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Orlando massacre: Hate crime, terror attack, or both?

Islamic Center of Orlando vigil in memory of those that died in Pulse nightclub attack

Members of the Islamic Center of Orlando gather for a vigil in memory of those who perished during the attack on Pulse Night Club.
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Members of the Islamic Center of Orlando gather for a vigil in memory of those who perished during the attack on Pulse Night Club.

Omar Marteen’s pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State 20 minutes into the slaughter at The Pulse nightclub in Orlando Sunday morning brought to horrific public attention what had largely been absent from Islamist-inspired attacks in the West: radical Islam’s visceral hatred for gays.

Gay men have been targeted repeatedly in Syria and Iraq – the Islamic State 18 months ago began a campaign on social media showing blindfolded gay men being hurled from buildings – and the group’s violence against gays was the subject of the U.N. Security Council meeting last summer.

The Orlando shooter had reportedly felt disgusted by seeing two gay men kiss each other.

But the specific targeting of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people by jihadis was a rarity elsewhere – an omission that was something of a surprise to experts on extremist violence who noted that gays and lesbians are targeted more often for violent attack than any other U.S. minority group.

“The remarkable thing is that LBGT individuals are hated separately both by white supremacists and by radical Islamists,” said Mark Potok, an expert on domestic and international terrorism at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama. “These are people who viscerally hate each other, but the one thing they can agree on is that gay people need to die.”

The uncertainty over Mateen’s alleged motive for the attack – his father told NBC News that hatred of homosexuality, not Islamic fundamentalism, drove his son – left analysts confused about through which lens the deaths of 50 people and the wounding of 53 others should be viewed.

Was this another horror visited on the world by radical Islam, another San Bernardino, or Paris, or Fort Hood?

Was it a hate crime aimed at the LGBT community, the latest permutation of the murder of Matthew Shepard, the Wyoming youth beaten and left to freeze to death in Wyoming 18 years ago?

Or was it another sign that the nation’s gun laws are in need of repair, another Newtown, Connecticut, or Charleston, South Carolina or Aurora, Colorado?

The remarkable thing is that LBGT individuals are hated separately both by white supremacists and by radical Islamists. These are people who viscerally hate each other, but the one thing they can agree on is that gay people need to die.

Mark Potok, terror expert, Southern Poverty Law Center

President Barack Obama addressed all three in his statement of condolence for the deaths Sunday afternoon. He called the massacre an act of terror, then expressed sorrow for “all our friends, our fellow Americans, who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.” Lastly, he segued to guns, noting that the Orlando shooter apparently had a handgun and an assault rifle.

“This massacre is therefore a further reminder of how easy it is for someone to get their hands on a weapon that lets them shoot people in a school or in a house of worship or a movie theater or a nightclub,” Obama said.

The Islamic State claimed the attack, though there was no evidence that the militant group had operational links to the shooter. The claim cited only a source for its information, and noted that the assault had “targeted a nightclub for homosexuals.”

In the hours after the tragedy, experts said it had been only a matter of time before a jihadist attack targeted homosexuals. The club was a so-called soft target, not likely to have the security procedures that a terrorist might find at, say, DisneyWorld, 16 miles away.

“I was not surprised by the choice because ISIS has persecuted gay men in the territories they control,” said Shannon Green, an analysts with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, using a common acronym for the Islamic State. “So while I don’t know what the motivations were for this shooter, it’s likely that there was an element of hatred toward gays in particular, and that that was part of the reason he chose that location.”

Omid Safi, the director of the Islamic Studies Center at Duke University and a native of Jacksonville, Florida, was among those who believed hatred of gays was likely the dominant motivation for Mateen.

“As somebody who has lived in the South, who is Muslim and who also is an ally of the gay and lesbian community, this attack reminds us that we live in a part of the country that has had an almost nonstop demonization of this community,” Safi said.

61 The percentage of Americans who now support same-sex unions, according to polls.

Safi pointed to numerous official actions, from efforts to block gay marriage even after the Supreme Court declared in the law of the land to recent North Carolina legislation requiring transgender people to use the bathroom of their birth sex.

“Whether it’s Florida or Georgia, Mississippi or North Carolina, we’ve been witnessing everything from the ridiculous bathroom bill to attempts at every step of the way to block same-sex unions,” he said.

In the last three years, mainly Republican-controlled state legislatures have considered 254 measures limiting gay and transgender rights, with 20 becoming law, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. That despite polls, including an ABC News-Washington Post poll in April 2015, showing that three-fifths of Americans believe people of the same gender should be allowed to marry.

Potok said the Orlando attack recalled a hate crime at a gay nightclub in Seattle during New Year’s Eve celebrations in the early moments of 2014. Musab Masmari, a Californian of Libyan descent, was later convicted of arson and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Revelers at Neighbours Nightclub were able to extinguish the fire he started before it caused serious harm to anyone.

More broadly, Potok said FBI data over 15 years suggest that gays have faced significantly more violence than other persecuted groups.

“We found that LGBT people were more than twice as likely to be attacked in violent hate crimes than Jews or black people, more than four times as likely as Muslims and almost 14 times as likely as Latinos,” he said.

Oren Segal, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, said many ISIS members and other jihadists feel that gays have no right to exist.

“They reject Western values, and they use homosexuality as something that the West has locked into society,” he said.

Chad Griffin, head of the Human Rights Campaign in Washington, said the Orlando shooter was part of the anti-gay backlash.

“This is what disgusts me the most,” he said. “This maniac was conditioned to believe that LGBT people deserved to be massacred.”

Hannah Allam and Curtis Tate of the McClatchy Washington Bureau, Steve Rothaus of the Miami Herald and Judy L. Thomas of the Kansas City Star contributed

James Rosen: 202-383-6157; Twitter: @jamesmartinrose

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