The gunman who killed 50 people at a popular Orlando gay nightclub early Sunday had twice come under investigation by the FBI for potential terrorist ties and paused during the attack to call 911 in order to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State, according to a police statement.
The FBI first came into contact with the suspected shooter, 29-year-old Omar Mateen, in 2013 after he made inflammatory remarks to co-workers that suggested possible terrorist ties, said FBI Special Agent in Charge Ronald Hopper. Mateen was interviewed twice at that point, but investigators were unable to verify the authenticity of the comments made.
Mateen again drew the attention of investigators in 2014 as the FBI probed his connection to Moner Mohammad Abusalha, the first American to carry out a suicide attack in Syria. The contact between the two was determined to “be minimal,” Agent Hopper said.
Officials said nothing conclusive came from the two investigations that would have prevented Mateen from legally purchasing firearms. ATF officials said he bought two firearms, a handgun and a long gun, in the days before the Orlando shooting.
Police officials said during the rampage at the Pulse nightclub that Mateen placed a 911 call in which he pledged general allegiance to the leader of the Islamic State and mentioned the Boston Marathon bombers. Mateen was killed by a police tactical unit after he opened fire on the crowd at the Pulse nightclub.
“During a conference call with federal law enforcement officials a short time ago, Massachusetts State Police and other local law enforcement authorities learned that the Orlando nightclub gunman, during his rampage, pledged allegiance to ISIS and referenced the Tsarnaev brothers, the terrorists who exploded bombs at the 2013 Boston Marathon,” Massachusetts State Police said in a statement posted on WCVB-TV in Boston.
NBC News reported that the shooter cried “Allahu akhbar!” during the attack.
“As previously stated, the names of the gunman and his wife did not appear in any databases of potential terrorist suspects maintained by local authorities; however, law enforcement agencies in Massachusetts continue to work with federal authorities to learn more about the nature of the statement about the Tsarnaev brothers attributed to the Orlando terrorist,” the statement said.
The FBI has not definitively linked the shooting to Islamic radicalism, although the FBI agent in charge said early Sunday, “We do have suggestions that that individual may have leanings toward that particular ideology.”
FBI Special Agent in Charge Ron Hopper later characterized the probe as “a general investigation, period.”
“We’ll determine officially if it’s hate crime, or a terrorism incident or even a violent crime once we have the facts in place. We’re at the very early stages,” he said.
Rep. Peter King, New York Republican, told CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday: “It’s really early in the investigation, but the indicators are clear that this person did have Islamist leanings.”
Mr. King stressed that the attacker may have been a psychotic or a “plain lone wolf,” although based on reports from his sources, “I can see now why so early on the FBI agent said why they were leaning toward an Islamist influence here.”
“This is a time when ISIS would be trying to inspire people or actually direct people to carry out attacks, so all of that is being looked into. I think it is too early to say definitively that this is not part of an overall plot, if there is one,” Mr. King.
Authorities said Mateen was born in New York but his parents are from Afghanistan.
Florida Department of Law Enforcement Special Agent in Charge Danny Banks said during a news conference that the mass shooting is being investigated as an act of terrorism. He says authorities are looking into whether this was an act of domestic or international terror, and if the shooter was a lone wolf.
“This is an incident, as I see it, that we certainly classify as domestic terror incident,” said Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings.