- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 12, 2016

Omar Mateen, the 29-year-old man responsible for the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, was reportedly on the FBI’s radar as a known Islamic State sympathizer, though federal authorities remain unclear about the extent of his ties to the terrorist group.

The Islamic State itself, also known as ISIS or ISIL, was not so reticent Sunday and claimed credit for Mateen’s shooting rampage at the gay nightclub Pulse, which ended with 50 people dead and another 53 wounded.

“The attack that targeted a nightclub for homosexuals in Orlando, Florida was carried out by an Islamic State fighter,” according to a tweet sent out by the Amaq Agency, an online Islamic State propaganda operation.

Mateen reportedly pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in a 911 call to law enforcement authorities just before tactical police units stormed the nightclub where he had holed up. His call also mentioned the Boston Marathon bombings, committed by two self-radicalized jihadis.

Mateen was tagged as a “person of interest” by the FBI in 2013 and 2014 for suspected ties to Islamist organizations. Federal agents closed their inquiry into the U.S.-born son of Afghan immigrants after being unable to establish any connections between Mr. Mateen and such groups.

The 2013 investigation concerned inflammatory comments he made to co-workers about terrorism, and the 2014 probe was over suspected ties to Moner Mohammad Abusalha, the first American to carry out a suicide attack in Syria on behalf of the Islamic State.

Ronald Hopper, assistant FBI agent in charge, said the 2013 probe was closed after two interviews even though some of Mateen’s statements could not be verified. The 2014 investigation decided the links between the two men were insignificant, Mr. Hopper said.

Armed with a handgun and a semi-automatic AR-15 rifle, Mateen opened fire on the patrons of Pulse early Sunday before a SWAT team could storm the club and kill him to end what the White House and FBI quickly characterized as an “act of terror.”

Despite the Islamic State statement, Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, told reporters that no evidence showing direct communications between Mateen and Islamist militant groups had been unearthed.

President Obama acknowledged that the nightclub shootings bore all the hallmarks of an “act of terror” but did not directly link them to the Islamic State.

“We are still learning all the facts,” he said. “This is an open investigation. We’ve reached no definitive judgment on the precise motivations of the killer. The FBI is appropriately investigating this as an act of terrorism inspiration or association this killer may have had with terrorist groups.”

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter expressed his sympathies for the victims of Sunday’s bloody attack, noting “if [federal] investigators conclude this was an act of terror directed or inspired by ISIL, it will only steel our resolve to defeat this depraved enemy, prevent the spread of its hateful ideology, and defend our people,” according to a Pentagon statement.

Mateen received professional training in small arms and tactics as a member of G4S Secure Solutions, a global private security firm whose North American offices have headquarters in Jupiter, Florida.

As a member of the firm since 2007, which has executed security contracts for U.S. and international governments, Mateen received classroom and field weapons training and held state licenses to obtain and carry small arms.

In a media statement, G4S officials confirmed that Mateen was an employee and said they were cooperating fully with the FBI investigation.

In a news conference in Colorado, Mateen’s ex-wife said he was “mentally unstable and mentally ill” and susceptible to violent mood swings during their four-month marriage, punctuated by repeated instances of domestic abuse at their home in Fort Pierce, Florida.

Sitora Yusufiy said she “started to fear for my safety” after a few months, “left all my belongings” behind and had “my family literally rescue me” from his arms.

Ms. Yusufiy said she had no contact with Mateen for seven or eight years after their marriage.

Mateen reportedly became more devout to his Muslim faith after the couple split. He recently completed the umrah, a nonmandatory Muslim religious pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia.

He also regularly attended services at the Islamic Center at Fort Pierce, the mosque’s Imam Shafiq Rahman told The Washington Post. However, Imam Rahman said Mateen exhibited no signs of radicalism or sympathetic overtures toward the Islamic State or other militant organizations.

Leaders of the Islamic State recently called for attacks in the West during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

“Here [the month of] Ramadan has come. The month of jihad, fighting, and conquests. Get ready and be prepared and let each of you make sure to spend it as a conqueror for the sake of Allah and seek what Allah has preserved for you, and make it a month of wrath against the kuffar [infidels] everywhere,” according to a May statement by Islamic State spokesman Abu Muhammed al-Adnani.

Al-Adnani called on jihadis to attack civilians. “The smallest bit of work that you can carry out in their countries is far better and beloved to us than any major work here,” he said in reference to the terrorist group’s fight against U.S.-backed forces in Iraq and Syria.

American and European civilian targets over the past several years have been preferred for self-radicalized converts, known in military and intelligence circles as “lone wolves,” to the Islamic State, al Qaeda and other extremist groups.

Mr. Schiff said Mateen’s self-radicalization does not mean he was “under the command and control of ISIS.”

“The question now is, was this a lone wolf acting or was he recruited by ISIS? Was he directed by ISIS?” said Rep. Peter T. King, New York Republican.

Attacks by Islamic State operatives in January and November left hundreds injured and dead in Paris, rocking the European Union’s security and intelligence apparatus to the core.

In December, Tashfeen Malik and Syed Farook killed 14 people and wounded more than 20 others in San Bernardino, California, before local authorities gunned them down.

The subsequent FBI investigation determined that Malik and Farook had become self-radicalized, but federal investigators could not prove either had been in direct communication with the Islamic State, al Qaeda or other radical militant groups. Nevertheless, the Islamic State issued a statement praising them as “soldiers of the caliphate.”

Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev detonated two homemade bombs during the Boston Marathon in 2013, killing three and wounding over 200. FBI investigators discovered that Tamerlan, the elder of the two brothers, made contact with militant Islamic groups in Russia in 2011.

U.S. military officials recently warned that Western civilian targets could come under increasing attack as the Islamic State loses ground in its strongholds in Iraq and Syria.

“As Iraq enters the holy month of Ramadan, we expect [the Islamic State] to attempt more high-profile, headline-grabbing attacks to sow terror and to distract from the fact that they keep losing militarily,” Col. Chris Garver, the top American military spokesman in Iraq, told reporters last week.

U.N. Undersecretary-General Jeffrey Feltman told the U.N. Security Council that the Islamic State would likely begin activating its clandestine cells in the West to begin carrying out attacks against civilians

This “new phase” of Islamic State operations could include “elevating the role of its affiliates, moving funds out of conflict areas and increasing the risk of complex, multiwave and international attacks” in the West, particularly in Europe, Mr. Feltman said Wednesday.

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