When worshipers at Islamic Center of Fort Pierce leave the mosque each evening, after gathering to mark the end of the Ramadan fast, they depart in groups for protection. Sometimes they exit from the back door, fearing suspicious cars out front and people loitering across the street on a darkened road. Even in broad daylight, someone drove by and yelled, “[Expletive] Islam!”
Life at this modest mosque nestled into a working class town has changed radically since Omar Mateen committed the worst mass shooting in US history, a day after attending Friday prayers here. Many at the mosque say that he must have self-radicalized, picking up twisted ideas from Islamic State videos and other extremist propaganda proffered on the Web. Others – both insiders and observers – find it hard to believe that no one saw the warning signs of a man filled with hatred and preparing for a jihadi-style attack.
Many mosque-goers say they didn’t really know him, or offer that he seemed like a nice, quiet man who came to pray with his 3-year-old son. Other members of the community say that’s an incomplete answer.
“Everyone is cautious and everyone is afraid to say anything,” says Bedar Bakht, a longstanding member of the mosque who moved to the United States from Pakistan. “But to say that you didn’t know him, that’s nonsense. He was part of this community. He’s been coming here with his family since he was practically a kid. What he did is a very scary thing, and no one wants to be associated with that.”
The possibility that someone at the mosque might have perceived Mr. Mateen’s radicalization mixed with psychological instability and been able to do something about it hangs heavy in the air not just here, but across the country as various voices in the Muslim-American community call for a more proactive approach to the problem.
The Florida chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which condemned Mateen’s attack on a gay nightclub that killed 49 people, started a program last September to do just that. It offers workshops that, under the rubric of “mosque safety,” help people to recognize signs that a fellow worshiper is heading in a troubling direction – and discuss what can be done about it.
“We train the community to be very capable of identifying antisocial behavior and signs of radicalization. We have put into place a team of professionals to help people face that,” says Wilfredo Amr Ruiz, a senior official for CAIR Florida who has been involved in leading the workshops.
“Once an individual shows signs of radicalization, he’s approached in a holistic manner by a team of mental health workers, law professionals, social workers, and imams to deal with spiritual guidance," he says. "The professionals decide what he needs. Maybe it’s psychological or psychiatric treatment. We’ve got all bases covered to prevent that person from committing a crime.”
But fellow mosque attendees say it was difficult to see any signs of radicalization in Mateen.
“I can say he was quiet and did not really talk. A lot of people are like that, but does not mean they will go out and kill,” says Mohammed Idrees, a respiratory therapist who attends the mosque almost every morning. “I did not see anything. He never had any behavior problems.”
Training at 40 of Florida's 100 mosques
So far, CAIR Florida has brought its training to 40 Islamic centers around the state – out of approximately 100. But they hadn’t gotten to this mosque before Mateen launched his devastating attack on Sunday.
Some would argue that it might have been a good place to start. Another attendee from the small mosque, which is housed in a former church building, was recently in the news: Moner Mohammad Abu Salha, who occasionally worshiped there, served as a suicide bomber for the Nusra Front – an Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria – by driving a truck bomb into a building housing Syrian government troops in May 2014.
FBI Investigators say that Abu Salha tried to recruit other young men here in Florida before his final journey to the Middle East; that attempt is linked to Mateen’s questioning by authorities in 2013 and 2014. The FBI failed to find any definitive link between the men and so closed their investigation of Mateen. But in Mateen’s series of phone calls to the Orlando police after he’d begun shooting up the Pulse nightclub at 2 a.m. Sunday, he paid homage to Abu Salha – as well as announcing his fealty to the leader of the self-declared Islamic State, Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Mosque attendees say there’s no way the two men got such ideas from their imam, Syed Shafeeq Rahman, a family physician born and raised in Pakistan.
“Listen to his speeches, none of it is about making people radical,” says Mr. Idrees. “What [Mateen] did, he did not get from this community.... we didn’t know what was going on in his mind. What he did was an individual act.”
Imam blames Web for radicalization
On Monday, CAIR’s Ruiz arrived here for the first time and announced to reporters that he would be taking over communications at the mosque, on invitation of the imam, as the demand for interviews – and the depth of questions about Mateen – had become overwhelming.
On Sunday, directly following the attack, the imam told reporters that Mateen came, prayed quietly, and left. The fact that the FBI had questioned him was not made known to him, he said.
“The mosque did not radicalize him,” said Rahman. “If something radicalized him, it might be the Internet.”
That clearly played a role. As investigators dig deeper into Mateen’s digital footprint and social media usage, they are finding clues of his pull toward extremism. Before the attack, he watched IS beheading videos. During a pause in the massacre early Sunday, he conducted Facebook searches from his phone looking for news updates of his own deed as his victims lay dying. He also sent out posts describing his motives.
“The real Muslims will never accept the filthy ways of the West,” Mateen wrote, according to a letter from the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, Sen. Ron Johnson (R) of Wisconsin. “You kill innocent women and children by doing us airstrikes ... now taste the Islamic state vengeance.”
'We are determined to fight this'
It’s possible that the seemingly moderate tone at his local mosque could not compete with the mesmerizing and sleek IS propaganda Mateen found online.
But many in the larger Islamic community say they could be doing more to deter young men like him from heading in this direction, says Haroon Moghul, senior fellow and the director of development at the Center for Global Policy, which is in the process of opening an office in Washington.
“I don’t think it’s happening on the level that we need it to happen,” says Mr. Moghul. “We’ve been allocating resources to the wrong projects, we dedicate a lot to infrastructure and very little to our programs and outreach. Our communities are unable to meet the very important challenges we’re facing.”
Most imams have condemned the attack, but you’ll find some who are floating the idea of it being a conspiracy or a “false flag,” Moghul says, orchestrated to push Americans towards war against Islam. “If you tell your community that it’s a false flag and has nothing to do with us, how can you tell your community to be aware of extremism?”
Bakht, at the Fort Pierce mosque, said he’ll be glad to see a new approach that goes deeper than the training program offered by CAIR.
“After this, I feel the adults and leaders here should start talking to our young people. Really talk to them how are they doing – ask, how are their marriages, their financial situations. Inquire about their lives,” he says.
Adel Saluh, an engineer who immigrated here from Egypt 17 years ago, is also concerned about the rising generation.
“I have kids around the same age [as Mateen], and I don’t want them radicalized,” says Mr. Saluh, offering his guest a date – the customary way to break the Ramadan fast. “We ran away from the madness in the Middle East to live here. We are determined to fight this.
“But if they’re going to start blaming all of us, I don’t need it,” he says. “If this is going to happen, I’m going back to Egypt.”