By all accounts, Ohio State University student Abdul Razak Artan seemed to be living the American dream. That was before he plowed a vehicle into a group of pedestrians near Watts Hall on campus Monday and began slashing them with a butcher’s knife.
In just over two minutes, 11 people suffered non-life-threatening injuries at the hands of Artan before campus police officer Alan Horujko shot and killed him. One witness at the scene later told CNN that Artan had been “completely silent” and “creepy,” even when he was shot.
As classes resumed Tuesday at Ohio State, law enforcement was still searching for a motive. Columbus Police Chief Kim Jacobs said they haven’t ruled out terrorism, and the Islamic State group has since claimed responsibility.
A Somali refugee, Artan arrived in the United States in 2014 from Pakistan with his mother and six siblings. He resided in Dallas with his family for about three weeks as part of the Office of Refugee Resettlement program, which screens candidates. In fiscal year 2014, the U.S. admitted refugees from 67 countries, including about 8,000 people from Somalia, according to the State Department.
Dave Woodyard, the president and chief executive of Catholic Charities of Dallas, which helped resettle Artan and his family in the city, told VICE News the charity has been contacted by law enforcement for information about Artan.
“We remain in contact with the authorities and intend to assist in their investigation in any way we can,” Woodyard said.
Artan and his family then moved to Columbus, where he enrolled in Columbus State Community College and was an honor student. He made the dean’s list for the Spring 2016 semester and graduated cum laude with an associate degree in the summer.
Allen Kraus, vice president of marketing and communications at Columbus State Community College, told VICE News in a statement that Artan “had no record of behavioral or disciplinary issues” while he was enrolled at the school.
He transferred to Ohio State, one of the largest universities in the country, as a logistics major in the business school. In August, he was profiled in the college paper, the Lantern, for a feature titled “Humans of Ohio State.” In the interview, Artan indicated that he struggled living as a Muslim.
He told the Lantern:
“I wanted to pray in the open, but I was scared with everything going on in the media. I’m a Muslim, it’s not what the media portrays me to be. If people look at me, a Muslim praying, I don’t know what they’re going to think, what’s going to happen…. But I don’t blame them. It’s the media that put that picture in their heads, so they’re just going to have it and… it’s going to make them feel uncomfortable.”
Columbus has one of the largest Somali populations in the U.S. About 38,000 Somali nationals migrated to the city from the war-torn African nation to take advantage of cheaper living and steady employment.
Kevin Stankiewicz, the student journalist who interviewed Artan for the Lantern, recalled Monday that the Somali student seemed nervous about the “climate” at the university and feared that “someone might shoot him” because he’s a Muslim.
“He was very scared to go out to pray,” Stankiewicz said. “He just didn’t know if anyone would be intimidated.”
Artan also mentioned to Stankiewicz several instances of Islamophobia that Muslims and refugees had to contend with.
“I don’t know what was in his heart. He spoke really softly,” Stankiewicz said. “He did not seem angry.”
Other students who interacted with Artan added that nothing about his demeanor concerned them.
But it appears something may have pushed Artan to self-radicalize in the months that followed. Three minutes before the attack, he posted a concerning message on what appears to be his Facebook page, which was taken down Monday.
The post called radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki “our hero.” Al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen and propagandist for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, was targeted by a CIA drone strike in Yemen in 2011. Since his death, he has “inspired” a handful of lone-wolf attackers, including Fort Hood gunman Nidal Hassan, a U.S. Army major who murdered 13 people, and Christmas Day bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to bring down a Detroit-bound jetliner with an underwear bomb. Hundreds of al-Awlaki’s fiery sermons are still readily available online via YouTube and known jihadist forums.
“If you want us Muslims to stop carrying out lone-wolf attacks, then make peace with ‘Dawla in al sham,’” the post read. The Arabic phrase is a rough term for ISIS.
Hours earlier, another post on the page read: “Forgive and forget. Love,” according to NBC News.
While law enforcement authorities have yet to deem the attack an act of terrorism, The Soufan Group, a private intelligence firm headed by Ali Soufan, a former FBI counterterrorism agent, said in an intelligence brief Tuesday morning that it has all the hallmarks of a “lone-wolf” attack, and that investigators will try to determine if Artan had any accomplices or was inspired by extremist propaganda.
If reports are accurate that Artan referenced in a social media post the late al-Qaeda ideologue Anwar al-Awlaki, according to the Soufan Group, “this attack will be the latest example of how the ideology of bin Ladinism transcends the ostensibly rival groups of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.”
Federal law enforcement officials have grown increasingly concerned about online extremist propaganda that encourages attacks with cars and knives because they’re easier than using bombs, according to the Associated Press.
The attack at Ohio State is the second in the past few months involving a college student of Somali descent, and Republicans are citing it as another example of why the U.S. government needs to implement a vigorous vetting system for Muslims. President-elect Donald Trump has even promised to ban Muslims from entering the U.S.
The first attack occurred in September when a 22-year-old Somali-American student stabbed nine people at a mall in Minnesota in what law enforcement authorities said was a terrorist attack. The father of the suspect, Dahir Adan, is a Somali refugee who came to the U.S. 15 years ago.
The Islamic State group took credit for the attack, saying Artan was a “soldier for the Islamic State.” Somalia is home to al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda affiliate, and FBI investigators and members of the Somali community in the U.S. have feared that young men and women are being radicalized. Over the weekend, the New York Times reported that the Obama administration is escalating its war against al-Shabaab in Somalia and increasing airstrikes in the region.