Shooter, weapon, victims, motive, legacy: 5 things about the Orlando carnage

  • Yashwant Raj, Hindustan Times, Washington
  • Updated: Jun 14, 2016 12:22 IST
Hundreds attend a rally and vigil for the shootings in Orlando at Los Angeles City Hall on June 13, 2016 in Los Angeles, California organized by the Los Angeles LGBT Center. (AFP)

Minutes before Omar Mateen opened fire with his fast-loading AR-15 assault rifle, he called 911 -- a lifeline for Americans in distress -- to profess allegiance to Islamic State’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

He also referred to Boston bombers, who had nothing to do with IS, and a fellow Floridian who travelled to Syria to fight with Jabhat al-Nusra, the al Qaeda affiliate in Syria.

The New York-born 29-year-old who was all over the map with his proclaimed links to jihadists, it seems, could barely tell one group from the other.

And his target was an Orlando, Florida nightclub catering exclusively to gay people -- a top target for hate-crimes in the US, according to the FBI – on a special Latin night.

Was Mateen, whose parents are Afghan-born, just an average American hater whose personal religious beliefs mischaracterised him a terrorist only because the case checked all the relevant boxes?

President Barack Obama called the carnage an act of hate and an act of terror on Sunday. A day later, he ruled out any outside role, calling the worst mass shooting in the US history a case of “homegrown extremism”.

Five things you need to know about the case:

The Shooter: Unlike 9/11 terrorists, all of whom came from other countries (mostly Saudi Arabia), Omar Mateen was born in New York and grew up in the United States. And, with the likes of another locally born terrorist Syed Rizwan Farook, Mateen presents the biggest terrorist threat faced by the US, called -- as President Barack Obama put it on Monday -- “homegrown extremism (often times called homegrown terrorism)”. The US has not allowed a single terrorist attack by outsiders since 9/11 but has a new worry --- homegrown attacks carried out by groups of individuals or lone-wolf strikes inspired by jihadi propaganda, especially on social media.

Read | Omar Mateen: How a ‘playful’ child became Orlando shooter

His motivation: A 9/11 call Mateen made before going on the rampage, professing allegiance to Islamic State is the only evidence available yet of his motivation. He radicalised much before, according to the FBI, but not enough to be considered a threat. His former wife has said he wasn’t very religious when they were still together. Was he just a homophobe , as his father has claimed, much like many Americans, especially those on the Right — he did choose a gay nightclub as his target after all? Or, was it a mix of both —Obama described the massacre as both an act of hate and an act of terror.

His weapons: An assault rifle AR-15 and a Glock handgun. It’s not just coincidence that AR-15s have been used in some of the worst shootings in recent US history — the Colorado theatre shooting, Newtown School massacre and San Bernardino terrorist strike. After the killing of 20 first graders in Newtown in 2012, the Obama administration pushed for a ban on assault rifles but gave up in the face of fierce resistance from the powerful National Rifle Association, the leading gun lobby that pressured even Democratic lawmakers to come out in opposition. Gun-control supporters have since lowered expectations considerably to push only for “commonsense measures”, including background checks to ensure guns don’t fall into wrong hands.

Read | America’s favourite gun: AR-15 used by Orlando shooter has bloody history

His victims: All guests at Pulse on a designated Latin night -- which is why victims were mostly Hispanics. But that may or may not have been Mateen’s motivation — nothing in his background revealed in the hours since the carnage points to an antipathy for Hispanics, though a colleague from work has said Mateen could get racist during his periodic outbursts.

Sexual-orientation, on the other hand, accounts for the largest chunk of hate-crimes in the United States — 20.8% in 2013, according to the FBI -- more than religion and ethnicity. Was he just an average American homophobe, and there are plenty around despite apparently long strides — light years ahead of India, which has re-criminalised homosexuality in recent years — made by the country in accepting, recognising and legitimising LGBT relationships.

His legacy: Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, is using the shooting to stoke fears about Muslims, calling for a ban on Muslims from countries of origin of those who have targeted the US for terrorist attacks. And there are plenty of those. Would that include Pakistan, the country of origin for San Bernardino attackers and many others before and now on a long and growing list? Neither he nor his campaign had answers. But, the shooting could play on latent fears about another 9/11 terrorist strike that Trump has clearly spotted and is trying to exploit.

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