympathy with extremist groups like the Islamic State but are not directed by them.
Despite the 911 call from the club, Mateen's intentions seemed to become murkier when his Afghan immigrant father suggested another motive: anti-gay hatred. The father said his son got angry a few months ago when he saw two men kissing in Miami.
Also, Mateen's ex-wife attributed the violence to mental illness, saying he was bipolar and abusive toward her.
Obama said investigators are still looking into the killer's motivations and considering all possibilities, noting that Muslim extremist groups like the Islamic State have been known to target gays.
The Islamic State group's radio station called Mateen "one of the soldiers of the caliphate in America." Al-Bayan Radio, a media outlet for the extremist group, hailed the attack, saying that it targeted a gathering of Christians and gays and that it was the worst attack on U.S. soil since 9/11.
The statement gave no indication of whether the group planned or knew of the attack beforehand.
Mateen's father, Seddique Mir Mateen, told reporters Monday that the massacre was "the act of a terrorist," and added: "I apologize for what my son did. I am as sad and mad as you guys are."
He wouldn't go into details about any religious or political views his son held, saying he didn't know.
Asked whether he missed his son, he said, "I don't miss anything about him. What he did was against humanity."
Thirty-nine of the dead were killed at the club, and the others died at hospitals, the mayor said. Authorities were still notifying victims' families Monday.
At least 53 people were hospitalized, including five in grave condition, meaning the death toll could rise.
The previous deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history was the 2007 attack at Virginia Tech, where a student killed 32 people and took his own life.
Mateen bought at least two guns legally within the last week or so, according to Trevor Velinor of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Mateen exchanged gunfire with 14 police officers at the club and took hostages at one point. In addition to the assault-style rifle and handgun, he had a weapon in his vehicle, police said.
Police Chief John Mina said officers held back for some time because Mateen indicated he had a bomb vest. About 5 a.m., authorities sent in a SWAT team to rescue the remaining clubgoers, Mina said.
Copyright 2016 by WJXT News4Jax. The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.