FORT PIERCE, FLORIDA - It’s that final, enervating hour at the end of the day’s Ramadan fast, and everyone is hot and cranky. To make matters worse, mosque-goers arriving for nightly prayers and an iftar meal at the Islamic Center of Fort Piece find a gaggle of journalists waiting in the tiny lobby. Few look happy to see reporters, and most defer all questions to the imam.
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But the imam, Syed Shafeeq Rahman, is now avoiding all contact with the press after his some worrying questions have been raised. In this small mosque nestled along a country road winding through lower middle-class neighborhoods, in a humble building boasting no dome or minaret but instead resembling one of the myriad small, steepled churches nearby, Omar Mateen prayed regularly. And although the young man who on Sunday committed the largest mass shooting in U.S. history is being described as someone who self-radicalized — without any encouragement from this particular mosque or its leadership — he has now become the second young man here who took on such a murderous mission.
Moner Mohammad Abu-salha, who attended the same mosque, joined the Nusra Front in Syria and went on a suicide bombing mission for the group in May 2014, when he drove an explosives-laden truck into a government building in the north of the country. Investigators now say that he tried to recruit other young men here before his final journey to Syria, and that in part lead to Mateen’s questioning by the FBI in 2013 and 2014. Finding nothing that warranted arrest, they closed the investigation.
Abu-salha was one of the many inspirations Mateen cited when he called police early Sunday between killing 49 people inside Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando. In the series of calls, he also expressed fealty to the leader of the Islamic State. A few years back, it emerged Monday in an FBI briefing, Mateen also bragged to co-workers that he had family ties to Al-Qaida and was connected to Hezbollah, and that he hoped police “would assault his wife and child so he could martyr himself.”
From dedicating his deed to ISIS to expressing admiration for the two Chechen brothers who bombed the Boston Marathon in 2013, Mateen’s Islamist credentials are startlingly checkered. It is clear that he worshipped here regularly, sometimes coming with a 3-year-old son, and sometimes, his Afghan-born father, who lives nearby in Port St. Lucie. According to several worshippers, Mateen was here for Friday prayers just a day before the devastating attack.
What’s less clear is how everyone he prayed alongside on a regular basis could be totally unaware of his intentions or the degree to which had become radicalized, enamored of various extremist groups with competing agendas.
“He seems like a very confused person. I mean, he seemed like a nice kid. And I’m not defending him,” says Adel Saluh, a naturalized citizen who immigrated here from Egypt 17 years ago. “He was probably recruited online. We are suffering because of this as well. I have kids around the same age, and I don’t want them radicalized,” says Saluh, a retired engineer dressed in a white jalabiyeh for Ramadan prayers. “We are determined to fight this.”
The mosque’s website now offers a denunciation of the attack in no uncertain terms: “We condemn this monstrous attack and offer our heartfelt condolences to the families and loved ones of all those killed or injured,” it reads. “The Muslim community of Fort Pierce joins our fellow Americans in repudiating anyone or any group that would claim to justify or excuse such an appalling act of violence.” But Imam Rahman, after initially speaking to a few reporters, had decided to bow out of any contact and on Monday was turning all communications over to a local chapter of CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim advocacy group based in Washington, DC.
On the afternoon following the attack, Rahman told an Associated Press reporter that Mateen attended evening prayer services three to four times a week, sometimes bringing his young son. He had been coming on and off for 10 years. And while Mateen wasn’t particularly social, he also gave no indication of plans to carry out an act of violence. “When he finished prayer he would just leave,” Rahman told the AP. “He would not socialize with anybody. He would be quiet. He would be very peaceful.”
Bedar Bakht, a regular at the mosque and an immigrant from Pakistan, says that Mateen sat right in front on him for prayers on Friday night. Now, Bakht has a hard time comprehending that someone who shared the same prayer space with him had committed such an act.
“Why would a person get radicalized so quickly? There are no words for it. For me, I say that if you don’t like this country and what it stands for, leave,” Bakht said. Bakht noted that Mateen’s father was also an active attendee at the mosque, as were three sisters.
Mateen’s father, Siddique Mir Mateen, has spoken out against his son’s act and said it was not how he had raised his children. The elder Mateen also told journalists that he doesn’t think his son Omar had forged any actual ties with Islamic extremist groups, noting that his son didn’t even wear a beard and didn’t seem agitated in the days before the rampage. He did, however, tell NBC news that his son recently saw a male couple kissing in Miami, and that this, particularly as it was in front of his young son, seems to have triggered his anger.
Mateen also said in a Facebook posting, cited by the Washington Post, that his son should not have gone on the rampage because “God himself will punish those involved in homosexuality.” Some of the senior Mateen’s postings and online videos are themselves perplexing, some bordering on delusional: They include claims to be president of a so-called Transitional Revolutionary Government of Afghanistan and calls by him, dressed in fatigues, demanding the arrest of Afghanistan’s actual president and senior leaders.
Over the past few hours, the characterization of Omar Mateen’s extreme homophobia took on a confusing new hue as reports surfaced that he had frequented Pulse, the gay nightclub where he committed the massacre, on several occasions, even drinking heavily while there. It also appears that he used a gay dating app, according to a report in The Los Angeles Times, and kept in touch with at least one young man there over the course of a year. It remains unclear whether this might fill out a portrait of a man struggling with his sexuality, or whether he was methodically gathering information about his chosen target.
One of the worshippers at the Islamic Center said homophobia was not an issue at the mosque or in the area, but added, “there aren’t any gays around here anyway.”
As the sun goes down, more worshippers file in. They’re from many countries around the world and beyond salaam aleikum, people address each other in English. They break fast on a juicy date and pakora, a Pakistani specialty made of fried chickpea powder and vegetables.
Wilfredo Amr Ruiz, acting as a communications specialist for CAIR, came to evening prayers to consult with Rahman, and said he would be taking over as a “communications professional” on behalf of the mosque. He said his organization was aware of the dangers of young Muslims being lured into extremist ideology, and that they’re already actively working on addressing it.
“The radicalization is a reality. As a matter of fact, the Council on American-Islamic Relations have offered since September 2015 safety and security trainings in over 40 mosques around the state,” Ruiz said. “We discuss extremism and how to keep our communities safe from extremism. We train our communities to deter radicalization, and once radicalization is detected, what to do.” This mosque, however, was not one of them.