At 2 a.m. last Sunday, the worst terrorist attack on the United States since 9/11 unfolded in Orlando, Florida. The target was a popular gay dance club packed with guests for Latin Night. By the time the horrific ordeal was over, three hours later, 49 party-goers plus the gunman were dead while 53 more were injured, many of them gravely.
The attack on Pulse nightclub has left America in shock, horrified by the reappearance of mass-casualty terrorism perpetrated in the name of Islam. President Obama had been lucky before last weekend. His two terms witnessed several Islamist terror attacks inside the USA, but nothing like Orlando. The Fort Hood, Texas shooting in 2009, by a U.S. Army major, killed 13 soldiers. The Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 killed only three but injured more than 250 others. Most recently, the San Bernardino, California attack last December killed 14 Americans. While all these incidents were traumatic, they pale in comparison to the Orlando horror.
The killer, responsible for the bloodiest mass murder in American history, was himself killed by police. Armed with an assault rifle and a pistol, Omar Mateen embarked on the one-way jihadist mission he must have long fantasized about. Just before commencing his slaughter of the homosexuals he hated, Mateen pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.
Mateen was born in New York City in 1986 to parents who immigrated from Afghanistan. To all appearances, the 29 year-old had a normal American upbringing without excessive religiosity. He had a brief marriage that failed. His ex-wife noted he was not especially religious but he did beat her frequently. After they divorced, Mateen embraced a more fervent version of Islam, including attending a mosque in Fort Pierce, Florida, several times per week. That same mosque produced a young radical, Moner Abu Salha, who died as a suicide bomber in Syria in 2014.
There had been previous warning signs about Omer Mateen. He is reported to have greeted news of the 9/11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon with unconcealed glee, something that disturbed fellow students at his high school.
Then there is the strange matter of his family. Seddique Mateen, his father, has pronounced that his son’s horrible crimes have nothing do with Islam, and he professes to have no idea what inspired his mass murder spree. However, the father has stated that homosexuals deserve divine punishment, and he has also praised the Taliban. The elder Mateen is active in Afghan diaspora politics, including hosting a satellite TV show aimed at his homeland. Bizarrely, he has sometimes claimed to be the real president of Afghanistan.
There is nothing amusing about his son, however, who developed a penchant for angry statements against gays, minorities, and others he didn’t like. He made repeated threats of violence and co-workers noticed. He was employed beginning in mid-2007 for G4S, a British multinational security company that does lots of work in the USA, including some for the U.S. Government. As a security guard, Mateen had reason to be armed and he stayed with that firm until his death, although his tenure was rocky. Complaints mounted about his troubling ways, but G4S did nothing about them.
One co-worker, who later became a police officer, repeatedly complained about violent anti-gay statements by Mateen, whom he considered “unhinged and unstable.” Mateen then began stalking that co-worker, yet G4S kept him on the job. In disgust, the co-worker resigned, believing that their employer did nothing about Mateen’s troubling behavior because it was afraid to take action due to Mateen’s religion.
It’s apparent that Mateen was able to get away with years of violent statements and threats due to a pervasive fear of Islamophobia. It even derailed the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Mateen’s bizarre statements to co-workers, including claims that he belonged to an international terrorist group, got the FBI’s attention, and in 2013 the Bureau opened a formal investigation into him.
That investigation lasted ten months and included the employment of confidential informants and wiretaps on Mateen, as well as two interviews with the security guard, but ultimately closed without adding Omar Mateen to any permanent list of suspected terrorists in the United States.
The FBI ultimately concluded that Mateen was a fantasist more than a terrorist. Although he claimed to have joined multiple terrorist groups, there was no evidence to back any of that up. To top it off, the FBI concluded that Mateen was engaging in bizarre behavior due to “co-workers discriminating against him and teasing him because he was Muslim.” In 2014, the FBI opened a second investigation into Mateen and reached the same conclusion: he was a fantasist not a jihadist.
Since Mateen had no criminal record and was not under FBI investigation any longer, he had no trouble buying an AR-15 assault rifle just days before the Orlando attack. Florida has permissive gun laws even by American standards. That semi-automatic weapon did most of the killing last Sunday. Americans should be asking how anybody who had been twice investigated on terrorism suspicions was able to buy an assault rifle so easily.
But Americans must also ask why we tolerate such angry, violent behavior in the first place. A security firm where he carried a gun was hardly the place an unbalanced hater like Mateen should have been working. Fear of Islamophobia seems to have trumped fear of murder.
Although it appears unlikely that the Islamic State had anything directly to do with Mateen, they were happy to claim responsibility for his atrocity. After all, the group has encouraged followers worldwide to wage individual jihad against the “infidel” West. And they hate no one more than gays, whom they butcher at every opportunity.
The FBI has confirmed that Mateen was yet another case of online radicalization, which is commonplace in the West now. He watched ISIS videos that propagate the group’s violent, hate-filled ideology. In 2016, this is sufficient for some would-be jihadists: actual trips to the Middle East are optional.
Reports proliferate of more than one shooter at Pulse but they remain unconfirmed. Yet it is remarkable that Mateen, who had no combat experience, managed to kill 49 people all by himself, while the Islamic State attack on Paris last November that killed 130 involved nine terrorists, several of whom were veteran killers from the Syrian war.
Many questions remain unanswered. The FBI is now doing the investigation they should have done years before, including raids on Mateen’s friends and family, looking for any network that may have helped the killer. Although “lone wolves” exist they are rare in reality. Most terrorists have help from someone. We need to know the full story here.
In the meantime, President Obama has talked about hate and guns causing Orlando, omitting any discussion of Islamism or jihad. Hillary Clinton has done much the same, calling for a ban on assault weapons not jihadism (though Ms. Clinton is willing to admit radical Islam is a problem).
For his part, Donald Trump has stated he was right all along about the jihadist threat, reiterating his call for a ban on immigration from countries where terrorism is common. In effect, this means banning Muslims. This position, unpopular with American elites, may prove popular with average voters who are disgusted by what has just happened.
America’s presidential election is still almost five months away but the Orlando horror seems certain to feature prominently in the race. Although President Obama’s war on terrorism has taken place mostly in Afghanistan and Iraq, plus drone strikes in several more countries, last weekend showed that there is a home front too in the fight against the Islamic State. That is a fight no president can afford to lose.
(This article appeared in the German newspaper BILD, you can read that here.)