As President Obama swiftly condemned the attacks in Orlando early this morning as "an act of terror and act of hate," it emerged that the gunman had called 911 to pledge allegiance to Islamic State shortly before his rampage. The terrorist group subsequently claimed responsibility in a statement released over an encrypted phone app, although there is no evidence that the organization had any prior contact with the gunman, let alone trained him.
Now other high ranking US officials and politicians appear to have confirmed that the assault on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, which left 50 dead, including the gunman, was an act of terrorism. In a statement issued at 2pm today, Senator Dianne Feinstein said, "While it remains unclear why this individual conducted this attack, it certainly appears to be an act of terror. What we need to know now is whether the shooter is part of a terror cell or a lone wolf and whether he has connections to terrorists abroad."
New York's mayor, Bill de Blasio, described the shootings as "not just an attack on human beings, but an attack on our values," while Hillary Clinton said simply, "This was an act of terror."
But the names of the victims had not even been released before the presumptive Republican nominee for the Presidency, Donald Trump, was taking to Twitter to trumpet his anti-Muslim platform, tweeting, "Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism, I don't want congrats, I want toughness & vigilance. We must be smart!" In response, LGBT activist George Takei tweeted, "Once again, Donald, you have shown why you cannot lead us. 50 people are dead, and you bask in congratulations."
Earlier, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer asked Florida's governor to issue a state of emergency.
What is known is that shorty after 2am this morning, Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old American citizen living in Port St. Lucie, Fla., walked into the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, carring an AR-15-type assault rifle (the same weapon used in Newtown, Conn., and San Bernardino, Calif.), a handgun and many rounds of ammunition, and opened fire, according to John Mina, the Orlando police chief. Mateen quickly took the patrons of the hostage after being confronted by armed off-duty officer working security at Pulse. A SWAT team began a rescue attempt shortly around 5am today, killing Mateen in the process.
Seapking earlier today, Rep. Adam Schiff, Ranking Member of the House Intelligence Committe, compared the attack to those at the Bataclan Theater in Paris last November. "The fact that this shooting took place during Ramadan and that ISIS leadership in Raqqa has been urging attacks during this time, that the target was an L.G.B.T. night club during Pride, and--if accurate--that according to local law enforcement, the shooter declared his allegiance to ISIS, indicates an ISIS-inspired act of terrorism," he said. "Whether this attack was also ISIS-directed remains to be determined. I'm confident that we will know much more in the coming hours and days."
According to The Daily Mail, Mateen had been named a person of interest to the FBI in 2013 and again in 2014.
However, the gunman's father, Mir Seddique, denied that religion was a motivation, adding that his son was angered after seeing two men kissing in downtown Miami recently. "He saw two men kissing each other in front of his wife and kid and he got very angry. They were kissing each other and touching each other and he said, 'Look at that. In front of my son they are doing that.' And they we were in the men's bathroom and men were kissing each other.'"
Heartwrenching stories began to emerge as the full scale of the attack became apparent. One mother, Mina Justice, was called to the club by her 30-year-old son, Eddie, who was trapped in the bathrooms inside. She told Fox News in Orlando that he'd texted her, "He'c coming. I'm gonna die." As she stood outside texting him, he wrote, "He has us and he's in here with us." That was the last text she received.
Joel Figueroa, a 19-year-old who had been inside the club at the time, described a scene of chaos to The New York Times, saying, "We were dancing by the hip-hop area when I heard shots, bam, bam, bam, and the only thing I could think of was to duck, but I ran out instead. Everybody was screaming and running toward the front door. I didn't get to see the shooter."
As the scale of the attacks became clear, the Gay Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center of Central Florida said it was offering grief counseling to victims and survivors.
The Pulse nightclub was opened by Barbara Poma and Ron Legler in 2004 as way to memorialize Poma's brother, John, who died of an AIDS-related illness in 1991.
Orlando City has begun releasing names of the victims once the next of kin have been notified, and is publishing them here.
Note: We will continue to update this story throughout the day.