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What motivated Orlando killer? It was more than terrorism, experts say

FILE - This undated file image shows Omar Mateen, who authorities say killed 49 people inside the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., on Sunday, June 12, 2016. (MySpace via AP, File)
FILE - This undated file image shows Omar Mateen, who authorities say killed 49 people inside the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., on Sunday, June 12, 2016. (MySpace via AP, File) AP

He is the worst mass-shooting murderer in American history. But why?

Was he another homegrown terrorist inspired by radical Islam? A homicidal homophobe who might have been gay himself? A lifelong loser hoping to gain infamy like so many other American mass killers? Some or all of the above?

The emerging evidence continues to twist the narrative surrounding Omar Mateen, as federal agents and experts in criminal profiling labor to untangle the confusing, sometimes conflicting motivations that drove the 29-year-old security guard to massacre a packed gay nightclub in Orlando — all while checking Facebook to see if his bloody act was getting noticed.

Only one thing seems clear, experts say: that the FBI’s first assessment of Mateen as a self-radicalized jihadist likely reflected only part of his motivation.

“This is a hard one to disentangle, but there are three strands,” said Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “The dominant strand is that he hates gays. Then, there is his personal rage. He doesn’t like his life at all.

“The third strand is Islamist ideology, which is the weakest of the three,” said Potok, whose Alabama-based organization tracks extremists. “It’s almost like an afterthought.”

The FBI initially touted the theory that U.S.-born Mateen was motivated by his support of the notorious Islamic State, which as part of its radical ideology has expressed a visceral hatred for gays. But the portrait has turned far more complicated in the course of a week, with experts now saying Mateen appeared to be driven by a dangerous mix of bigotry, self-loathing and, perhaps, mental illness.

Most startling are reports from patrons at Pulse and other clubs that cater to gay clientele. They’ve told media outlets and investigators that the married Fort Pierce security guard regularly visited the Pulse club and used gay dating apps.

Experts stress much of the initial profiling of Mateen amounts to informed speculation. They say it’s too early to draw conclusions from the evidence collected by federal agents, who are still combing through the killer’s computer and other electronics and probing his past relationships and employment.

The killer’s own words shaped his initial image. During the shooting, Mateen said on a 911 call to police that he was carrying out the killings for the leader of the Islamic State and pledged loyalty to him, while also posting terrorism-related content on his Facebook page and doing social media searches for “Pulse Orlando” and “shooting” during the attack on Sunday.

Though there are reports that he was a regular at Pulse, Mateen could have simply been casing a future target. Or he could have unleashed his rage on a place where he pursued social or sexual connections.

“No one knows exactly why Mateen singled out the Pulse nightclub,” said Miami defense lawyer David Weinstein, former chief of counter-terrorism in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in South Florida.

But this much is certain: the killer’s “motivation for the selection of his specific target to act out on his plan would make this case unique amongst all of the homegrown terrorism cases that we have seen since 9/11,” Weinstein said.

“Unfortunately, even after the federal government finishes its investigation, we might still not have a definitive answer as to whether or not this was a terrorist act disguised as a hate crime or a hate crime disguised as a terrorist act.”

Authorities and witnesses say Mateen opened fire with a Sig Sauer MCX rifle and Glock 17 pistol inside Pulse right around last call at 2 a.m. on Sunday — killing 49 people and wounding 53 others. He spent about three hours inside the club with the dead, wounded and trapped before police finally burst into the club and killed him around 5 a.m.

But about two hours after he started the attack and while holed up in a bathroom, Mateen texted his wife, Noor Salman, asking if she had seen the news, according to published reports. She responded with a text saying that she loved him. The wife, who was questioned for hours after the shooting, faces potential charges of knowing about her husband’s plot but failing to report his crime beforehand to authorities.

South Florida criminal defense attorney Khurrum Wahid, who has represented several defendants accused of terrorist-related activities such as supporting Islamic radicals, said he spoke with Mateen’s family in the aftermath of the shooting.

Wahid said that, in the post-9/11 era, the U.S. government and society as a whole tend to want to interpret the motive for crimes like the Orlando massacre through a “political prism” — opting to put the perpetrator in the “terrorism bin” because he’s a Muslim and pledged support for the Islamic State.

“It’s a lot easier to call it Islamic terrorism because we’re all united against that,” Wahid said. “But it’s not as easy to call it homophobia because we’re not all united against that.

“To me,” he said, “this case smacks of someone who was not comfortable in his own skin — maybe because of his sexual identity. ... If I’m a self-loathing gay man, this [Islamic State pledge] is the mantle I’d rather carry.”

Dr. Harley Stock, a Broward clinical psychologist who has profiled terrorists and taught at the FBI Academy, cautioned that still too little is known about Mateen to fit him into an easy profile.

Questions about Mateen's possibly repressed sexuality turning into violence may be overblown, Stock said, because there is no credible research linking the two.

“This concept of repressed sexuality came from Freud. It's outdated. People have latched onto it because it's an easy explanation,” said Stock, of the Incident Management Group, which assesses workplace threats.

Stock also believes Mateen doesn't fit the profile of someone who is clinically mentally ill because such people are normally incapable of planning such “goal-directed” attacks.

“The majority of individuals who commit violent crimes, including terrorists, are not mentally ill,” Stock said. “The guy is a bad actor. He's not crazy.”

He also cautioned that law-enforcement profiling is often misunderstood by the public as being some foolproof way to foil terrorist plots: “It's virtually impossible for the U.S. government, with 100 percent specificity, to be able to identify who is on the pathway toward terrorism.”

As the horror of the nation’s biggest mass shooting dominated the news this week, details of Mateen’s past began to trickle out.

His family came to the United States from Afghanistan and initially lived in Queens, New York, where Mateen was born. They eventually moved to Florida’s Treasure Coast, where Mateen attended Martin County High School and developed a reputation for being a hot-tempered teenager and “bully,” according to a school administrator. Mateen was arrested for beating up a classmate, expelled and transferred to another high school, records show. He also experimented with marijuana.

When terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, Mateen stood up in class and claimed that al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden was his uncle and taught him how to shoot an AK-47, classmates recalled.

After high school, he enrolled in criminal justice courses at Indian River Community College while he participated in a training program to become a prison guard at Martin Correctional Institution. He was let go from the program after six months, for reasons that are unclear, but that didn’t stop him from becoming a security guard for a private contractor in 2007 — his occupation until his death.

His ex-wife, Sitora Yusufiy, has told news media that he was verbally and physically abusive toward her before she fled their Treasure Coast home in 2009. She said he was religious but had never expressed sympathies for terrorist organizations or Islamic extremism. She said, however, that he did make anti-gay comments when he was angry.

Wahid, the defense lawyer, said that, from talking with Mateen’s father and current wife, Salman, he came away believing that the one-time security guard did not fit the model of a jihadist. He viewed Mateen as a frustrated security guard with a “paramilitary mindset who desperately wanted to be a police officer.”

As a security guard, Mateen provoked his co-workers at G4S with his comments about Islamic terrorist organizations. In 2013, while he was working as a guard at the St. Lucie criminal courthouse, they reported to the FBI that he made some statements that were “inflammatory and contradictory” about terrorism — including claiming family connections to al-Qaida and then saying he was a member of the West Bank terrorist group, Hezbollah, a bitter enemy of the Islamic State.

Mateen, when questioned by federal agents, said he admitted making the remarks but said he did so out of anger “because he thought his co-workers were discriminating against him and teasing him because he was Muslim,” FBI Director James Comey said, adding that the bureau found he was not a potential threat.

This week, Comey said no evidence gathered in the Orlando shooting pointed to a “plot directed from outside the United States” or that the killer was a member of a foreign terrorist organization — suggesting that Mateen was a so-called lone wolf who channeled extreme Islamic propaganda on the internet.

Comey said Mateen seemed to express interest in conflicting, radical Islamist groups, including saying during his 911 call from the club on Sunday morning that he was “doing this” for the leader of the Islamic State, or ISIS. Later, Comey also said the FBI was “working to understand what role anti-gay bigotry may have played in motivating this attack.”

The details that have emerged about Mateen's life have baffled many analysts, such as Philip Mudd, a former national security analyst with the CIA, FBI and the White House. Soon after the shooting, Mudd went on CNN and said he wasn't sure there was enough information to label Mateen a terrorist yet. He got slammed with vitriolic e-mails.

“There is a lack of clarity on his motivation,” Mudd told the Miami Herald on Friday. “He was more muddled than a lot of cases that I recollect.”

He said that Mateen's searches of extremist videos online, as well as name-dropping of competing Islamic extremist groups, make it unclear just how devoted he was to their causes.

And unlike al-Queda, which trained operatives and sent them to target strategic places, ISIS is more diffuse.

“ISIS can give you validation to act,” Mudd said. “ISIS becomes an excuse for whatever target they want to pick. ISIS is an umbrella for grievances.”

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