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Gunman Claiming Allegiance to ISIS Kills 50 at Orlando Nightclub
A gunman who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State killed 50 people and wounded 53 in a crowded gay nightclub here early Sunday. The gunman, identified as Omar Mateen, had been investigated twice by the F.B.I. for possible connections to terrorism, the bureau said, but no ties could be confirmed.
Mr. Mateen, 29, an American citizen whose parents were from Afghanistan, called 911 and talked about the Islamic State shortly before the massacre at the Pulse nightclub, the worst mass shooting in American history, Ronald Hopper, an assistant agent in charge of the F.B.I.'s Tampa Division, said at a news conference. Other federal officials said more explicitly that he had declared allegiance to the group.
"The F.B.I. first became aware of him in 2013 when he made inflammatory comments to co-workers alleging possible terrorist ties," but could not find any incriminating evidence, Agent Hopper said.
In 2014, the bureau investigated Mr. Mateen again, for possible ties to Moner Mohammad Abusalha, an American who grew up in Florida but went to Syria to fight for an extremist group and detonated a suicide bomb. Agent Hopper said the bureau concluded that the contact between the two men had been minimal, and that Mr. Mateen "did not constitute a substantive threat at that time."
The suspicions did not prevent Mr. Mateen, who lived in Fort Pierce, Fla., from working as a security guard, or from buying guns. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said Mr. Mateen legally bought a long gun and a pistol in the last week or two, though it was not clear whether those were the weapons used in the assault.
Hours after the attack, the Islamic State claimed responsibility in a statement released over an encrypted phone app used by the group. It stated that the attack "was carried out by an Islamic State fighter," according to a transcript provided by the SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks jihadist propaganda.
But officials cautioned that even if Mr. Mateen, who court records show was born in New York and had been married and divorced, had been inspired by the group, there was no indication that it had trained or instructed him, or had any direct connection with him. The pair who killed 14 people in San Bernardino, Calif., in December also proclaimed allegiance to the Islamic State, but investigators do not believe they had any contact with the group.
"The F.B.I. is appropriately investigating this as an act of terror," President Obama said from the White House. He said that the gunman clearly had been "filled with hatred" and that investigators were seeking to determine any ties to overseas terrorist groups.
"In the face of hate and violence, we will love one another," he said. "We will not give in to fear or turn against each other. Instead, we will stand united as Americans to protect our people and defend our nation, and to take action against those who threaten us."
As he had after previous mass shootings, the president said the shooting demonstrated again the need for what he called "common sense" gun measures.
"This massacre is therefore a further reminder of how easy it is for someone to get their hands on a weapon that lets them shoot people in a school or a house of worship or a movie theater or a nightclub," Mr. Obama said. "We have to decide if that's the kind of country we want to be. To actively do nothing is a decision as well."
The killer stormed the Pulse nightclub armed with an AR-15-style assault rifle and a handgun at about 2 a.m., while more than 300 people were inside dancing and drinking, John Mina, the Orlando police chief, said. Mr. Mateen shot about one-third of the people in the packed club, mowing down patrons while many others, some of them bleeding, fled down the darkened streets of the surrounding neighborhood.
The result was the worst terrorist attack on American soil since Sept. 11, 2001, and the deadliest attack in the nation's history on a specifically gay gathering. The F.B.I. set up a hotline for tips.
The gunman holed up inside with dozens of people effectively held hostage, some of them hiding in a restroom frantically calling for help, until about 5 a.m., when a police SWAT team, using an armored vehicle and stun grenades, raided the building and killed him. Officials said 11 law enforcement officers had exchanged fire with the gunman.
In that assault, an officer was wounded, his life saved by a Kevlar helmet that deflected a bullet, and at least 30 people were rescued, Chief Mina said. Some survivors escaped under cover of what the police called two "discretionary explosions."
The shooting led to an increase in security at gay pride events and gay landmarks in cities around the country, including Washington, New York and Chicago. Law enforcement officials in Santa Monica, Calif., on Sunday confirmed the arrest of a heavily armed man who said he was in the area for West Hollywood's gay pride parade. The authorities, however, said they did not know of any connection between the arrest and the Orlando shooting.
Some terrorist attacks, like the San Bernardino killings in December, were carried out in the name of Islam by people, some of them born and raised in the West, who were "self-radicalized."
The Islamic State in particular has encouraged "lone wolf" attacks in the West, a point reinforced recently by a spokesman for the group, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, in his annual speech just before the holy month of Ramadan. In past years, the Islamic State and Al Qaeda ramped up attacks during Ramadan.
"Make it, Allah permitting, a month of hurt on the infidels everywhere," Mr. Adnani said, according to a translation provided by the SITE Intelligence Group. Noting that some supporters have lamented that they cannot strike at military targets, he took pains to explain why killing civilians in the land of the infidel is not just permitted but encouraged.
Rasha Mubarak, the Orlando regional coordinator of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, released a statement saying: "We condemn this monstrous attack and offer our heartfelt condolences to the families and loved ones of all those killed or injured. The Muslim community joins our fellow Americans in repudiating anyone or any group that would claim to justify or excuse such an appalling act of violence."
The toll of the dead and injured far exceeded those of the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech, where 32 people were killed, and the 2012 shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., where 26 people were killed.
Pulse, which calls itself "Orlando's Latin Hotspot," was holding its weekly "Upscale Latin Saturdays" party with three D.J.s and a midnight show. Witnesses described a scene of chaos and confusion, and some said it was hard at first to realize that the gunshots were not part of the loud, pulsing dance music.
"We were dancing by the hip-hop area when I heard shots, bam, bam, bam, and the only thing I could think of was to duck, but I ran out instead," said Joel Figueroa, 19, of Orlando, who had been inside. "Everybody was screaming and running toward the front door. I didn't get to see the shooter."
He said a friend of his had been shot three times and taken to a hospital.
Ray Rivera, a D.J. at the club, was playing reggae music in the patio area when the shooting started, while Latin music played inside the building.
"I heard shots, so I lower the volume of the music to hear better because I wasn't sure of what I just heard," Mr. Rivera said. "I thought it was firecrackers, then I realized that someone is shooting at people in the club.
"I heard like 40 shots coming from the main area of the club," he continued. "I ran away through a side gate. I saw bodies on the floor, people on the floor everywhere. It was a chaos, everybody trying to get out."
Mr. Rivera, 42, who has worked at Pulse for years, said: "This is a nice club, decent, people come from all over to dance and have a good time. Young people. A lot of young people were there last night. This is crazy."
The club posted a message on its Facebook page about 3 a.m.: "Everyone get out of pulse and keep running."
People streamed out of the club into a chaotic situation with little idea of where to go. "Cops were saying, 'Go, go, clear the area,'" Christopher Hansen told an Orlando TV station. "You don't know who's what and who's where."
Witnesses and police officers carried bleeding people down the streets, sometimes loading them into police vehicles for the drive to hospitals rather than waiting for ambulances. The club is three blocks down South Orange Avenue from Orlando Regional Medical Center, the region's primary trauma center, and two other hospitals also took in victims.
"Please keep everyone in your prayers as we work through this tragic event," the nightclub's post said. "Thank you for your thoughts and love."
The Gay Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center of Central Florida said it was offering grief counseling to victims and survivors.
Officials at Orlando Regional Medical Center asked members of the families of victims and missing people to gather at the north entrance, where they would be escorted inside.
The slaughter at Pulse occurred a day after the singer Christina Grimmie, a star of YouTube and the reality TV show "The Voice," was shot down after a concert in Orlando. The police said she had been killed by a St. Petersburg, Fla., man who drove to Orlando with the specific intention to kill Ms. Grimmie. The man, Kevin James Loibl, killed himself moments later.
Chief Mina said Mr. Loibl had traveled to Orlando with two handguns, several loaded magazines and a hunting knife. Police officials were examining his telephone and computer to try to determine a motive.
[Source: By Lizette Alvarez and Richard Pérez-Peña, International New York Times, Orlando, 12Jun16]
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