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Police Kill Orlando Gunman; Victims' Names Slowly Made Public

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And we are learning more this morning about just what happened when, early Sunday morning at Pulse - that's the nightclub, a gay nightclub - where a gunman opened fire. Police are now giving the number of victims as 49 dead. They had previously said 50. They now appear to be saying 49 victims dead, plus the shooter. This is one of those facts that has changed not and is quite liable to change again in a dramatic situation like this. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson has been with us all morning and has the latest on what we know. How did this begin, Carrie?

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Some new details this morning, Steve, from the news conference with local and federal law enforcement - the chief of the local police there said the shooter, Omar...

INSKEEP: Mateen.

JOHNSON: ...Mateen was engaged by a security guard and maybe an off-duty police officer near one of the entrances to that Pulse nightclub in Orlando on Latin night.

INSKEEP: So there was an effort to stop him fairly near the entrance then?

JOHNSON: That's what the police chief says. And eventually, other law enforcement showed up shortly after 2 a.m. and forced the shooter into a bathroom where he was holed up for some period of time with hostages. We also now know that the shooter called 911 and apparently pledged allegiance to the Islamic State right in the middle of this attack.

INSKEEP: So we have a situation where he comes in the entrance. He's engaged in some way. He continues shooting. He ends up back in one of the two bathrooms. And I think we heard in a new conference earlier there were actually people taking shelter in two bathrooms, and one of them had the shooter. And let's hear how it ended. We're going to listen now to John Mina. He is the police chief of Orlando, Fla.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN MINA: We used our armored vehicle, the BearCat armored vehicle, to punch a hole in that wall and defeat the wall. So there was a hole in the wall about 2 feet off the ground and about 2 or 3 feet wide. We were able to rescue dozens and dozens of people that came out of that hole. The suspect came out of that hole himself, armed with a handgun and a long gun, engaged in a gunbattle with officers where he was ultimately killed.

INSKEEP: So they decided, apparently, not to go in through the door, where the gunman would be expecting, and tried to smash in through a side wall into that bathroom.

JOHNSON: Steve, a lot of questions still about why law enforcement waited between 2 and 5 a.m. to attempt this SWAT rescue of the hostages. The chief said that he believed, based on comments from the shooter, that imminent loss of life was about to happen, and they had to go in at 5.

INSKEEP: I guess we should say - in a situation like this, law enforcement officials like to take time if they can take time. Delay is good because you want to save lives. You don't want to be firing into a situation where there are innocent civilians. And we can presume, although we do not know, that is why they may have waited several hours.

JOHNSON: Yeah. I think we're going to learn a lot more in the coming hours and days about that. And, of course, there are many, many open avenues of the investigation at this stage.

INSKEEP: What is known about the background of Omar Mateen?

JOHNSON: Twenty-nine-years-old, born in New York, an American who moved to Florida with his family - and Steve, he'd worked for the same security company since 2007, licensed as a security guard in the state of Florida, legally purchased at least two weapons that he used in - and carried with him into the nightclub. And we now know the ATF is tracing a third weapon found in his van overnight. So the result of that trace not yet in, but three weapons now instead of two on that (unintelligible).

INSKEEP: We know that two of them were purchased legally. And a third, we don't know. Is that correct?

JOHNSON: That's right.

INSKEEP: OK. So this man has - you mentioned that he is a U.S. citizen, that he was born in the United States. The question has arisen as to whether he has connections to any outside or foreign group.

JOHNSON: The FBI is eagerly awaiting the answer to that question. They're going through his electronic and social media at this point, interviewing family members, people who knew him. We've now heard from a former co-worker and also the shooter's ex-wife who raised questions about a series of racist and homophobic comments by the shooter as well as a possible history of violence, Steve.

INSKEEP: Is this reminding you at all of the San Bernardino shootings, in which the attackers seemed to not necessarily have a direct connection necessarily to ISIS, but also pledged allegiance to ISIS in the last moments?

JOHNSON: National security experts say that these plots do bear the hallmark of people who were inspired by social media and inspired by contact online with folks, as opposed to being directed by al-Qaida or the Islamic straight (ph) central. Of course, the female shooter, the wife shooter in San Bernardino, pledged allegiance to ISIS on social media around the time of that attack last year.

INSKEEP: Carrie, thanks very much. That's NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson continuing to bring us the latest this morning.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And Steve, we're in the city of Orlando. And amazing, we arrived here last night. And it is so easy to find people who were touched by this tragedy. In just the hours since we've been here, I've met people who lost a family member, people who are still trying to reach people they knew who were in the Pulse nightclub to find out if they survived or not. And that's going to be continuing, I mean, as people try and learn as best as they can to see if they lost people. Now this nightclub that was attacked early yesterday morning, it was founded partly to raise awareness about LGBT issues here in central Florida. And NPR's Kirk Siegler is here in Orlando. He reports that many considered this, really, a safe haven in an accepting neighborhood.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Pulse is not the only gay bar here in Orlando. But it's long billed itself as the hottest gay nightclub in this city. And it's certainly one of the most crowded and most lively, known for its hugely popular theme nights - Saturday night, when the attack occurred, was Latin night - and its drag queen shows - YouTube is full of lively amateur footage from them.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "RAVEN AT PULSE ORLANDO 10.21.15")

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Raven.

SIEGLER: Pulse's name was coined by its co-owner and founder Barbara Poma. Her brother John was gay and came out to their strict, Catholic family in his teens. The family went on to accept him. He died of AIDS in 1991. And the name Pulse stands for her brother's heartbeat. According to its website, Pulse isn't just a nightclub, though. It's also a platform to raise awareness about HIV education and prevention. Barbara Poma issued a brief statement last night, saying she is devastated.

There is plenty of shock to go around here in the streets outside the club.

JAVON SCOTT: 'Cause I was, like, oh, my God. Like, this could've been me and my friends, like, last weekend. This could have been us, like, last Friday. This could've us any day because we come to this club a lot. So it just hurts. It hurts a lot.

SIEGLER: A few blocks away from Pulse, just south of the downtown Orlando skyline, club regular Javon Scott is still trying to process the tragedy that claimed so many lives in one of his favorite hangout spots.

SCOTT: It's just one of those things to where it's like a safe haven. But then when somebody takes it away, it just - I don't know. It makes you feel stripped, like, really vulnerable in a way, I guess you'd say, even more vulnerable than we already are as homosexuals.

SIEGLER: Unlike in a lot of cities, there isn't really one specific gay neighborhood here in sprawling Orlando. The city's gay bars and venues are scattered around. But a lot of people will tell you Pulse was this sort of safe zone. The neighborhood around it has a reputation of being particularly open-minded and accepting.

TIM VARGAS: You know, it's where a good portion of our community goes to really socialize and enjoy spending time with each other.

SIEGLER: Across town, Tim Vargas is coordinating a room full of volunteers at the Center, an Orlando GLBT nonprofit. Vargas is board president.

Hundreds of people have come in here for counseling since the attack. He's not sure where the community goes next from here or what will happen to Pulse.

VARGAS: Well, I - I think it's too soon. I don't know. I certainly - you know, we all want to feel safe. And it's going to be hard to feel safe anywhere at this point.

SIEGLER: Now, he says, everyone's just focusing on planning for more vigils and memorials.

GREENE: All right, that was NPR's Kirk Siegler here in Orlando. And let's bring another voice in now. It's Dan Byman who's a counterterrorism expert at the Brookings Institution. Mr. Byman, good morning.

DANIEL BYMAN: Good morning.

GREENE: People here in Orlando and around the country are trying to make sense of this. We have this attacker, Omar Mateen, who called 911, pledged his allegiance to the Islamic State. I mean, should we think of this as an act of terrorism that was somehow carried out by the Islamic State? Or it sounds much more complicated than that.

BYMAN: We certainly should see it as an act of terrorism. But it's inspired by the Islamic State, at least according to the initial reports, rather than directed. And what that means is that it's a mix of the Islamic State's agenda but also the personal agenda of the shooter. So if you look at San Bernardino, a similar situation, we saw the Islamic State eventually claim credit for it. But the attack was one that was the shooter's workplace. So it was their personal anger and agenda. But they were trying to glorify it in the name of the Islamic State.

GREENE: So this man, Omar Mateen, we know he's a - was a U.S., citizen, lived on the east coast of Florida. The FBI investigated them twice, most recently in 2014, not long ago. But their inquiries were closed. What does that tell us?

BYMAN: That tells us that Mateen may have been flirting with radical circles. Some reports show he was linked to a man who had gone to Syria and became the first American suicide bomber there. And often, individuals are linked to other radicals. They may be on social media spouting radicalism. And so there are a lot of indicators. But not all of these indicators are criminal. So the FBI may not have been able to act.

GREENE: And just briefly - I mean, as we think about this, if this is ISIS-inspired, but not actually carried out by the group, does that change the way the United States government should be thinking about terrorism?

BYMAN: The United States government has to think about both ISIS-directed and inspired acts. So Paris was ISIS directed. Multiple teams coordinated at times, going after guarded targets. But we're also seeing ISIS-inspired, so lone wolf terrorism. That's harder to guard against. And the only bit of good news in this horrible situation is that it's less likely to succeed. And when it does, it's - the shooter is more likely to be killed or caught.

GREENE: OK. Dan Byman is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Thanks so much for talking to us this morning.

BYMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.