Fort Hood Shooter: Another Lone Gunman?
In August, 2006, I wrote an SFGate column that could have been written about Fort Hood shooter Nidal Malik Hasan. It's reprinted below in its entirety:
The Myth Of The Lone Gunman
Wednesday, August 9, 2006
Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the claim has often been made that no further acts of terrorism have occurred on U.S. soil. But anyone following the news closely knows better.
While there has not yet been another large-scale attack, a number of terrorist plots have been broken up and a variety of suspicious crimes and incidents have occurred across the nation. But each time, authorities seem to have made every effort to downplay the terrorism angle.
News of the shooting rampage at Seattle's Jewish Federation building last month involved the usual avoidance of the term "terrorism." Instead, the attack was labeled a hate crime and the perpetrator, Naveed Afzal Haq, just another in a long line of lone gunmen with a history of mental instability. As Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels put it, "This was a purposeful, hateful act, as far as we know by an individual acting on his own."
While this may be true, trying to separate Haq's actions from the larger context of the war on terrorism is tunnel vision at its worst. It is not just hate that motivates such acts, but ideology. One needn't be a bona fide member of an Islamic terrorist group to share their outlook.
Haq made his motivations quite clear when he told a 911 operator during the attack that he was a "Muslim American" who was "angry with Israel" and the United States for the war in Iraq. "I want these Jews to get out … I'm tired of getting pushed around, and our people getting pushed around by the situation in the Middle East," he added.
Indeed, it was Haq's "anger" that led him to stake out the building of a prominent Jewish organization, hide behind a vestibule, kidnap a 14-year-old girl at gunpoint as she entered the building and then proceed to shoot six women, including one who was 17 weeks pregnant, almost all in the stomach. One of the victims died on the scene and several remain in the hospital.
There are also questions about Haq's background that should at least raise a flag or two. His father, Mian Haq, founded the Islamic Center of the Tri-Cities, which is affiliated with Saudi-financed Wahhabist organizations. An engineer, Mian Haq and other members of the local Pakistani American community work for the nearby Hanford Site (a nuclear reservation). The junior Haq was not known to be an observant Muslim, and a Christian evangelical organization in the Tri-Cities area claims that he was baptized last year. But Haq was clearly identifying himself as a Muslim at the time of the shooting.
The prosecutor in the case, Norm Maleng, did concede that the attack involved "the seeds from which the war on terror springs." In fact, just 48 hours before Haq's killing spree, Al-Jazeera ran a video of al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri exhorting "Muslims everywhere … to fight and become martyrs in the war against the Zionists and the crusaders." And it appears that that's exactly what Haq did.
Officialdom in Denial
This was the hardly the first time that a Muslim seemingly unconnected to organized terrorist groups nevertheless acted out their agenda. Middle East scholar Daniel Pipes even came up with a term to describe this phenomenon: Sudden Jihad Syndrome.
Pipes and other scholars, such as Robert Spencer, have been tracking these cases for years. It is not certain that Islamist ideology was the motivation in each instance. But strangely enough, authorities almost always dismissed the possibility from the onset. Either that or they jumped on the "no possible known motive" bandwagon. The following examples bear this pattern out:
- March 2006: Mohammad Taheri-azar plowed into a group of students at the University of North Carolina with his SUV. Afterward, he surrendered to authorities with a 911 call, telling them that he was trying to "punish the government of the United States for [its] actions around the world." Meanwhile, in a letter to the police, Taheri-azar spoke of exercising "the right of violent retaliation that Allah" had given him. Nonetheless, local officials and university officials immediately ruled out terrorism, leading several student groups to hold an "anti-terrorism" rally in protest.
- September 2005: University of Oklahoma engineering student Joel Henry Hinrichs III blew himself up outside a packed stadium in what was dubbed a suicide. But it was more likely a botched suicide bombing. Beyond incriminating evidence found in his apartment, Hinrichs had connections to a local mosque and appears to have been a convert to Islam. Nonetheless, university officials and authorities studiously avoided the term "terrorism" and instead focused on Hinrichs' alleged history of personal problems.
- January 2005: The Coptic Christian Armanious family, originally from Egypt, was found dead in their home in Jersey City, all with their throats slit. Hossam, the father, had been debating religion with Muslims on a Middle Eastern chat room and had received at least one death threat. The entire family had been involved in converting Muslims to Christianity, and the daughter, Sylvia, was particularly outspoken. When her body was found, it was discovered that she had been stabbed in the chest and the wrist, precisely where she wore a tattoo of a Coptic cross. Authorities chalked up the case not to religious hatred or terrorism but to a robbery gone bad. But questions remain about the true impetus for the murders.
- August 2003: Saudi Mohammed Ali Alayed slit the throat of former friend and fellow Houston Community College student Ariel Sellouk, almost decapitating him in the process. The fact that Sellouk was Jewish and that Alayed had broken with him right after becoming a more devout Muslim played no part in the trial. Not only was the term "terrorism" avoided, even "hate" and "anti-Semitism" were left out of the equation. To this day, Alayed's motive remains a mystery as far as the official version is concerned.
- October 2002: The "Beltway Snipers" John Allen Muhammed and Lee Boyd Malvo went on a killing spree across Maryland and Virginia, terrorizing the nation. Despite the fact that Muhammed was a convert to Islam and member of the Nation of Islam, authorities and media coverage focused solely on his troubled background and his ties to the military. Malvo was portrayed simply as a young victim of Muhammed's sinister tutelage. Rarely was jihad or terrorism mentioned. Later, Malvo's defense attorneys, attempting to illustrate their client's mental instability, presented the judge in his trial with Malvo's jailhouse drawings. Along with anti-American sentiments and drawings of Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and the burning towers of the World Trade Center, Malvo repeatedly emphasized jihad against America.
- July 2002: Egyptian immigrant Hesham Mohamed Hadayet walked into Los Angeles International Airport on the Fourth of July (also his birthday) and opened fire at an El Al (the Israeli government-owned airline) counter, killing an employee and a customer. Hadayet also stabbed an El Al security guard before he himself was shot. Hadayet had been known to express hatred for Jews, Israel and the United States, and according to his political asylum application, which was denied, he had been involved with an Egyptian Islamist group. The initial conclusion was that there was "nothing to indicate terrorism" and that it was simply an "isolated incident," although officials finally dubbed the case an act of terrorism almost a year later.
It's possible that in these cases authorities were simply hesitant to release sensitive information that might have threatened the investigation at hand. But in a time when average citizens can access all sorts of information for themselves on the Internet, this policy of official denial is becoming untenable.
Besides, Americans deserve to know the truth about the threats to their lives and their country. It may be uncomfortable for some to swallow, but it helps no one, least of all those within the Muslim community working for reform, to shield the public from reality. For one cannot properly fight a battle if its true nature remains obscured.
Similarly, at a certain point, authorities will need to take the blinders off and start acknowledging that lone gunmen and Islamic terrorism are not mutually exclusive. As President Bush has repeatedly emphasized, "this is a different kind of war" and therefore a different kind of thinking is needed in order to win it. Unfortunately, it is our own officials who most seem to need an update.