Authorities in Florida are still releasing the names of the 49 people massacred by Omar Mateen in Orlando’s Pulse gay nightclub early on Sunday morning.
But even before all the victims are known, the US and Israeli far right are moving to exploit Mateen’s crime to further a narrative that indicts Muslims collectively and fuels hatred and confrontation.
This is despite the reality that factors other than religious motivation likely played a major part in Mateen’s horrific act.
One group with ties to Israel’s intelligence services is even trying to implicate Palestinians.
“As most Israelis know, terror attacks by Islamic radicals often benefit the right, especially when placed in the hands of a master manipulator such as [Israeli Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu,” observed commentator Chemi Shalev, in the Tel Aviv newspaper Haaretz.
And the master manipulator wasted no time. “We are all shocked by the terrible massacre in Orlando,” Netanyahu said at the start of Israel’s weekly cabinet meeting. “Islamic terror threatens the entire world and all enlightened nations need to unite in order to fight against it.”
Even as the details were emerging on Sunday, Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to the US and now a member of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, was advising presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump on how to exploit the tragedy for political gain.
“If I was Donald Trump, I would have come out the minute that the FBI started to indicate this morning that we are talking about a guy who was operating from Islamic motivations,” Oren told Israeli television. “Just his name alone … a Muslim name, the son of Afghan immigrants who apparently maintained connections of some sort to extremist Islamic organizations, that in itself will greatly influence the presidential race.”
Trump needed no such advice and quickly seized on the killings to renew his calls for a blanket ban on Muslims entering the United States.
In a message on its Facebook page, Shurat HaDin claimed that the Orlando massacre “is part of a series of attacks planned by the Hamas leadership together with ISIS to be executed in the month of Ramadan.”
Shurat HaDin claimed that the first in this series was a shooting that killed five Jordanian personnel at a security office in a Palestinian refugee camp near Amman last week, followed by the shooting attack in Tel Aviv that killed four Israelis.
The Orlando massacre was allegedly the third in this linked series. But no credible source has drawn any connection between the incidents.
Jordanian authorities have called the shooting in Baqaa refugee camp an “individual and isolated act.”
The attack in Tel Aviv came as part of the escalated confrontrations between Israelis and Palestinians since last October. There is no indication that the alleged shooters, two cousins from the village of Yatta near Hebron in the occupied West Bank, were under the command of any armed group.
Even the mayor of Tel Aviv, as well as the father of one of the victims, linked the attack to Israel’s ongoing occupation that deprives millions of Palestinians of their basic rights.
And yet, Shurat HaDin is not only trying to draw direct connections between these incidents, it is even trying to implicate Palestinians in the United States in the Orlando attack.
“Orlando, the Florida town where the attack took place, is fertile ground for Palestinian terrorists like al-Arian, a Hamas activist who was sitting in an American prison, and came from there,” Shurat HaDin claimed.
This is a reference to Sami al-Arian, the former professor at the University of South Florida, in Tampa, who was indicted by the US in 2003 for alleged support for Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Despite the US spending millions on the lengthy trial, a federal jury could not convict al-Arian on a single count.
After a decade pursuing him in what the American Civil Liberties Union called a “pointless and vindictive” prosecution, US authorities finally dropped the charges against al-Arian and allowed him to leave to Turkey last year.
Al-Arian has no plausible connection to the Orlando shooting or to any of the other incidents.
Similarly, Israel Hayom, the pro-Netanyahu newspaper owned by casino billionaire, Republican financier and anti-Palestinian donor Sheldon Adelson, ran photos of Orlando shooter Omar Mateen alongside Neshat Melhem, a Palestinian citizen of Israel who killed three Israelis on New Year’s Day, with the slogan, “A chilling similarity.”
But as +972 Magazine noted, the only similarity is that the men had shaved heads and glasses, and that they came from Muslim backgrounds.
Israel Hayom pointedly did not mention what +972 Magazine called “the more obvious parallel – between Mateen and Yishai Schlissel, who attacked the Jerusalem Pride Parade in June 2015 and murdered a teenage girl with a knife.”
Schlissel, a Jewish extremist, had served time in prison for a similar attack a decade earlier.
Destroying the “grayzone”
The effort to tie Palestinians in particular and Muslims more generally to the Orlando massacre is part of a long-standing campaign by Israel and its supporters to present Palestinian resistance as part of a bigger “jihad” against “the West,” rather than being a response to Israel’s violent occupation and colonization.
Israel then presents itself as the vanguard of this civilized West faced with alleged Islamic barbarism.
This war of civilizations narrative suits Israel because it absolves it of any responsibility to change its behavior toward Palestinians.
But it is incredibly corrosive. Journalist Max Blumenthal has argued that it plays directly into Islamic State’s own declared goal of destroying the “grayzone” – the coexistence of multicultural societies – through such atrocities as those perpetrated in Paris and Brussels in recent months.
True, authorities say Mateen called 911 and pledged allegiance to ISIS, or Islamic State, just before his killing rampage.
But US authorities have not found any direct operational links between Mateen and any group.
The FBI revealed that Mateen has previously claimed to be a member of Hizballah, the Lebanese resistance group that is affiliated with the Shia branch of Islam, and which is a mortal enemy of ISIS. He had also claimed to have relatives affiliated with al-Qaida, but an 11-month FBI investigation in 2013 found nothing to back up his wild statements.
A disturbed person carrying out a horrific act is not necessarily the most reliable source.
President Barack Obama, meanwhile, has acknowledged that while Mateen may have been inspired by online propaganda, “We see no clear evidence that he was directed externally” by the Islamic State or any other group.
The picture that is emerging of Mateen is not of a person with any religious piety, but of a violent, abusive and deeply troubled man who had spewed racist and homophobic bile for years.
Mateen was licensed to own firearms and worked for the global security and incarceration firm G4S since 2007.
G4S allegedly ignored complaints about Mateen’s erratic and threatening behavior.
An ex co-worker told NBC news that Mateen was racist and belligerent.
“I quit because everything he said was toxic,” the co-worker told media, “and the company wouldn’t do anything. This guy was unhinged and unstable. He talked of killing people.”
A major US government contractor, G4S said it vetted Mateen when he was hired in 2007 and again in 2013, but found nothing of concern.
The FBI had twice investigated Mateen, in 2013 and 2014, but found no basis to charge him.
Calling him frequently unstable and “obviously disturbed,” Mateen’s ex-wife described horrific abuse at his hands.
Mateen also appeared to idolize law enforcement and armed forces. He had posted pictures of himself online wearing NYPD insignia, though he had no connection to the New York police.
According to a neighbor, Mateen had US Marines stickers on his car, including one that read, “Semper Fi,” the armed service’s motto.
His ex-wife said that Mateen had even applied to be a police officer.
Separately, James Howell, a heavily armed Indiana man with firearms-related convictions, was arrested on Sunday as he headed toward the Los Angeles Pride parade with a car full of assault weapons and chemicals. Police were still trying to determine Howell’s motives.
Only a tiny fraction of the hundreds of mass shootings in the United States have been linked in any way to “radical Islam.”
Yet “radical Islam,” rather than any of the factors cited in other mass shootings, is considered to provide conclusive explanatory power whenever a perpetrator happens to be from a Muslim background.
Such assumptions make it harder to understand the phenomenon of mass violence and how to stop it. They also endanger whole communities as Muslims in the United States, and people of color more generally, fear a racist backlash.
By Monday evening, regulars at Pulse were reporting that Mateen was himself a habitual patron at the nightclub he later attacked, and that he used a same-sex dating app, adding to the complexity of the picture of him.
A former police academy classmate also told The Palm Beach Post that he used to go to gay bars with Mateen a decade ago, and that Mateen had once asked him out.
In Chicago, on Sunday, hundreds attended a vigil in the city’s Boystown neighborhood, where they heard an opening prayer, before community activists, people of different faiths and elected officials vowed to maintain unity in the face of violence and hatred.
“God send comfort and healing to those who were there last night, whose safe space to dance and be free became a massacre site,” the pastor said. “God provide safety for those in the Muslim community who will be targets of bigotry and violence, for something they did not do and do not condone.”
That sums up how many people are feeling, yet again, in the wake of horrific violence.
At a San Francisco vigil for the Orlando victims, Dr. Suzanne Barakat recalled the killing of her brother.
Deah Barakat was murdered along with his wife Yusor Abu-Salha and her sister Razan Abu-Salha, in the Chapel Hill shootings in February 2015.
Craig Hicks, who has been charged with first degree murder for the killings, had a history of gun-toting harassment, violent threats and anti-religious statements.
Barakat said she sees the shootings as a symptom of “hatred, cruelty and intolerance.” The cure, she added, “is the medicine of love, kindness and compassion.”
In the meantime, far-right spin doctors are working overtime to exploit the Orlando attack and make sure that its poisonous legacy is more division and hatred.
This article has been updated as new information has become available.