As the first details about the massacre in Orlando trickled out on Sunday, Ali H. Soufan, a former counterterrorism agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, watched the media coverage unfold in a familiar way.
Soufan, who now runs a consulting firm, told The Intercept that before it became known that the killer, in a call to the police during the attack, had dedicated his rampage to the leader of the Islamic State militant group, news reports focused on the timing and location of the shooting spree. An attack on an LGBT club during a month dedicated to expressing pride in that community — and the gunman’s personal profile — seemed strongly suggestive of a hate crime.
“He was not very religious, according to his ex-wife, mentally unstable, a wife beater, an abuser, and his father indicated that he was homophobic,” Soufan noted. “The coverage could have been all about this, if he didn’t make that call from the bathroom before he goes down.”
“Look at what happened here,” Soufan said. “This is basically a mass shooting. Since Sandy Hook we’ve had about a thousand mass shootings, with more than a thousand people killed — and most of that didn’t get the same coverage as this because the killer said, ‘This is ISIS.’”
Soufan observed that subsequent claims of responsibility for the attack on Islamic State channels on social media offered no evidence that the killer had been directed by or even made contact with anyone from the militant group, and seemed to just cite his dedication of the rampage to the group’s leader during a rambling conversation with a 911 operator.
So far, pro-IS accounts are repeating claims by US media that shooter gave bayaat to the terror group during the attack. Circular reporting.— Ali H. Soufan (@Ali_H_Soufan) June 12, 2016
So, terror groups don't have to coordinate/direct ops anymore. It only takes a last minute phone call from a wannabe to declare allegiance.— Ali H. Soufan (@Ali_H_Soufan) June 12, 2016
That seemed to be enough, Soufan noted, for some cultural commentators and opportunistic politicians to treat the deranged gunman’s shooting spree, which was possibly inspired by online calls to violence from the group, as identical to a terrorist attack planned and executed by the insurgents fighting to control Iraq and Syria.
“This falls into the trap of ISIS,” Soufan told The Intercept. “We’re talking about them even though they had nothing to do with it.”
“There is no indication whatever that he coordinated the attack with ISIS, that he had pledged allegiance before the attack, or that he had been in touch with ISIS,” Soufan said. “ISIS is getting a lot of publicity with no apparent connection to Omar Mateen.”
In an initial briefing on the attack, Soufan’s consulting firm, the Soufan Group, highlighted the way in which the killer’s own confused statements to the police dispatcher changed the focus of reporting. “The rush by law enforcement and intelligence officials to mitigate and investigate the attack is more than matched by the race to affix the cultural narrative, and therefore the meaning, of the attack.”
That reading was echoed by Charlie Winter, a senior research associate at Georgia State University’s Transcultural Conflict and Violence Initiative. “I think in the aftermath of an attack like this, nuance is everything,” Winter said in an interview with The Intercept. “Approaching this without nuance, we fall into the trap of taking ISIS at their word, and regurgitating its propaganda narrative.”
Winter added that “the framing occurs in the immediate aftermath of an attack,” when, he noted, there is always a high degree of uncertainty and initial reports can be marred by the rush to fit a spasm of violence into a known category. “It was decided early on that this attack would be viewed through an ISIS lens,” Winter noted.
Then, late Monday, a new frame appeared, as reports surfaced that raised the possibility that the gunman might have had more complex reasons for his choice of target than he was willing to admit to the 911 operator. At least four regular customers of Pulse, the nightclub where the massacre took place, told the Orlando Sentinel that Mateen had himself been a frequent patron. One of them, Ty Smith, who goes by the name Aries, said that he had seen Mateen drinking at the bar at least a dozen times. Smith’s partner, Chris Callen, who performs under the name Kristina McLaughlin, said that Mateen had “been going to this bar for at least three years.”
What happens on the right if Mateen really was motivated by his tortured sexuality and not his religion?— Julia Ioffe (@juliaioffe) June 14, 2016
He was clearly radicalized and swore allegiance to ISIS, but that may not be the sole cause. Many things can be true simultaneously.— Julia Ioffe (@juliaioffe) June 14, 2016
Within hours, more witnesses confirmed that they recognized Mateen and several people said that he had been in regular contact with them, for up to a year, on gay dating apps.
As the Los Angeles Times reported, while it is possible that Mateen could have been spending time in the LGBT club in preparation for his attack, at least some of the people he interacted with saw him as a member of the community.
Kevin West, a regular at Pulse nightclub, said Omar Mateen messaged him on and off for a year before the shooting using the gay chat and dating app Jack’d.
But they never met — until early Sunday morning.
West was dropping off a friend at the club when he noticed Mateen — whom he knew by sight but not by name — crossing the street wearing a dark cap and carrying a black cellphone about 1 a.m., an hour before the shooting.
“He walked directly past me. I said, ‘Hey,’ and he turned and said, ‘Hey,’” and nodded his head, West said. “I could tell by the eyes.”
The idea that the killer might have been just posing as a gay man was undercut by a subsequent report in the Palm Beach Post that one of his former classmates said that Mateen had asked him out on a date a decade ago, when the two men were studying criminal justice at a state college and were part of a social circle that revolved around visits to four other LGBT bars.
As those rumors swirled, Sitora Yusufiy, Mateen’s ex-wife, told the New York Times that he “might have been gay but chose to hide his true identity out of anger and shame.”
Just as the initial coverage might have been marred by a rush to describe the killer’s motives as fitting neatly into the single category of terrorist attack, as more information comes out, there is a risk of over-correction — ascribing the rampage solely to rumors of his repressed sexuality and ignoring the fact that the threat from ISIS has mutated now that the group has used the web to encourage attacks by sympathizers in far-flung locations.
That Mateen reportedly pledged allegiance to the leader of the Islamic State in his calls to the police — and also said that “America needs to stop bombing ISIS in Syria,” according to a survivor of the hostage siege who overheard the conversation — suggests that he was at least aware of the militant group’s directions for carrying out such attacks. (The FBI reopened an investigation into Mateen in 2014 after an acquaintance said that Mateen had mentioned watching video sermons by Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born cleric who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in 2011. In one of his sermons, Awlaki had argued that the killing of Americans by Muslims required no special sanction.)
On Monday night in France, another attacker who appears to have been inspired rather than directed by ISIS, made sure to dedicate the killing of a French police officer and his partner to the militant group in a chilling video streamed live on Facebook.
As simplistic recipes for tackling such violence are being offered, it seems vital to instead embrace the complexity of each individual narrative that leads to an atrocity.
Online, as Charlie Winter noted, ISIS supporters “are being quite vocal that they want this to be an act of terrorism” motivated by U.S. foreign policy, and they are seeking to downplay the clearly homophobic nature of the violence.
By initially taking the troubled and confused Mateen at his word, and focusing so much attention on what he reportedly said in his phone calls to the police during the attack, Winter suggested that the media, investigators, and politicians had helped frame his shooting spree as part of a political struggle. “That was absolutely what he wanted to happen and that completely changed how the attack was framed and how the attack’s going to be understood,” Winter said.