Orlando Nightclub Shooting

49 people excluding the gunman have been left dead with 53 injured after an attack at on Orlando’s gay nightclub, ‘Pulse’.

Gunman Omar Mateen, 29, was from Fort Pierce, a city about two hours’ drive south of Orlando, in St Lucie County although he was born in New York to Afghan parents and was not on a terrorism watch list. Police believe Mateen rented a car and drove to Orlando to carry out the attack on the nightclub.

The attack began at about 02:00 local time on Sunday. There was an exchange of fire between the gunman, who was carrying an AR-15-type assault rifle and an off-duty police officer working at the club, after which the suspect took hostages. Pulse, which is one of the biggest nightclubs in Orlando, was holding a Latin-themed event that was nearing its end when a man opened fire. There were more than 300 people inside at the time. At 02:09, the nightclub posted on it’s Facebook page: “Everyone get out of pulse and keep running.” Additional officers rushed to the scene and entered the nightclub, where they engaged in a gun battle with Mateen, forcing him to retreat to a bathroom where officers believed he had four to five hostages. About 15 to 20 people were in another bathroom.

Mateen phoned emergency services during the attack and pledged allegiance to Isis. He also praised the Boston Marathon bombers while making comments such as “there would be an imminent loss of life” and remained “utterly cool and calm”, he also told police negotiators — falsely, they later discovered — that he had explosives and accomplices at Pulse nightclub, Chief John Mina of the Orlando Police Department said on Monday. Thus prompting police chiefs to make the decision to storm the building at about 05:00 local time , detonating the explosives to create large holes on the building’s rear wall which allowed police to “save and rescue dozens and dozens of people and get them out of the club” said Mina.

Eddie Justice sent a series of terrified texts to his mother from a bathroom as the gunman made his way through the club. “Mommy I love you”, read the first message Mina Justice received from her son at 02:06 on Sunday morning. “In club they shooting”, the next text read. Mina was asleep but was woken by the text. She tried calling her son, but he did not answer, so she texted him instead. “U ok?” she typed out. He replied, “Trapp in bathroom” a minute later, before telling her he was at Pulse, asking her to call police. Over the next few minutes Mina frantically sent a series of texts, telling Eddie she was calling them and asking him to answer his phone. At 02:39, he said: “He’s coming. I’m gonna die”. Mina asked her son which bathroom he was in and if anyone was hurt. “Lots. Yes,” was his response. She then told him that police were there and to let her know when he saw them. She also asked him if the man was in the bathroom with him. “He’s a terror,” he replied at 02:50, before sending his last text: ”Yes.” There was no response after that.

Eddie Jamoldroy Justice’s name appeared as the ninth name on the running list of those killed in the attack.

FBI officials say the 29-year-old appeared to “have leanings towards” radical Islamist ideology, although it was not clear whether the attack was a case of domestic or international terrorism. A statement released by Isis’ affiliated Amaq news agency said that an IS “fighter” was responsible. The group had called for its supporters to launch attacks on the West during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, that began last week. Although US President Barack Obama said there was no evidence yet of any contact between the gunman and Islamic State saying it was an example of “homegrown extremism” and it appeared Mateen was inspired by content he saw online.

Obama did not hesitate to condemn the massacre as “an act of terror and an act of hate”. “This is an especially heartbreaking day for all our friends – our fellow Americans – who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender,” he said in an address to the nation. “The shooter targeted a nightclub where people came together to be with friends, to dance and to sing, and to live.”

Obama has ordered flags on federal buildings to be flown at half mast until sunset on Thursday when he will  travel to Orlando to pay his respects to the victims.

Imam Muhammad Musri, of the Islamic Society of Central Florida, said the attack had been “an act of terror, an act of hate”. “We condemn the ideology of hate and death and destruction and we call for all Muslim leaders and communities across this nation and across the world to stand up and to deal with this cancer and to remove it once and for all,” he said.

Meanwhile Mateen’s father, Seddique Mateen, told NBC News the attack “had nothing to do with religion”. He said the family had not been aware that Mateen might have been planning an attack. “We are in shock like the whole country.”

He also posted a video on his Facebook page early on Monday in which he expressed regret and confusion about why his son had carried out the mass killing. However it has emerged that his father, Seddique Mateen, has a television show on a California-based channel that expresses anti-Pakistani government views and sympathy for the Afghan Taliban. In addition to this, he has posted a video in the past in which he stated that it was “up to God to punish gays”.

His father said Mateen became “very angry” after seeing two men kissing in downtown Miami recently. However several Pulse customers have told US media that Mateen was a regular visitor to the nightclub and other witnesses said they recognised him from gay dating apps.

“I’ve seen him a couple of times at Pulse, a couple of other people that I’ve spoken with, including an-ex security guard, have actually witnessed this guy at Pulse many times before,” said Chris Callen.

In one incident, Callen said Mateen pulled a knife on a friend after being angered by a religious joke. Despite this, Callen said Mateen was a “nice guy… maybe he got radicalised and hated who he was.”

“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,” Ty Smith told the Orlando Sentinel.

As questions emerged about the gunman’s history, FBI Special Agent Ron Hopper told reporters that Mateen had been interviewed by FBI officers twice in 2013 following inflammatory comments to colleagues asserting ties to IS. The investigation ended after officers were unable to substantiate the claims.

“First he claimed family connections to Al Qaeda,” which, like the Islamic State, is a Sunni Muslim terrorist group, James Comey, the F.B.I. director, said on Monday. “He also said he was a member of Hezbollah,” a Shiite group in conflict with Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. “He said he hoped that law enforcement would raid his apartment and assault his wife and child so that he could martyr himself,” Comey added.

Mateen was questioned again in 2014 about a potential connection to Moner Mohammad Abu-Salha, the American known to have carried out a suicide bombing in the Syria conflict. The FBI investigation found no “substantial relationship” between Mateen and Abu-Salha and the case was closed, Special Agent Hopper said.

“Our investigation involved introducing confidential sources to him, recording conversations with him, following him, reviewing transactional records from his communications,” and searching government records for mentions of him, the director said. “We then interviewed him twice. He admitted making the statements his co-workers reported, but explained that he did it in anger because he thought his co-workers were discriminating against him and teasing him because he was Muslim.”

Mateen worked for a private security company. His employers, G4S, said he had worked for them for nine years and carried a gun as part of his job. In a statement, the company said he had undergone screening twice, in 2007 and 2013, and the checks had not revealed anything of concern. The gunman also worked briefly as a state prison guard at Martin Correctional Institution for less than a year according to the department spokesman, Alberto C Moscoso who did not add why he left.

His ex-wife, Sitora Yusufiy, has said that he was violent and mentally unstable and had beaten her repeatedly. The pair married in Fort Pierce in 2009 after meeting online, but her parents intervened and removed her from their home just months later after learning of his abuse. “He was not a stable person,” she told The Washington Post. “He beat me. He would just come home and start beating me up because the laundry wasn’t finished or something like that.” She told the newspaper that Mateen had not been very religious when she was with him and he had regularly exercised at the gym. Yusufiy said Mateen was bipolar and although some commentators were trying to link his actions to Isis, the real cause was mental illness. The couple divorced in 2011 and it appears that he remarried after that divorce, and had a three-year-old son with his second wife, according to the Miami Herald.

In a series of social media photos, Mateen is seen wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the New York Police Department name and emblem. However, the NYPD said Mateen had no association with the department and the shirts were unofficial merchandise that could be bought at any shop. The gunman had also filed a petition for a name change in 2006 from Omar Mir Seddique to Omar Mir Seddique Mateen, according to US media.

It has emerged that he legally purchased several guns in the past few days. The two presumptive candidates running for US president spoke about what they would do to stop similar attacks with gun control being a much discussed subject in America. Democrat Hillary Clinton called for action to stop militants getting hold of assault rifles, saying weapons of war had no place on America’s streets while Republican Donald Trump said changes were needed to the US immigration system which he blamed for allowing Omar Mateen’s family to come to the US from Afghanistan.  And in a message to LGBT , she said: “We will keep fighting for your right to live freely, openly and without fear. Hate has absolutely no place in America.” whilst Trump said Mr Obama should step down for refusing to use the words “radical Islam” when condemning the attack. “If we do not get tough and smart real fast, we are not going to have a country any more,” he added.

However the head of the Council on American-Islamic Relations urged politicians not to “score points” or “exploit fear” in the aftermath of the attack. In a direct message to Isis, Nihad Awad said: “You do not speak for us. You do not represent us. You are an aberration.” While Florida Senator Marco Rubio said gun controls would not have prevented the tragedy. He added that such so-called ‘lone-wolf’ attacks were the hardest to prevent.

According to the Mass Shooting Tracker, the US last year suffered 372 mass shootings, defined as a single incident that kills or injures four or more people. Some 475 people were killed and 1,870 wounded. The latest incident came as Orlando was still reeling from the fatal shooting on Friday night of 22-year-old singer Christina Grimmie following a concert in the city.

Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, fought back tears as he discussed the attack and said LGBT people still face widespread prejudice in communities across the country. “Places like Pulse nightclub feel like safe havens where they can go and get away from whatever judgment or discrimination plagues them in their daily lives and be their true and authentic selves,” Griffin said, “even if only for a few hours. To think of these innocent people – some of them just kids – being attacked somewhere that might have been the only place on earth where they feel free, and safe, breaks our hearts.”

Yet this worst mass shooting in modern American history was also a hate crime against the gay community. It’s not the first time LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people have been the targets of violence.

Seattle’s openly gay mayor Ed Murray says the struggle for equal rights has usually seen moments of progress followed by a violent reaction. “Americans woke with the sickening, all-too-familiar feeling of fear that our community has once again been attacked. For too long, our community has been the target of violence throughout the world,” he said.

Until the shooting in Orlando, the largest mass death at a gay club was the arson attack at the UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1973. 32 people died after an unknown assailant firebombed the entrance to the second-floor club, trapping people inside. In 1997, Eric Rudolph bombed a lesbian bar in Atlanta, injuring five and in more recent history in 2014, a Seattle man set fire to a stairwell at a gay bar called Neighbours, claiming “what these people are doing is wrong”. No-one was killed. Like revellers at the UpStairs Lounge in 1973, many of the patrons at Pulse Nightclub had been celebrating Pride Weekend in 2016.

Nicholas Syrett, co-chair of the Committee on LGBT History and a professor at the University of Northern Colorado, said more openness came with a cost: “Those who still remain intransigent in their hostility and opposition to gay people, they’re going to be exposed to more of them because we are increasingly able to be open.” Mr Syrett added that while large-scale attacks on the LGBT community were not as common, there had been hundreds of individual assaults and murders, including the high-profile beating death of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming in 1998.

Investigators continued on Monday to scour the crime scene for evidence and piece together the gunman’s motive. Thirty victim witness specialists and crime reconstruction experts were on the scene, F.B.I. officials said. At Monday’s news conference, A. Lee Bentley, the United States attorney for Central Florida, said the investigators had collected a large amount of electronic and criminal evidence and were trying to determine whether Mr. Mateen acted alone. “If anyone else was involved in this crime,” Bentley said, “they will be prosecuted.”

Orlando Health, which has a network of medical facilities in the area, said 43 victims remained in the hospital, including six of whom are in critical condition. The youngest victim was 18, the oldest 50.

Thousands of people gathered in central Orlando on Monday night, holding candles and flowers in tribute to the victims. Cities around the world have been flying rainbow gay pride flags and illuminating buildings in solidarity with the victims of the shooting in Florida.

Responding to an urgent question in the Commons, Home Secretary Theresa May said she was not aware of any British nationals being caught up in the shootings. The “utterly evil” attack had been “designed to spread fear”, she said, adding: “We will not tolerate such bigotry and violence”. MPs held a minute’s silence in the Commons in memory of the Orlando victims. Downing Street said Prime Minister David Cameron had written to US President Barack Obama “to underline our shock here and our support for the US people as they deal with this incident”.

In London, huge crowds gathered in Old Compton Street, at the heart of the capital’s gay community. The normally lively street fell silent at 19:00 as a sign of respect, after which 49 balloons – one for each person killed – were released into the air. The vigil was attended by a number of politicians, including the new London mayor, Sadiq Khan, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan. The US ambassador to the UK, Matthew Barzun, was also there. Old Compton Street is home to many gay bars, including the Admiral Duncan, where three people were killed and many more injured in a nailbomb attack in 1999.

Vigils were also held in Glasgow, Birmingham, Manchester, Cardiff, Brighton, Leeds and Nottingham, with more planned in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, UK police are reviewing security for large-scale public events following the killings. The Metropolitan Police said it had increased patrols in “prime locations”, as well as continuing to work “closely and engage with the LGBT community”. On Saturday, 25 June, Pride in London hold their annual parade and related events. May told MPs it was right to examine security for forthcoming Gay Pride celebrations but said there were no plans for events to be cancelled.

Image Credit: www.flickr.com/lizzlizzlizz

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Naina Bhardwaj

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