Was the massacre at Pulse a hate crime or terrorist attack? A year after the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, the question still divides those living with the tragic aftermath and experts seeking a way to prevent similar slaughters ever happening again.
Hours after Omar Mateen, an American-born Muslim who claimed allegiance to ISIS, opened fire in a gay nightclub in Orlando last June 12, President Barack Obama would call the attack “an act of terror and an act of hate.” U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida labeled the gunman a terrorist and extremist while saying, “The gay community was targeted in this attack.”
For those closest to the tragedy, sexual orientation seemed the clearest factor in the shooting. Orlando City Commissioner Patty Sheehan, an out lesbian representing the district where Pulse is located, says most local LGBT people consider the attack one driven first by bigotry. “Those of us in Orlando certainly look at this as a hate crime,” Sheehan says. “He might have had terrorist leaning and been radicalized, but he picked a gay club for a reason. There are a lot of clubs with a lot less security — no off-duty police officer there — if he was just looking for an easy target.”
But then, ther are Mateen’s own words. The shooter would be gunned down by police after a hours-long standoff at the club, but only after he spoke with 911 dispatchers and a hostage negotiator multiple times; he never mentioned an interest in hurting people because of their sexual orientation or ethnicity but did speak at length about a personal political agenda.
Talk of a Terrorist?
“You’re speaking to the person who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.” Before providing any personal information, these were the words Mateen would use to identify himself in a first conversation with a police negotiator in the early hours of June 12. He delivered one simple demand to police: a change in U.S. foreign policy regarding intervention in the Middle East. “You have to tell America to stop bombing.” “I feel the pain of the people getting killed in Syria and Iraq and all over.” “The U.S. is collaborating with Russia and they are killing innocent women and children, OK?”
Specifically, he expressed sympathy for the leaders of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the terrorist group abbreviated as ISIS. “Yo, the air strike that killed Abu Waheeb a few weeks ago,” he told the negotiator, “that’s what triggered it, OK. They shouldn’t have bombed and killed Abu Waheeb. Now do your fucking homework and figure out who Abu Waheeb is.” Waheeb, a mid-level ISIS fighter known as the “Desert Lion” and once considered an heir to lead the Islamic State, reportedly died in a coalition air strike in Iraq about five weeks before the Pulse shooting.
The communications with police show that at the least Mateen wanted to shooting to be viewed as political, and that alone leads many experts to dub Mateen a terrorist. “One cannot deny it was a jihadist attack,” says Jonathan Matusitz, an associate professor at University of Central Florida who has researched terrorist symbolism and communication. Matusitz acknowledges the attack can also be classified a hate crime for targeting LGBT and Hispanic individuals — the attack occurred on Latin night and a majority of those killed were Hispanic. But the nature of the attack, he says, bears more resemblance to the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 (Mateen would tell police Boston bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev was his “homeboy”) than it does to pure hate-based crimes such as Dylann Roof’s 2015 attack on a predominantly black church in Charleston, S.C.
Mateen, who lived in Fort Pierce, Fla., attended the same mosque where Moner Mohammad Abusalha, the first American to carry out a suicide bombing in Syria, worshipped before his death in 2014. And an acquaintance from the Port St. Lucie Muslim community told the FBI in 2014 that Mateen praised social media videos by Anwar al-Awlaki, a terrorist recruiter whose videos continued to influence extremists even after his death in 2011.
Rubio stressed shortly after the Islamic State claimed credit for the Pulse shooting that the federal government needed to treat the shooting as an act by a terrorist. “The homegrown violent extremist is the toughest terrorist target we’ve ever had in this country,” he told The Advocate.
But Rubio and Matusitz note that tying Mateen to ISIS doesn’t mean homophobia wasn’t part of this crime. Rubio pointed out that ISIS routinely rounds up gay and bisexual men in the Middle East to hurl them from rooftops, and Matusitz says the execution of gays is part of a jihad ISIS claims to be fighting. “I’m not sure that homophobia is one of the reasons ISIS is recruiting would-be jihadists,” Matusitz says. “But jihad targets homosexuals in the way it targets a lot other Muslims as not being true Muslims.”
But like many terrorists in the West, Mateen did not seem to take specific marching orders from anybody in ISIS or any other terrorist organization. No evidence has been made publicly available to suggest he had direct communication with any ISIS leaders. “He never trained in Iraq or Syria,” Matusitz says. “He was not like these people who go to these places to join the ISIS ranks.” Still, Mateen seemed over the years to be influenced by extremist propaganda, and as authorities try to prevent the next terrorist attack, Matusitz says the Pulse shooting should be considered alongside killings in San Bernardino, Calif., and Fort Hood, Texas, more than with the arson attack on the UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans. “We are not fighting a war with a people,” Matusitz says. “We are fighting an ideology. I believe the Pulse shooting is part of the jihadist ideology, and ISIS is just the tip of the iceberg.”
Self-Hating Closet Case?
But many other details of Mateen’s life indicate problems that had little to do with foreign policy. Of note, the day Mateen went into Pulse with a Sig Sauer in his hand was not his first visit to the club. He’d gone several times before. Trans performer Lisa Lane told The Advocate she had seen Mateen there with some regularity for three years. “He was one of my fans,” she said. “Always when he saw me, he would talk to me.”
More striking, Mateen kept gay dating apps on his phone, and Grindr users told The Advocate last year they recalled seeing him online. A man who came forward to Univision—the network identifying him only as “Miguel” — claimed an intimate relationship with Mateen and described the shooter as a closeted gay man. Add in Mateen’s father, Seddique Mateen, suggesting his son had recently been outraged at the sight of two men kissing each other, and a picture of a self-hating shooter filled with prejudice and harboring a vendetta took hold.
Regardless of speculation surrounding Mateen’s personal life, hate-crime experts say the fact a gay club served as venue for the killing spree is enough cause to classify the shooting as a hate crime. “He seemed to be on a mission of hate to kill as many victims as he could that he believed were gay,” says Mark Winton, a University of Central Florida criminal justice lecturer.
Specifically, Winton says the Pulse shooting falls into the particular category of a mission-oriented hate crime, an act whose primary motivation appears to be ridding the world of a particular group, in this case LGBT people. “He also had some terrorist ideas, so that complicates matters, though certainly you can have someone who is homophobic and commits hate crimes and who is a terrorist at the same time,” Winton says.
Experts uniformly told The Advocate that the crime can legally be classified in multiple ways. “In a nutshell, the Orlando attack is a painful example of how terrorism and hate crimes are not mutually exclusive,” says Matt Levitt, director of the Washington Institute’s counterterrorism program. “The attack on the Pulse nightclub will go down on history as both.”
Indeed, a National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism study found that of all al-Qaeda and ISIS fatal attacks recorded since 1990, roughly 4 percent targeted LGBT people specifically. Meanwhile, “far-right homicides” in the U.S. target LGBT individuals 9 percent of the time. Writers of the report say, as Rubio did, the Orlando attack primarily shows the threat domestic extremists pose in the nation.
But many hate-crime experts worry about an active erasure from public opinion of the homophobic aspect of the shooting. And not all Republican leaders were as ready as Rubio to acknowledge homophobia as a motivating factor, with prominent figures, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, failing to acknowledge in official statements that the majority of those killed in the attack were LGBT. Florida Gov. Rick Scott this year honored Pulse victims in his State of the State address but never used the terms “LGBT,” “LGBTQ.” or “Latinx” to describe the victims.
“There are some people who feel less comfortable discussing the underlying prejudices that lead to hate crimes,” says Brian Levin, a criminal justice professor at California State University, San Bernardino. “Making terrorism the primary characteristic means we do not need to pay attention to the homophobic aspect.” Yet bias indicators developed by professional law enforcement over three decades unquestionably mark the attack as an act of hate, Levin says.
Winton, like Matusitz, teaches in the Orlando area, and takes some umbrage at how willing certain voices have been to focus on religious extremists abroad without acknowledging that a particular population bore the brunt of this tragedy. “I’ve even heard from some people in Orlando, professionals in different fields, who had problems discussing the LGBT issues and the victimization of a crime with a homophobic emphasis,” Winton says. “There is homophobia in our society, and there are hate crimes against LGBT people all the time. This happened to be a mass murder.”
At least some of the effort to stress a terrorist component comes from pragmatic, if somewhat cynical, financial concern. More federal dollars get budgeted each year to address national security concerns like terrorism than to handle domestic issues impacting law enforcement. For those reasons, Orlando area law enforcement stand to gain more through grant requests that list the community as the site of a terrorist attack.
“I may get in trouble here, but it’s also about money,” says Roberto Potter, a University of Central Florida professor who has worked closely with Orlando agencies. “We thought there was more attached to being the target of one of the largest terrorist events in the country.” So being the site of the worst attack since 9/11 raises the stakes compared to being the site of the deadliest hate crime in U.S. history. So while most law enforcement believe Mateen sought out a specific people to target, he also wanted a soft target, one where there would be mass casualities and endless media coverage.
But how history will perceives the event years from now remains unknown. “There are so many symbols in this one,” Potter says, “so many different meanings to different groups of individuals who can grab hold of this tragedy and claim it as their own.”