The mind of the attacker: What happened at Ohio State?

Was the attacker a lone wolf, ISIS-inspired, influenced by a racist election atmosphere – or all of the above?

December 3, 2016 23:47
Ohio terror attack

Police keep the roads closed around Watts Hall following an attack on the campus of the Ohio State University on November 28, 2016 in Columbus, Ohio. (photo credit: KIRK IRWIN / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / AFP)

As details continue to trickle out from US law enforcement’s probe into Monday’s car and knife terror attack by an Ohio State University student which injured 11 people before the suspect was shot dead by a police officer, many are trying to delve into the motivations for the attack.

Was the attacker a lone wolf, ISIS-inspired or influenced by a racist election atmosphere – or all of the above?

The attacker, Abdul Razak Ali Artan, was shot and killed by a police officer after driving into a group of people and then jumping out of the vehicle and stabbing people with a butcher knife at the school's Columbus campus.

Artan, whose true age is under debate as between 18-20, was an immigrant from Somalia and a lawful permanent resident of the United States, two US government sources said.

US Representative Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said, "It bears all of the hallmarks of a terror attack carried out by someone who may have been self-radicalized." ISIS has also attempted to take credit.

Media reports have indicated Facebook posts and a local interview by Artan in which he seemed to indicate extreme concern about his safety as a Muslim in the current atmosphere in the US as well as his ability to conduct his prayers without facing hostility. 

Addressing the issue, Haverford Global Terrorism Research Project Head and author of The Al-Qaeda Franchise Barak Mendelsohn told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday that while “it’s really hard to tell…what actually drove” Artan, “it is hard to ignore the real sense of insecurity minorities and especially Muslims are currently feeling in the US.”

He said that on one-hand, “Often lone wolf terrorism piggybacks individuals' other grievances, offering them a more ‘respectable’ way to show that they aren't powerless.

On the other hand, Donald Trump's election as president “was followed by a significant increase in hate crimes and talks of a registry for Muslims appear very real for American Muslims.”

“Worse, the election of Trump created an atmosphere in which too many people feel comfortable acting on their racist beliefs,” he said. Some have attributed some of the atmosphere to Trump’s or his supporters’ statements about banning Muslims from entering the US, though the President-Elect has walked back that statement.

Still, “it's really hard to tell to what extent this affected his decision,” Mendelsohn added, noting media reports that Artan also mentioned the suffering of Muslims in Burma – “not really the obvious complaint a young Somali guy could make.”

In terms of how much of a lone wolf Artan was or how much he was directed by ISIS, Mendelsohn discussed a recent article in ISIS’s new English magazine Rumiyah (“Rome”) which gives detailed instructions of how to turn a vehicle into a killing machine.

He said Artan didn't really follow all of the instructions. For example, modeled after the "success" of the terror attack in Nice, France, the article recommended ramming civilians not with a car as Artan did, but with a truck.

That said, Mendelsohn thought Artan “was likely inspired.”

He also explained that the distinction between members of ISIS and lone wolves are being blurred by a number of cases in Europe in which “ISIS operatives encouraged individuals in one-on-one conversations with the intention of producing an image of disconnected lone wolves responding to ISIS’s call.”

“ISIS would like Muslims to respond to its call and with disconnected uncoordinated acts produce political effects. But very few people actually answered the call, so ISIS is trying to help encourage individuals through direct interaction, hoping to ignite this process,” said Mendelsohn.

Executive Director of University of Maryland’s START center on terrorism William Braniff honed in on a different angle of the Ohio attack, telling the Post late Tuesday that Artan’s, “motivations aren’t the only thing that matters. The way this incident is used for political purposes” can “still achieve the goals of a terrorist attack even if it was not terror.” He said that societal responses to the attack could either “help terrorists’ purposes or mitigate” the impact of the attack on society by not overreacting.

He said that a major purpose of terrorists with attacks in the US is “to increase polarization” between Muslim-Americans and others.

Braniff flagged a March 2010 speech by al-Qaida cleric Anwar al-Awlaki (who, according to an investigator mentioned by NBC, was referenced by Artan on his Facebook page) directed at the American people in which he essentially said, “don’t take comfort in the kind words of neighbors…there are ominous clouds on the horizon.”

The message to Muslim-Americans was “even if you think you have religious liberties, they’re coming for you to take them away. Eventually Muslims will be persecuted. This is insidious because it takes someone feeling good about their position in the US and makes them feel bad,” said Braniff.

He said that sending out such messages can lead “eventually to people falling into that trap.”

Next, he explained that those trying to incite Muslim-Americans hook onto individual incidents of intolerance such as a preacher holding a Quran burning on the anniversary of 9/11 to portray American society as anti-Muslim. This allows them to say “see I told you so” about the alleged anti-Muslim nature of the US.

Braniff echoed Mendelsohn saying there is currently an environment in the US of “lots of anxiety from Muslims and lots of fear from non-Muslims” of Islamic terror. He said the Ohio State attack occurred in an “environment ripe for further polarization.”

“Keep in mind that this is what al-Qaida and others want. They want a wedge, to create the belief that is impossible to be Muslim and American at the same time,” he added.

He recommended that “the authorities would be wise to heed that, to know what the adversary wants and not play into it.”

Reuters contributed to this report.

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