Q&A with Trevor Aaronson: Host of new Audible series on the ‘untold story’ of the Pulse nightclub shooting

The investigative journalist claims 'facts clearly show' Pulse wasn't targeted because it was a gay club.

click to enlarge Cover art for the Audible series, "Pulse: the Untold Story" (2024) - Audible, courtesy of Trevor Aaronson
Audible, courtesy of Trevor Aaronson
Cover art for the Audible series, "Pulse: the Untold Story" (2024)

It’s been eight years since 49 lives were stolen in what was, at the time, the deadliest modern mass shooting to occur in the United States. Our editor in chief quickly picked up on news of the shooting at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub after a gunman opened fire at the club, just south of downtown, in the very early hours of June 12, 2016. It was Latin night. Most of those killed at the gay club were queer young people of color.

While Orlando Weekly has sought to cover the most important developments surrounding the aftermath of the 2016 massacre, journalist Trevor Aaronson of St. Petersburg, Florida, now brings to Audible listeners a new story — not about what happened after gunman Omar Mateen opened fire, but perhaps what could have been done beforehand to prevent the tragedy from occurring in the first place.

Aaronson’s podcast series, “Pulse: the Untold Story,” explores the relationship between the Federal Bureau of Investigations, the gunman and the gunman’s father — who the public only later learned was an FBI informant. Orlando Weekly reported eight years ago, just hours after the shooting, that the gunman had been investigated by the FBI twice before commencing the massacre.

click to enlarge Family members of the victims of mass shooting at Orlando's Pulse nightclub hear news about their loved ones. (June 13, 2016) - Photo by Monivette Cordeiro
Photo by Monivette Cordeiro
Family members of the victims of mass shooting at Orlando's Pulse nightclub hear news about their loved ones. (June 13, 2016)

While Aaronson told Orlando Weekly the series doesn’t intend to ascribe blame to any one person or entity, his team’s investigative podcast does delve into the questions of what, if anything the FBI could have done to prevent the shooting, and what role the gunman’s father, Seddique, had in protecting his son. “The Untold Story” questions, for instance, why the gunman’s father promoted the narrative that his son had specifically intended to target a gay nightclub — despite evidence later released that disputes this — and what purpose such a move, if any, could have served to protect the FBI from further scrutiny.

Although the local queer community was disproportionately impacted by the shooting, cellphone data and other evidence revealed through a court trial focused on the role of the gunman's wife, Noor Salman, shows victims were not targeted due to their sexual orientation. Even so, this doesn’t discount the immense pain this tragedy has caused, and continues to cause our queer community, particularly in a state that has grown ever more hostile to queer and transgender people.

Aaronson, who lives less than two hours away from Orlando, is no newcomer to investigative reporting, nor investigations scrutinizing the FBI. Aaronson is the author of the book The Terror Factory: Inside the FBI’s Manufactured War on Terrorism and a contributing writer for The Intercept. He also hosted the podcast series “Alphabet Boys” and the Audible Originals “American ISIS” and “Hold Fast.”

Orlando Weekly interviewed Aaronson to learn more about what his team’s investigation reveals about the Pulse nightclub shooting, and the takeaways his team hopes that locals will be able to get from the series.

The series will officially premiere Thursday, July 11, 2024.

Note: The contents of the podcast series, which include audio clips of 911 calls the night of the shooting, may be disturbing or difficult for some local listeners to revisit. Please listen with caution.

OW: First of all, what was it exactly that drew you to this story? You live in St. Pete, which isn’t far from Orlando, but this didn’t exactly happen in your own backyard.

TA: I felt it as somewhat of a local story, because I was living in St. Pete at the time, and Orlando, while a two-hour drive away, still feels very, very close. And so I remember waking up and seeing with everyone else on the news, you know, this kind of horrific mass shooting at this gay club in Orlando. And I didn't have any anticipation of writing or covering Pulse until Noor Salman's [wife of the gunman] trial, and when it was revealed that Sediqque Mateen, Omar Mateen’s father, had been an FBI informant for about 11 years. A lot of my prior research has been on the FBI's use of informants in criminal investigations, and I was really familiar with the kinds of the abuses that can happen with these cases. One of Noor Salman's defense lawyers mentioned to me that he thought this was a case of FBI corruption and a lack of accountability, and so during the pandemic, I was spending more time looking into this case. And one of my incentives in looking into it was this idea that when the FBI is pursuing sting operations, where they're kind of setting up some dupe in an undercover investigation — are they missing real threats?

So for me, there was a kind of larger story about whether the FBI could have prevented the Pulse nightclub shooting, given its investigations of Omar, but then also, kind of on a very macro level, whether the FBI’s counterterrorism tactics, its use of informants … maybe just doesn't work in keeping us safer.
click to enlarge Christine Leinonen, mother of Pulse victim Christopher Leinonen, is comforted by survivor Brandon Wolf. - Photo by Monivette Cordeiro
Photo by Monivette Cordeiro
Christine Leinonen, mother of Pulse victim Christopher Leinonen, is comforted by survivor Brandon Wolf.

OW: What would you say was your biggest discovery in the making of the series — was there a discovery of something you suspected, but didn’t already know?

TA: Some of this came out during Noor Salman's trial, and so I had a clue as to what was happening. For example, what we knew coming out of Noor Salman's trial was that the FBI and the Department of Justice had clearly pushed forward this false narrative that Omar Mateen had specifically targeted Pulse because it was a gay club, when in reality, the evidence seems to suggest that Omar may not have even known it was a gay club and went to the club at the last minute, at random. We also know that the FBI had investigated Omar twice as a security threat, and both times, the FBI dropped those investigations because his father, an informant, encouraged them to do so. What I think is interesting is the questions that are unanswered that we try to answer and bring some theories forward about in the series.

One is the question of: Why now, eight years after the shooting, does the FBI still classify Omar Mateen's case file as an open investigation? If you FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] the records, they will tell you it's an open investigation. And this is despite the fact that immediately after the shooting, the FBI said it would be open and transparent about its investigation and whether it did anything wrong.

Then separately, there are really a lot of questions about Seddique Mateen and his role with his son, and what his son's motives might really have been. We know, for example, that Seddique and Omar had a very tumultuous relationship, and it's possible that the attack may not have been based on any sort of homophobic beliefs, or even in any sort of like, religious extremist beliefs. But instead, it could have been Omar Mateen wanting to harm his father in an irreparable way, which … if your father is an FBI counterterrorism informant, how do you harm him more than becoming a terrorist yourself? Kind of related to that is the fact that immediately after the shooting, it was Omar Mateen's father, Seddique, who implanted this idea that Omar Mateen was a homophobe and he targeted Pulse because it was a gay club.

You can draw an inference, certainly, that Seddique was concerned about how his son's terrorist attack would harm his career with the FBI. And I think Seddique saw it as a situation where it would be a lot easier for him if his son was seen as homophobic. You know, that this was seen as a hate crime rather than an act of terrorism. He had a direct incentive in trying to encourage this narrative that Omar Mateen was a homophobe.

OW: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced during your investigation?

One primary challenge was the fact that the FBI would not cooperate at all, even to answer a list of questions. I also contacted Seddique Mateen. He declined my interview. My colleague and I went to his home, and his wife slammed the door in our faces. So there was no cooperation from them. But we were able to piece together the FBI side of the story through some testimony that came out during Noor Salman’s trial, as well as through FBI sources that I have outside of that investigation. One of the people interviewed is a former agent named Jeffrey Danik, who describes the kind of processes that the FBI has, and how something like Seddique Mateen’s involvement could happen, and what the FBI’s role would have been in keeping Seddique Mateen on the payroll during that time. … I think the storytelling required a sensitivity that was maybe greater than most of the projects I've worked on.
click to enlarge Q&A with Trevor Aaronson: Host of new Audible series on the ‘untold story’ of the Pulse nightclub shooting
Photo vi Rachel Hoyle

OW: Yeah, so you did speak with survivors of the Pulse tragedy while putting this story together. Can you share what those conversations were like?

TA: It was probably among the more difficult reporting and storytelling tasks I've had. What struck me, though, is that most of the survivors I spoke with firmly believe the false narrative that is carried forward that Omar Mateen was secretly gay, that he attacked Pulse because it was a gay club. I don't want to take away anyone's explanation, or the peace that they've come to in having lived through this horrific experience. At the same time, the facts clearly show that this wasn't a typical hate crime. The club wasn't targeted because it was a gay club. Omar Mateen panicked. He first went to Disney Springs, and then he went to EVE downtown, and he realized both of those targets were too difficult, and he just happened to drive by Pulse, and he chose it at the last minute, at random. I think there is this need to want to explain these kinds of mass shootings, to want to have meaning for it, right?

I think we interviewed about a dozen [survivors]. The overwhelming majority believed that Omar Mateen was secretly gay, had been to Pulse and specifically chose Pulse in order to harm and kill gay people as a hate crime. A few survivors did acknowledge that they had heard from media reports after the Noor Salman trial [in 2018] that there were questions about whether this was true, but few really believed that. I also talked to a lot of survivors who really felt that justice really wasn't served in acquitting his [Omar’s] widow Noor Salman.

OW: Beyond survivors, who else did you speak to as part of your investigation?

I spoke with people who knew Omar. You know, his first wife, Sitora Yusufiy. I also spoke to people who worked with him. He was a security guard, and so there were people at the courthouse that had worked with him that I spoke to, as well as people who worked with him at PGA Village. Separately, I also spoke with people who were familiar with his father and his history, from coming from Afghanistan to becoming an FBI informant.

Then, finally, a large source of this from a narrative perspective was Charlie Swift and Linda Moreno, who were the attorneys for Noor Salman during their defense. And they are really the ones who were able to kind of break down the cell phone data to show that Omar had not targeted the club in advance. I think it's important to acknowledge that, had it not been for the FBI and the Justice Department charging Noor Salman with a terrorism offense as a result of Omar Mateen's crime and shooting, we likely wouldn't know that this whole narrative had been false — because the evidence that the FBI had collected became public as a result of that trial.

The reason that this is, I think, egregious, is that it shows that early on in the FBI investigation they were aware that Omar Mateen had not targeted Pulse in advance, and they were also aware that none of the claims about Omar having attended Pulse in advance were true, and yet they allowed that narrative to persist in the media. I think the larger question that I hope the series is able to have people ask is, why?

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
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McKenna Schueler

News reporter for Orlando Weekly, with a focus on state and local government, workers' rights, and housing issues. Previously worked for WMNF Radio in Tampa. You can find her bylines in Creative Loafing Tampa Bay, In These Times, Strikewave, and Facing South among other publications.
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