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Orlando mourns as authorities probe shooter’s motives

As thousands in Orlando turned out to mourn 49 people killed inside a gay nightclub, federal investigators examined possible motives for the gunman who committed the worst mass shooting in modern US history.

world Updated: Jun 14, 2016 19:18 IST
AP
Tony Backe, of Orlando, lights candles at a makeshift memorial for victims of the mass shooting at Pulse gay nightclub on Tuesday.
Tony Backe, of Orlando, lights candles at a makeshift memorial for victims of the mass shooting at Pulse gay nightclub on Tuesday. (AP)

As thousands in Orlando turned out to mourn 49 people killed inside a gay nightclub, federal investigators examined possible motives for the gunman who committed the worst mass shooting in modern US history.

The White House and the FBI said 29-year-old Omar Mateen, an American-born Muslim, appears to be a “homegrown extremist” who had touted support not just for the Islamic State but other radical groups that are its enemies.

“So far, we see no indication that this was a plot directed from outside the US, and we see no indication that he was part of any kind of network,” FBI director James Comey said on Monday. He said Mateen was clearly “radicalised”, at least in part via the internet.

Despite Mateen’s pledge of support to the IS, other possible explanations emerged. His ex-wife said he suffered from mental illness. His Afghan-immigrant father suggested he may have acted out of anti-gay hatred, and said his son got angry recently about seeing two men kiss.

But questions also emerged over whether Mateen was conflicted about his own sexuality.

Jim Van Horn, 71, said Mateen was a “regular” at the popular Pulse nightclub where he’d later take hostages and leave 49 dead.

“He was trying to pick up people. Men,” Van Horn told The Associated Press late on Monday outside Parliament House, another gay club.

Van Horn, a retired pharmacist, said he met Mateen once, and the younger man talked about his ex-wife. But Van Horn said his friends soon “told me they didn’t want me talking to him, because they thought he was a strange person.”

Van Horn acknowledged he didn’t know Mateen well, but said he suspects the massacre was less about Islamic extremism and more about a man conflicted about his sexuality. “I think it’s possible that he was trying to deal with his inner demons, of trying to get rid of his anger of homosexuality,” said Van Horn, who lost three friends in the shooting.

“It’s really confusing to me. Because you can’t change who you are. But if you pretend that you’re different, then you may shoot up a gay bar.”

The Orlando Sentinel and other news organisations quoted other regulars from Pulse who said they had seen Mateen there a number of times.

On Monday night, just about a mile from Pulse in downtown Orlando, thousands gathered for a vigil to support the victims and survivors. The names of the dead were read aloud.

It was held on the lawn of Orlando’s main performing arts venue, where mourners created a makeshift memorial of flowers, candles and notes for the victims. Many said they felt compelled to attend because of the role Pulse played in their lives.

“It was a place that a young 20-year-old who wasn’t openly gay felt safe for the first time,” said Cathleen Daus, now 36, who worked at Pulse in her 20s. “Pulse gave me confidence, made me realise I was normal and so much like everyone else.”

Some, including Jason Primar, who lost two friends in the massacre, released balloons that flew high above the downtown skyscrapers. Primar went to Pulse at 2 am on Sunday, hoping for a good time with friends. Instead, he was greeted with gunshots and worries about those inside.

“I felt like I was over in Iraq,” he said. He called his two friends inside; they never answered. He later discovered they died.

Comey said the FBI was trying to determine whether Mateen had recently scouted Disney World as a potential target, as reported by People.com, which cited an unidentified federal law enforcement source.

He defended the bureau’s handling of Mateen during two previous investigations into apparent terrorist sympathies. As for whether there was anything the FBI should have done differently, “so far, the honest answer is, I don’t think so,” Comey said.

Wielding an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle and a handgun, Mateen opened fire at Pulse early on Sunday in a three-hour shooting rampage and hostage siege that ended with a SWAT team killing him. During the attack, he called 911 to profess allegiance to the IS.

At the White House, President Barack Obama said there is no clear evidence so far that Mateen was directed by the group, calling the attack an apparent example of “homegrown extremism.”

More details of the massacre emerged, with Orlando police chief John Mina saying Mateen was “cool and calm” during phone calls with negotiators. But Mina said he decided to send the SWAT team in and bash through a wall after Mateen holed up with hostages in a bathroom and talked about bombs and an explosive vest.

“We knew there would be an imminent loss of life,” Mina said. As it turned out, Mateen had no explosives with him.