Months after Omar Mateen’s deeply distressing mass shooting spree in Orlando, which took the lives of 49 innocent people, the full transcripts of his phone calls with emergency services and police have been released. The records of his exchanges with authorities reveal not only his obvious mental instability and inner-turmoil but also provide insight into why the FBI withheld the complete conversations for months.
When the FBI released its heavily redacted snippet of a transcript from Mateen’s 911 call in June, the agency faced widespread outrage for excluding Mateen’s pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State. Following the outcry, the FBI and the Department of Justice claimed the omission was intended to avoid providing a “publicity platform” to would-be terrorists.
Nevertheless, they said the unreleased transcripts were creating an “an unnecessary distraction” from their Orlando investigation and opted to release the unredacted version of the Orlando shooter’s brief first phone call with a 911 operator. At that time, the FBI also provided summaries of the subsequent calls Mateen had with police. They even admitted — as a witness to the attacks had more or less testified — that the shooter demanded the United States stop bombing Syria and Iraq.
Though that admission in June was a surprising concession from the bureau, which plays a heavy-handed role in the War on Terror, the Intercept noted in June that the FBI’s summaries were not in life with statements FBI Director James Comey made previously:
“However, based on a previous description of Mateen’s 911 calls given by FBI Director James Comey last week, it appears that the federal investigators continued to withhold details of a second conversation Mateen had with the 911 operator, which was not referred to at all in the government’s timeline.”
The Intercept reported another gap in the FBI’s transcript and summaries, pointing out that Comey had previously acknowledged “Mateen had expressed solidarity with the Tsarnaev brothers, who carried out the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013, and Moner Mohammad Abusalha, a Floridian who carried out a suicide bombing in Syria in 2014 on behalf of al Qaeda’s representatives there, the Nusra Front.”
This information was not included in the summaries or transcript the FBI released in June, and these omissions cast doubt on the transparency of the agency’s summaries.
With the release of the full transcripts last Friday, a better understanding of Mateen’s motives is emerging.
Early in Mateen’s second phone call of the evening, this time with a police negotiator, he made his reasoning clear:
“Can you tell me where you are right now so I can you get some help?” the negotiator asks Mateen.
“No,” Mateen replies. ‘Because you have to tell America to stop bombing Syria and Iraq. They are killing a lot of innocent people. What am I to do here when my people are getting killed over there. You get what I’m saying?”
While this matches up with the FBI’s original descriptions of the calls, Mateen’s resolve on this matter was remarkably persistent. It was a predominant, recurring theme of the phone call, which the FBI failed to emphasize.
After the negotiator says he understands what the Orlando shooter is saying, Mateen again says:
“You need to stop the U.S. air strikes. They need to stop the U.S. air strikes, okay?”
The negotiator tells him he understands, but again, Mateen urges:
“They need to stop the U.S. air strikes. You have to tell the U.S. government to stop bombing. They are killing too many children, they are killing too many women, okay?”
“I understand that,” the negotiator says again. He asks Mateen to tell him “what’s going on.”
“What’s going on is that I feel the pain of the people getting killed in Syria and Iraq and all over the Muslim (unidentified word)” Mateen answers.
Shortly after, he again references the ongoing bombings, this time mentioning America’s collaboration with Russia (it is unclear what collaboration he is referencing as the proposed U.S.-Russia partnership to fight ISIS in Syria was not officially announced until July):
“Well, you need to know that they need to stop bombing Syria and Iraq. The U.S. is collaborating with Russia and they are killing innocent women and children, okay?”
Shortly after, Mateen’s references Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one of the Boston bombers, as Comey initially admitted in June.
“My homeboy Tamerlan Tsarnaev did his thing on the Boston Marathon, my homeboy (unidentified name) did his thing, okay, so now it’s my turn, okay?” he says.
The Tsarnaev brothers, particularly Tamerlan, were motivated by the United States’ wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and sought revenge for them. Mateen evidently saw them as models for his own attack.
Mateen, who pledged allegiance to ISIS and their leader, expressed outrage in a subsequent phone call with police over one U.S. strike in particular:
“Yo, the air strike that killed Abu Wahid a few weeks ago… That’s what triggered it, okay?…They should have not bombed and killed Abu Wahid.”
Abu Wahid, also referred to as Abu Waheeb, was a prominent ISIS leader killed by a U.S. drone strike in May. Based on the full transcripts, it appears Mateen was increasingly agitated and radicalized by U.S. attacks on the people of Iraq and Syria, and the final straw was the death of Wahid, who he apparently considered an important force in his tirade against the American military.
Mateen’s pledge to ISIS indicated to many he was a radical Islamic extremist. However, reports from his ex-wife painted him more as a volatile, mentally unstable, potentially gay man who was not particularly religious. He wanted to be a police officer and wore shirts emblazoned with the New York Police Department’s logo.
Considering these varying factors, the full transcripts shed light on just how powerfully U.S. foreign policy factored into the clearly unstable man’s decision to murder dozens of innocent people.
Whether the FBI withheld the full transcripts out of a genuine desire to discourage further attacks or did so for nefarious reasons, Mateen’s repeated references to air strikes should not be discounted. As the U.S. continues to wage air campaigns in Syria and Iraq and the messy, perpetual war continues, the Orlando shooter’s sentiments suggest these bombardments will continue to inspire blowback in the form of hatred and retaliatory violence.
As Mateen continued to stress in his phone calls with police:
“This went down, a lot of innocent women and children are getting killed in Syria and Iraq and Afghanistan, okay?”
He told the negotiator to tell authorities “[t]o stop, tell them to stop.”
“Tell — tell the f*cking — the air strikes need to stop.”