The gunman whose attack on a gay nightclub left 49 victims dead appears to have been a “homegrown extremist” who espoused support for a jumble of often-conflicting Islamic radical groups, the White House has said.
As Orlando mourned its dead with flowers, candles and vigils, counter-terrorism investigators dug into the background of 29-year-old Omar Mateen, the American-born Muslim who carried out the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history.
“So far, we see no indication that this was a plot directed from outside the United States, and we see no indication that he was part of any kind of network,” said FBI director James Comey. But he said Mateen was clearly radicalised, at least in part by the internet.
Mr Comey said the bureau is trying to determine whether Mateen had recently scouted Disney World as a potential target, as reported by People.com, which cited an unidentified federal law enforcement source.
The FBI chief defended the bureau’s handling of Mateen during two previous investigations into his apparent terrorist sympathies. Asked if there was anything the FBI should have done differently, he said: “So far, the honest answer is, I don’t think so.”
Despite Mateen’s pledge to Islamic State, a murky combination of other possible motives and explanations emerged, with his ex-wife saying he suffered from mental illness and his Afghan immigrant father suggesting he may have acted out of anti-gay hatred. He said his son got angry recently about seeing two men kiss.
The Orlando Sentinel and other news organisations quoted regular customers at the gay bar saying they had seen Mateen there a number of times.
“Sometimes he would go over in the corner and sit and drink by himself, and other times he would get so drunk he was loud and belligerent,” said Ty Smith, who added he saw the killer inside at least a dozen times.
Wielding an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle and a handgun, Mateen opened fire at Pulse Orlando early on Sunday in a three-hour shooting rampage and hostage siege that ended with a SWAT team killing him. During the attack, he called 911 to profess allegiance to Islamic State.
President Barack Obama said there is no clear evidence that Mateen was directed by the group, calling the attack an apparent example of “homegrown extremism”.
More details of the bloodbath emerged, with Orlando Police Chief John Mina saying Mateen was “cool and calm” during phone calls with police negotiators. But Mr Mina said he decided to send the SWAT team in and break through a wall after Mateen holed up with hostages in a bathroom and began to talk about bombs and an explosive vest.
“We knew there would be an imminent loss of life,” Mr Mina said. As it turned out, Mateen had no explosives.
Five of the wounded were reported to be in grave condition, meaning the death toll could rise.
In Orlando, mourners piled bouquets around a makeshift memorial, and people broke down in tears and held their hands to their faces while passing through the growing collection of flowers, candles and signs about a mile from the site of the massacre.
“We will not be defined by the act of a cowardly hater,” vowed mayor Buddy Dyer, whose city of quarter of a million people is known around the globe as the home of Walt Disney World and other theme parks.
The tragedy hit the city’s gay and Hispanic communities especially hard. It was Latino Night at the club when the attack occurred.
Mateen’s grasp of the differences between Islamic extremist groups appeared shaky.
During three calls with 911 dispatchers, he not only professed allegiance to IS but also expressed solidarity with a suicide bomber from the Syrian rebel group Nusra Front, and a few years ago he claimed connections to Hezbollah – both IS enemies, according to Mr Comey.
The FBI became aware of Mateen in 2013 when co-workers reported that the private security guard claimed to have family connections to al Qaida and to be a member of Hezbollah, Mr Comey said. He was also quoted as saying he hoped that law enforcement would raid his apartment and assault his wife and child so that he could martyr himself.
The FBI launched a 10-month preliminary investigation, following Mateen, reviewing his communications and questioning him, the FBI chief said. Mateen claimed he made the remarks in anger because co-workers were teasing him and discriminating against him as a Muslim, and the FBI eventually closed the case, Mr Comey said.
His name surfaced again as part of another investigation into the Nusra Front bomber. The FBI found Mateen and the man had attended the same mosque and knew each other casually, but the investigation turned up “no ties of any consequence”.
Mateen was added to a terror watch list in 2013 when he was investigated, but was taken off it soon after the matter was closed, according to Mr Comey.
People in that database are not automatically barred from buying guns, and Mateen purchased his weapons in June, long after he was removed from the list.
On Sunday, the bloodshed started after Mateen approached the club around 2am, exchanged fire with an off-duty officer working security, then went inside and started gunning people down, police said.
After two other officers arrived and exchanged gunfire with Mateen, the gunman holed up in a toilet with about five club-goers. An additional 15 to 20 were in another nearby toilet, authorities said.
Hostage negotiators began talking to Mateen.
After he began to talk about explosives, Mina made the decision to blow open a wall to the toilet. The explosives did not penetrate the wall completely, so an armoured vehicle was used to punch a 2ft by 3ft hole. Dozens of people escaped, and Mateen was gunned down as he emerged through the hole, police said.
Islamic State’s radio hailed the attack and called Mateen “one of the soldiers of the caliphate in America”, but it gave no indication the group planned or knew of the attack beforehand.
Mateen’s father, Seddique Mir Mateen, told reporters the massacre was “the act of a terrorist”, and added: “I apologise for what my son did. I am as sad and mad as you guys are.”