Omar Mateen increasingly sought out Islamic State videos and other radical Islamist propaganda in the months leading up to his shooting rampage at an Orlando, Fla., gay nightclub Sunday, investigators have found.
A counter-terrorism official said investigators had uncovered the material while reviewing Mateen's Internet search history. Mateen, who was killed by a SWAT team, pledged allegiance to Islamic State during the attack.
As the inquiry into the Orlando nightclub shooting broadened Tuesday, with investigators ranging as far afield as Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, survivors recounted the New York-born gunman – whose parents are Afghan immigrants – telling them he had gone on a killing rampage because he “wanted America to stop bombing his country.”
Yet there has been intense speculation about Mateen’s motives, ranging from Islamist extremism to sexual repression.
FBI officials revealed that Mateen, who killed 49 people Sunday in the worst mass shooting in modern American history, had visited Pulse and frequented other gay clubs in the past and had used a dating app on his phone to meet other men.
He also made repeated visits to Disney properties in Florida during the Gay Days Orlando festivities.
"It is fair to say there was a considerable amount of planning involved and scouting of potential locations," Rep. Adam B. Schiff of Burbank, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a telephone interview Tuesday after a closed-door briefing for House members by FBI director James B. Comey and other officials. Schiff would not give further details.
Investigators are also investigating whether Mateen’s wife, Noor Zahi Salman, assisted in organizing the attack on the Pulse nightclub or knew about the attack in advance, and whether she could have warned law enforcement.
Salman drove Mateen to Pulse at least once in the days before the attack, a counter-terrorism official said. The Orlando club is about a two-hour drive from their home in Fort Pierce.
Salman returned with a police escort Tuesday to the apartment she shared with Mateen, and officers were investigating a reported burglary at the home early Monday morning, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported. TV footage showed her hiding her face beneath a hoodie.
Investigators are also collecting data from at least two cellphones used by Mateen, as well as other electronic media and email accounts, a U.S. law enforcement official said.
So far, the official said, investigators have not encountered any data that has been encrypted, a major stumbling block in the FBI’s investigation of an iPhone used by the couple who killed 14 people at a holiday party in San Bernardino on Dec. 2.
Six shooting victims remained in critical condition Tuesday, said Dr. Michael Cheatham, a trauma surgeon at Orlando Regional Medical Center, adding he would be surprised if the death toll does not rise.
All 49 victims killed have been identified and their families notified, and 20 of the bodies have been released to a funeral home, the Orange County Medical Examiner's Office said.
The county does not have the power to release the shooter’s body since it is in FBI custody, said county spokeswoman Ann Marie Varga.
The day after a massive candlelight vigil in downtown Orlando, city officials were able to release the names of all 49 people killed — mostly Latinos in their 20s and 30s.
Orlando resident Nereida Perez, a 66-year-old retiree, said her cousin Llka Aroyo, 36, underwent surgery late Monday after being shot eight times in the attack. Doctors were cautiously optimistic, Perez said, though there were still bullets inside Aroyo’s body, near her heart.
Doctors said the volume of patients with severe gunshot wounds surpassed anything they had ever handled. Initially, it was thought many patients would succumb to their wounds, but most have stabilized, doctors said.
Many of the victims were originally from Puerto Rico, and four of the dead were from Mexico.
Investigators, meanwhile, are trying to retrace as much of Mateen's final weeks and months as possible in an effort to understand his motivation.
Mateen was the target of a 10-month FBI investigation in 2013 and 2014 after making comments expressing sympathies with rival Islamist groups al Qaeda and Hezbollah, but the case was closed when a confidential informant, surveillance and eavesdropping did not turn up evidence of illegal activity.
At that point Mateen's name was taken off the FBI Terrorist Screening Center's watchlist.
Had his name been on the watchlist when he bought the semiautomatic rifle and handgun he used in the mass shooting, an FBI agent working the case would have been notified of the purchases.
At a news conference Tuesday at Florida Hospital in Orlando, one survivor, Patience Carter, described cowering with two friends inside a handicapped bathroom stall at the club while Mateen stood nearby, chatting. Among other things, she said, he announced: “This is about my country.”
Mateen was born in New York to Afghan immigrants. Although he was a U.S. citizen, he appeared to be talking about Afghanistan.
“He said that the reason why he was doing this was he wanted America to stop bombing his country,” Carter said.
The investigation has extended to Afghanistan, where Mateen’s parents were from, and to Saudi Arabia.
Mateen traveled to Mecca in Saudi Arabia for 10 days in March 2011 and for eight days in March 2012 to take part in the annual religious pilgrimage made by Muslims, a U.S. law enforcement official said.
In 2013, when the FBI launched a 10-month investigation of Mateen for possible terrorist ties, U.S. authorities asked Saudi intelligence officials about the two trips, officials said.
The Saudis had no evidence suggesting Mateen had held suspicious meetings while in the kingdom, or engaged in any other behavior that raised any alarms.
Recent news reports suggesting that Mateen may have been gay have circulated widely online, including a CNN interview with his ex-wife, Sitora Yusufiy, who said she didn’t know if he was gay. She said he spoke as if he hated gays.
“Whether the gunman’s homophobia spurred from hatred of others or hatred of himself, this is homophobia all the same,” the LGBT group GLAAD said in a statement. “It’s sadly just the latest example of homophobia turning to horrific violence, just as it has for decades.”
Kevin West, a regular at Pulse, told The Times that Mateen messaged him on and off for a year before the shooting, using the gay chat and dating app Jack’d.
At least four regular Pulse customers told the Orlando Sentinel that they believed they had seen Mateen there before.
A former classmate recalled that Mateen seemed like a “regular dude” until the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001.
“At first, I was surprised … like, damn bro, I rode the bus with that kid,” said Robert Zirkle, 29, who attended Martin County High School in Stuart, Fla. “But then I got remembering and thinking … he was crazy then, but nobody connected the dots.
“He started acting crazy, joking around the fact that 9/11 happened, making plane noises on the school bus and pretending he was slamming into the building,” said Zirkle, who now lives in Johnston City, Tenn., where he is a manager at a McDonald’s.
“He was happy that Americans were dying. He made that very clear. I don’t know if he was always a Muslim radical, but he was excited, hyped up. We were all like, ‘What are you talking about?’”
Zirkle, who was a freshman at the time, said he and other students threatened Mateen to get him to stop. “We told him if he didn’t stop making noises, we were going to beat him up.”
“He was really out there,” he said of Mateen, who attended the Spectrum Alternative School in Stuart.
“He had no friends. He had people who were cordial with him or would ask him how he was doing. Only a few people spoke to him. I was one of the few who would. He was a Seinfeld kind of guy.”
Zirkle said he had not kept in touch with Mateen since high school and had mostly forgotten him until this weekend. On Sunday, he said, his memories were jogged as he and his former classmates gathered on Facebook chat to share stories of Mateen, along with his high school yearbook photo.
“If we knew this would happen, we would have stopped him a long time ago,” Zirkle said.
Mateen was investigated by the FBI in 2013 and 2014 after he told co-workers that he planned to kill people and wanted to die as a martyr in a police raid. He was removed from the FBI’s terrorist watch list in 2014 after investigators concluded he was full of bluster and not a real threat.
He was questioned again by the FBI after Moner Mohammad Abusalha joined Al Nusra Front, an Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, and killed more than a dozen people in a truck bomb suicide attack in Syria in 2014.
The FBI concluded that although Mateen and Moner had attended the same mosque, they had known each other only casually.
MORE ON ORLANDO SHOOTING
Bennett and Wilber reported from Washington and Pearce from Los Angeles. Staff writers Alexia Fernandez in Los Angeles, Tracy Wilkinson and Molly Hennessy-Fiske in Orlando, Fla., and special correspondent Jenny Jarvie in Port St. Lucie, Fla., contributed to this report.
7:24 p.m.: Updated with new information, including more details about propaganda and injured victims.
5:57 p.m.: Updated with Islamic State videos and other propaganda found and more details about Noor Salman.
3:30 p.m.: Updated with details from the hospital news conference.
11:51 a.m.: This article was updated with new details on Disney visits.
11:14 a.m.: This article was updated with investigators speaking to Mateen’s widow.
9:50 a.m.: This article was updated with new information.
This article was originally published at 8:57 a.m.