- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 12, 2016

A gunman who had sworn allegiance to Islamic State opened fire early Sunday at a crowded Orlando nightclub, killing 49 people and wounding 53 in the worst mass shooting in U.S. history and the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11.

Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old security guard from Port St. Lucie, Florida, was killed — bringing th death total to 50 — in a firefight with a SWAT team at about 5 a.m., three hours after he began his rampage at the Pulse, a popular gay club.

“This is clearly an act of terrorism. It’s sickening. It should make every American angry,” said Florida Gov. Rick Scott at an Orlando press conference.

Hundreds of Floridians responded by lining up outside the OneBlood blood bank in Orlando after pleas by medical and city officials, while a half-dozen churches and community groups held Sunday night vigils for the dead and injured.

Orange County Sheriff Ron Demings described the shooting as “not purely an attack on the residents of Florida or the residents of Orlando here, but this was indeed an attack on our nation.”

Police began releasing the names and ages of the dead late Sunday from Pulse, which had been hosting a Latin night celebration. The first seven victims identified were young men in their 20s and 30s with Hispanic surnames.

SEE ALSO: Authorities say Orlando gunman is believed to have ties to Islamic terrorism

Those who survived the attack said that at first the gunfire was muted by the music, but that the scene soon morphed into something from a horror movie.

“All you could hear was the ‘boom boom’ of bullets. You think it was part of a song,” Christopher Hanson told CNN. “When I looked behind me and it wasn’t just a song, that there was bodies falling down, the guy next to me was shot, and that’s when I dropped. I made sure that I had to crawl my way out.”

Jon Alamo told reporters he wandered into the club’s main room just in time to see the gunman. “You ever seen how Marine guys hold big weapons, shooting from left to right? That’s how he was shooting at people,” he said.

Within hours of the massacre, reports of Mateen’s links to radical Islam began to surface.

Shortly before the shooting, Mateen called 911, pledged his loyalty to Islamic State and referenced the Tsarneaev brothers, who detonated bombs during the 2013 Boston Marathon. He was identified as an “Islamic State fighter” by Amaq News, a pro-Islamic State news agency.

The FBI confirmed that the shooter was on the radar of law enforcement. He was interviewed twice in 2013 after his alarmed co-workers reported his terror-related comments, and again over his relationship with Moner Mohammad abu-Salha, a U.S. suicide bomber who blew himself up two years ago in Syria.

SEE ALSO: Muslim leader says Orlando gunman acted alone even as FBI probes possibility of network

“We determined that contact was minimal and did not constitute a substantive relationship or a threat at that time,” said FBI assistant special agent in charge Ron Hopper at a press conference.

President Obama described the attack as an “act of terrorism” and vowed to “take action against those who threaten us,” but drew criticism from Republicans for failing to attribute the rampage to radical Islam.

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump said Mr. Obama “should step down” and that his likely Democratic foe, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, should “get out of this race” unless she can say the words “radical Islam.”

“If we do not get tough and smart real fast, we are not going to have a country anymore,” said Mr. Trump in a statement.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan said that “we need to be clear-eyed about who did this.”

“We are a nation at war with Islamist terrorists. Theirs is a repressive, hateful ideology that respects no borders,” said Mr. Ryan in a statement. “It is a threat to our people at home and abroad. Our security depends on our refusal to back down in the face of terror.”

Democrats, meanwhile, were outraged that the gunman was able to obtain the two firearms used in the attack legally. Sheriff Demings said Mateen bought two guns in the last few days, a handgun and a long gun.

“We need to keep guns like the ones used last night out of the hands of terrorists or other violent criminals,” Mrs. Clinton said in a statement.

The gunman’s father told NBC News that his son became angry several months ago after seeing men kissing in Miami.

The father told NBC that his son “saw two men kissing each other in front of his wife and kid, and he got very angry. They were kissing each other and touching each other — ‘Look at that in front of my son, they are doing that.’ Then when we were in the men’s bathroom, men were kissing each other.”

Mr. Seddique, who has apologized for his son Mateen’s actions, said he was not bothered by the displays of affection but that they may have triggered his son.
“Now, looking back, maybe that’s why he went after the gay club,” Mr. Seddique told NBC, while insisting that the rampage “had nothing to do with religion.”

Meanwhile, Muslim advocacy groups condemned the attack while attempting to distance their beliefs from those of the gunman.

“You do not speak for us. You do not represent us. You are an outlaw,” said Nihad Awad, national executive director of the Council for American Islamic Relations at a press conference in Chicago.

Muhammad Musri, senior imam and president of the Islamic Society of Central Florida, described the attack as a mass shooting unconnected to any network.

“We are glad the situation is completely under control, there are no other shooters that this person is … known to be connected with, a network or other people,” Mr. Musri said. “The city residents and the visitors should feel safe.”

He characterized the attack as a mass shooting that could not have been foreseen.

“No one could have predicted this, no one could have prepared for it. This could have happened anywhere. It’s like lightning,” Mr. Musri said.

FBI officials said they are continuing to investigate whether Mateen was working with others in planning or carrying out the attack.

The attack drew immediate comparisons to the San Bernardino shooting in December, in which a Muslim couple killed 14 and injured 22 at the county public health department. Syed Rizwan Farook was American-born, while his wife, Tashfeen Malik, was Pakistani.

Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, called the Orlando massacre an example of “the new face of the war on terror” in which radical Islamists acting on their own or in pairs take aim at “soft targets.”

“They have openly said that they intend to target us here,” said Mr. Rubio on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

That such an attack would be directed at a popular gay nightclub should come as a surprise to nobody, said Mr. Rubio.

“We’ve seen the way radical Islamists have treated gays and lesbians in other countries. We’ve seen this punishable by death,” Mr. Rubio said.

Before Sunday, the deadliest mass shooting on U.S. soil was the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, which saw a student kill 32 people.

• Valerie Richardson can be reached at vrichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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