The gunman suspected of killing at least 50 people and wounding 53 at an Orlando, Florida gay nightclub on Sunday called 911 during the shooting and pledged allegiance to the Islamic State terror group.
According to CNN citing a police source, Omar Mateen, 30, a US citizen born to Afghan parents, was holed up inside the club with hostages for several hours and communicated with police on a number of occasions. In one of the calls, he swore allegiance to the terror group that has claimed several deadly attacks around the world in recent months, including the Paris attacks in November 2015 and Brussels several months later.
An FBI spokesman later confirmed that a call to police in which a “general allegiance to the Islamic State” was made.
The Islamic State later Sunday claimed responsibility for the attack, according to the IS-linked Amaq news agency.
“The attack that targeted a nightclub for homosexuals in Orlando, Florida and that left more than 100 dead and wounded was carried out by an Islamic State fighter,” the agency said in a terse statement quoting a “source” — and doubling the death toll.
It was the worst mass shooting in US history and was being investigated as an act of terror.
The attacker died in a firefight with police several hours after the attack began.
President Barack Obama said the massacre was an “act of terror” and an “act of hate,” but that it was premature to ascribe a definitive motive. “In the face of hate and violence, we will love one another. We will not give in to fear and turn against each other,” he said.
Mateen worked as a private security guard with a large US company for nine years and was a father to a three-year-old boy. There were conflicting reports on whether he was married.
The FBI said that the suspect was not under investigation or surveillance prior to the shootings but that he had been interviewed by agents twice over the past several years.
An FBI spokesman said the bureau first became aware of Mateen in 2013 when he allegedly made “inflammatory comments to colleagues,” prompting an interview with agents.
In 2014, the FBI interviewed Mateen in connection to a known suicide bomber, fellow Floridian Moner Mohammad Abu Salha, also known as Abu Hurayra al-Amriki, who carried out an attack on behalf of al-Qaeda in northern Syria in May 2014.
In both cases, the FBI said it found no reason to pursue the matter.
The FBI had said earlier that there were “suggestions” Mateen had “leanings” toward Islamic terror.
Speaking to NBC news, Mateen’s father, named as Mir Siddique, said the act was not linked to religion but possibly homophobia.
“We are saying we are apologizing for the whole incident. We weren’t aware of any action he is taking. We are in shock like the whole country,” NBC news said, reading out his statement.
“This had nothing to do with religion,” he added according to NBC news, adding that his son “got very angry when he saw two men kissing in downtown Miami a couple of months ago.”
Outside the Orlando Regional Medical Center, families and friends were awaiting word on whether their loved ones were among the dead or wounded.
Fatriana Evans frequents the Pulse nightclub and was outside when shots were fired.
“It sounded like fireworks — pop, pop, pop — and then everybody scatters,” Evans said.
Jackie Smith was inside the club and said two friends next to her were shot. She said she hasn’t gotten updates on their conditions. She came out of the hospital and burst into tears in the arms of friends.
“Some guy walked in and started shooting everybody. He had an automatic rifle, so nobody stood a chance. I just tried to get out of there,” she said.
Wielding an AR-15-type assault rifle and a handgun, Mateen is suspected of opening fire at club-goers in Orlando, about a two-hour drive from Port St. Lucie, killing some 50 and wounding 53 others before dying in a gunfight with SWAT officers. Mateen also took hostages during the attack.
Police Chief John Mina said the shooter had some sort of “suspicious device.” He said the suspect exchanged gunfire with an officer working at the club around 2 a.m., then went back inside and took hostages among more than 300 people inside.
Around 5 a.m., authorities sent in a SWAT team to rescue the hostages, and the suspect then died in a gunfight with those officers.
Florida Department of Law Enforcement Special Agent in Charge Danny Banks said during a news conference that the mass shooting is being investigated as an act of terrorism. He says authorities are looking into whether this was an act of domestic or international terror, and if the shooter was a lone wolf.
“This is an incident, as I see it, that we certainly classify as domestic terror incident,” said Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings.
FBI Special Agent in Charge Ron Hopper said there’s no further threat to Orlando or the surrounding area.
When asked if the gunman had a connection to radical Islamic terrorism, Hopper said, “we do have suggestions that individual has leanings towards that.”
Police said the gunman was well prepared and organized and wasn’t from the Orlando area, the New York Times reported.
Police had said previously on Twitter that there was a “controlled explosion” at the scene of the shooting at Pulse Orlando. Mina said that noise was caused by a device intended to distract the shooter.
Mina Justice was outside the club early Sunday trying to contact her 30-year-old son Eddie, who texted her when the shooting happened and asked her to call police. He told her he ran into a bathroom with other club patrons to hide. He then texted her: “He’s coming.”
“The next text said: ‘He has us, and he’s in here with us,'” she said. “That was the last conversation.”
Dozens of police vehicles, including a SWAT team, swarmed the area around the club. At least two police pickup trucks were seen taking what appeared to be shooting victims to the Orlando Regional Medical Center.
Pulse Orlando posted on its own Facebook page around 2 a.m.: “Everyone get out of pulse and keep running.” Just before 6 a.m., the club posted an update: “As soon as we have any information we will update everyone. Please keep everyone in your prayers as we work through this tragic event. Thank you for your thoughts and love.”