By Jonathan Landay and Mark Hosenball
Islamic State claimed responsibility on Sunday for the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, but U.S. officials said they had seen no immediate evidence linking the militant group to the massacre in Orlando, Florida.
Islamic State’s claim was carried by Amaq, the organization’s news agency.
“The armed attack that targeted a gay night club in the city of Orlando in the American state of Florida which left over 100 people dead or injured was carried out by an Islamic State fighter,” said the Amaq statement.
At least 50 people were killed and 53 others were wounded in the Pulse nightclub before the gunman was shot dead by police.
The shooter was identified by authorities as Omar Mateen, a Florida resident and U.S.-born son of Afghan immigrants who a senior FBI official said might have had leanings toward Islamic State.
The FBI official cautioned, however, that proving the suspected link to radical Islamism required further investigation.
Three U.S. officials familiar with the investigation into the massacre said that no evidence had yet been found showing a direct link with Islamic State or any other militant group.
There is “no evidence yet that this was directed or connected to ISIS. So far as we know at this time, his first direct contact was a pledge of bayat (loyalty) he made during the massacre,” said a U.S. counter-terrorism official, referring to a 911 call the suspect made on Sunday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity.
A U.S. intelligence official said it was not unexpected that Islamic State would claim responsibility given that the group has been suffering serious losses of fighters and territory in Iraq and Syria.
“The fact that a website connected to Daesh applauded it doesn’t mean anything,” said the U.S. intelligence official, using an Arabic language acronym for Islamic State. “They are losing on their home turf, and it’s not surprising if they’re looking for some kind of twisted victory.”
Speaking at the White House, President Barack Obama called the attack “an act of terror and an act of hate,” and said the FBI would spare no effort to determine whether the suspect had been inspired by any extremist group.
The two officials familiar with the investigation said a leading theory was that the suspect somehow was inspired by Islamist militants.
One official said early information, the nature of which he did not disclose, indicated that the shooter was motivated by a mixture of “hate” and religion.
‘ACT OF TERRORISM’
U.S. Representative Adam Schiff of California, the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement issued after a briefing on the massacre that several factors indicated the attack was an Islamic State-inspired “act of terrorism.”
He noted that the incident occurred during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, that Islamic State had called for attacks during that period, the target was an LGBT nightclub and it was hit during Gay Pride weekend.
Schiff said that, if accurate, “according to local law enforcement the shooter declared his allegiance to ISIS (Islamic State).”
An audio message purportedly issued last month by the spokesman of Islamic State called on followers to launch attacks in the United States and Europe during Ramadan, which began on June 5 in the United States.
“Ramadan, the month of conquest and jihad. Get prepared, be ready … to make it a month of calamity everywhere for the non-believers … especially for the fighters and supporters of the caliphate in Europe and America,” said the statement allegedly made by Abu Muhammad al-Adnani and distributed over Twitter accounts usually associated with Islamic State.
“The smallest action you do in their heartland is better and more enduring to us than what you would if you were with us. If one of you hoped to reach the Islamic State, we wish we were in your place to punish the Crusaders day and night,” said the audio clip, the authenticity of which could not be verified.
Reporting by Jonathan Landay and Mark Hosenball; Editing by Peter Cooney and Alistair Bell
Photo: A member of the New York Police Department’s Critical Response Command Unit stands guard by The Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street, considered by some as the center of New York State’s gay rights movement, following the shooting massacre at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, in the Manhattan borough of New York, U.S., June 12, 2016. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly