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‘Always Agitated. Always Mad’: Omar Mateen, According to Those Who Knew Him | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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An undated photo from a social media account of Omar Mateen, who Orlando Police have identified as the suspect in the mass shooting at a gay nighclub in Orlando, Florida, U.S., June 12, 2016. Omar Mateen via Myspace/ REUTERS

ORLANDO, Fla. — The brother of the bride arrived late for her reception. But soon enough he was mingling at the lakeside pavilion in West Palm Beach, where a diverse gathering of guests dined on chicken tikka masala and goat biryani while admiring the view of the Intracoastal Waterway just beyond the floor-to-ceiling windows.

Then came the moment to join in a traditional Afghan dance called the attan, in which dancers form a circle and are led through a series of synchronized turns and moves. If well executed, the attan can create an almost trancelike sense of oneness.

But here was the bride’s brother — stocky, bespectacled Omar Mateen — dancing in the group and yet dancing apart. Clumsy, out of sync, his head mostly down, the man dressed in black was following his own rhythm.

Four months after this celebration of life in February, the awkward man in black caused wholesale death. Chuckling and declaring allegiance to the Islamic State, he opened fire at a gay and Latino nightclub here, leaving 49 people dead and wounding 53 others before he was killed by the police to end a protracted standoff.

The massacre at the Pulse nightclub early last Sunday stands as the deadliest mass shooting by one person in United States history.

Rising amid the international grief is the aching and obvious question of why. But the short life of Mr. Mateen, who was 29, provides no easy road map to motivation.

He had shown occasional flashes of interest in radical Islam, enough to be investigated twice by the F.B.I. in recent years for possible extremist ties.

But his professed embrace of the ISIS group and its call for disaffected Muslims to attack the West seem to have come suddenly, as if something snapped. And while some reports have suggested that he was gay, federal officials say they have found no evidence in his effects or online presence to back them up.

Instead, the recollections of those who knew or encountered him conjure a man who could be charming, even laid-back, yet who also seemed forever aggrieved, forever not at peace, forever out of step. A chubby kid making inappropriate jokes about 9/11 in the fresh wake of that catastrophe. A leering misogynist whose pursuits could rattle women. An off-putting employee who spoke casually of killing those who offended him. The security guard and wannabe cop whose scattershot anger made others feel unsafe.

“He was just agitated about everything,” Daniel Gilroy, a former co-worker in the security business, recalled. “Always shaken. Always agitated. Always mad.”

A Difficult Student

Omar Mateen was that chunky kid with glasses, remembered more for his scrapes with other classmates than for his academic performance. Early on, the same schoolboy who could wear a broad smile and a Power Rangers T-shirt in his school portrait could also engage in “much talk about violence & sex,” according to a school assessment.

A first-generation American, he was born in New York City’s melting-pot borough of Queens in 1986, and moved about four years later with his Afghan parents to Port St. Lucie in Florida, where he was quickly enrolled in an English for Speakers of Other Languages program.

His father, Seddique Mateen, a refugee who became a naturalized American citizen, was a financial broker whose savvy investments allowed for a comfortable home appointed with tasteful furniture and expensive silk rugs. His wife, Shahla, stayed mostly in the background, while he set a tone of cultural conservatism, especially when it came to his three other children, all accomplished women. The son, though, enjoyed male privilege.

The family assimilated. But as the United States became mired in the protracted war in Afghanistan, the elder Mr. Mateen became torn between his native and adopted homes. Over the years, he would become more politically active to a point of apparent delusion, posting videos, for example, of himself in military uniform, pretending to be Afghanistan’s president.

For his children, family friends say, this meant navigating a fractured world in which their Afghan roots and Muslim faith could lead to divisiveness and ostracism. Two friends say that the Mateen children feared any perceived link to Islamic extremism, and so began saying, simply, that they were Persian.

Omar Mateen was a disciplinary challenge in school, unafraid to push buttons. “Constantly moving, verbally abusive, rude, aggressive,” that school assessment noted. In the third grade, his rendition of the school song at Mariposa Elementary replaced “Mariposa, Mariposa” with “marijuana, marijuana.”

The boy was formally disciplined more than 30 times in elementary and middle schools as he pursued attention and occasional conflict rather than his studies. His father would later say that young Omar preferred drawing pictures in class to listening, which seems borne out by an assessment one of his teachers wrote at the time:

“Unfortunately, Omar had great difficulty focusing on his classwork since he often seeks the attention of his classmates through some sort of noise, disruption, or distraction.”

So was Omar Mateen betraying his latent extremist sympathies — or was he just being tone-deaf — when, at 14, he shocked other students on his school bus by imitating an exploding plane so soon after the Sept. 11 attacks?

(The New York Times)