- The Washington Times - Monday, June 20, 2016

Orlando gunman Omar Mateen told police during the three hours he was holed up inside a gay nightclub with hostages that he was an “Islamic soldier” and armed with additional explosive devices that he threatened to detonate, according to transcripts released Monday of his phone conversations with law enforcement.

The FBI initially released redacted portions of a transcript of a 50-second 911 call in which the gunman pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. Officials defended the censored document, saying they did not want to “provide the killer or terrorist organizations with a publicity platform for hateful propaganda.”

But swift criticism led the Justice Department to overrule the decision, and hours later it released the full transcript of the 911 call, which included the pledge to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

The information released Monday provides a more detailed timeline of events in the early-morning hours of June 12, when Mateen stormed Pulse nightclub in a hail of gunfire, fatally shooting 49 people and injuring 53 others.

Orlando Police Chief John Mina used the information to push back against criticism that his officers did not act quickly enough to breach the nightclub and rescue clubgoers trapped inside with the gunman. Initial reports of gunfire at the club came in at 2:02 a.m.

Between the second time Mateen exchanged gunfire with police in the club at 2:08 p.m. and when police blew a hole in the wall of the building at 5:02 a.m. to rescue individuals stuck inside, there were no gunshots fired inside the club, Chief Mina said.

“There was no other gunfire until the hostage rescue operation took place,” Chief Mina said. “During that time our officers were intermittently in and out of that club saving people, rescuing people from inside the club.”

Mateen called 911 from inside the club about 30 minutes after shooting his way inside, telling an emergency call taker that he was the shooter and making claims of allegiance that investigators are still vetting.

“Praise be to God, and prayers as well as peace be upon the prophet of God [in Arabic],” Mateen said, according to the transcript. “I let you know, I’m in Orlando, and I did the shootings.”

Despite the information Mateen relayed in the calls, FBI Special Agent in Charge Ron Hopper said Monday that investigators still have no indication that the gunman was directed to carry out the attacks by any foreign terrorist group. Rather, they believe Mateen was radicalized domestically, he said.

During the three-hour standoff, Mateen spoke with a crisis negotiator three times, raising additional concern when he falsely advised law enforcement that vehicles in the parking lot were rigged with explosives and that he was wearing an explosive vest. The FBI has released only a summary detailing those calls, which lasted a total of 28 minutes, and a handful of quotes from Mateen.

“There is some vehicle outside that has some bombs, just to let you know. You people are gonna get it, and I’m gonna ignite it if they try to do anything stupid,” Mateen told the negotiator, according to the summary. “In the next few days, you’re going to see more of this type of action going on.”

During the calls he told a crisis negotiator that he wanted Americans to stop bombing Syria and Iraq, and that was why he was “out here right now.” He also falsely told law enforcement that he was wearing a vest like the kind they “used in France,” making reference to explosive vests used in the Paris terrorist attacks in December.

The calls with the crisis negotiator spanned from 2:38 a.m. to 3:24 a.m., and Agent Hopper said throughout the calls that Mateen spoke to negotiators in “a chilling, calm and deliberate manner.” Officials have declined to release audio of the calls or 911 calls placed by victims who were trapped inside, with Agent Hopper saying such a release would be “excruciatingly painful” for victims so soon after the massacre.

The summary provided by the FBI indicates that Mateen hung up on negotiators after the last call at 3:24 a.m., and they were unable to get back in touch with him.

At 4:21 a.m. the Orlando Police Department was able to pull an air conditioning unit from one of the dressing rooms in Pulse, and eight victims were able to escape. Victims who escaped told police that the gunman had said he was going to put four vests with bombs on victims stuck inside within 15 minutes.

At 5:02 a.m. Orlando police began to try to breach the wall of the nightclub with explosive charges they rigged to the outside of the wall and armored vehicle.

By 5:15 a.m. officials confirmed that Mateen had been shot and was down.

Chief Mina said police are still unable to say whether any of the victims who were shot were struck by officers’ gunfire.

The investigation continues into whether others around Mateen, including his wife Noor Salman, were aware of his plans before he launched the attack at Pulse.

U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida A. Lee Bentley declined on Monday to speak about the ongoing investigation. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch is scheduled to visit Orlando on Tuesday to receive an update on the investigation.

Ms. Lynch’s office found itself on the defense Monday after receiving blowback over the initial decision not to release the full transcript of the 911 call.

The Justice Department explained its reversal in a statement, saying that the redactions had become an “unnecessary distraction from the hard work that the FBI and our law enforcement partners have been doing to investigate this heinous crime.”

“As much of this information had been previously reported, we have reissued the complete transcript to include these references in order to provide the highest level of transparency possible under the circumstances,” the DOJ statement said.

The initial decision by the FBI not to release the full transcript drew swift rebuke from House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, who called the selective editing “preposterous,” and led the White House to blame the Justice Department and FBI for deciding on their own to redact references to radical Islam.

“The view of the White House is that we should not interfere with an ongoing investigation and, rather, that those decisions should be made consistent with the assessment by law enforcement officials about the best way to advance the investigation,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.

The episode built upon persistent criticism of the president for avoiding use of the term “radical Islam” when talking about the terrorist threat. Mr. Obama has said the term risks insulting or alienating Muslims who are the U.S. partners in fighting terrorism.

Such criticism also has become a frequent refrain in the stump speech of likely GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump.

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