Ohioans Can’t Let a Lone Wolf Attack Become a Victory for Extremism
Taking credit for an attack it didn’t plan, Islamic State is counting on a backlash
by SÉBASTIEN ROBLIN
At 9:59 a.m. on Monday, Nov. 28, students and teachers at Ohio State University were startled by a message that flashed on their classroom projectors. “Emergency on Columbus Campus: Shelter in Place/be observant/take action as needed. Public safety responding.”
Two minutes after the vague warning, a follow-up message texted across campus offering a few more details and specified a location. “Active shooter on campus. Run. Hide. Fight. Watts Hall. 19th and College.”
Ohio State University has around 65,000 students, many of them from overseas. The sprawling campus is the third largest in the United States, with a large chunk of the surrounding state capital of Columbus catering to its diverse student population.
That morning, tens of thousands of students, teachers and staff did their best to comply with the emergency instructions. Students barricaded dormitory doors with chairs and hid in bathrooms. Several professors found that their classroom doors did not have functioning locks, leading some to risk moving their classes to lockable offices on different floors.
One student recalled, “Even though we see it [school shootings] happen all of the time in the news … it’s not the type of thing you ever expect to happen to you.”
Two follow-up messages at 10:06 and 10:25 repeated the instructions to shelter in place. Varying reports began to filter over Twitter and other social media. Rumors circulated that the attacker had used a machete, that a professor had been killed, and that a second attacker was holed up in a parking garage.
It wasn’t until 11:35 that a new Buckeye Alert stated “Shelter in place lifted, ending the lockdown.” However other parts of campus remained cordoned off for hours, and classes did not resume until the following day.
As it turned out, the actual attack had lasted roughly 60 seconds.
At 9:52 that morning, Abdul Ali Razak Artan, an 18-year-old first semester student at Ohio State, drove his car into a crowd of students outside of Watts Hall, part of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.
Reports of a gas leak earlier that day had led to the evacuation of the building, causing students and staff to crowd outside. Artan’s Honda Civic struck several students and an emeritus professor as it crashed into a concrete planter.
Stepping out of the car, Artan chased and slashed several students with a butcher knife before the intervention of campus police officer Alan Horujko, who was already on site responding to the gas leak. After Artan ignored cries to stand down, Horujko shot Artan three times, killing him. A stray round struck a young female student in the foot.
Twelve OSU students and staff were wounded in the attack. Fortunately, the attacker was the only fatality, and most of the wounded were discharged from the hospital within 24 hours.
The attack triggered a massive security response, including local police, ATF agents and SWAT teams armed with assault rifles. Major roads were shut down. Security forces detained people leaving the area while they combed the campus for potential co-conspirators. A bomb squad investigated an abandoned backpack in the Lane Avenue garage, but found it to be harmless.
In the end, investigators concluded that Artan was a lone wolf, and ruled out speculation that the gas leak at Watts Hall had been orchestrated in advance.
The security response was swift and overwhelming. However, messages describing the alert as involving an active “shooter” were inaccurate. Further, not all of the classrooms appear to have been equipped with locks to facilitate a lockdown security strategy. Instead, the main entrances to various buildings were locked and guarded.
Finally, the incident demonstrated the benefits of sidewalk barriers to prevent the use of vehicles as weapons. A lack of effective barriers enabled the Marseilles truck attack that killed 86 people in Nice, France on July 14, 2016. The concrete planters at OSU likely prevented further casualties outside of Watts Hall.
Artan’s family fled from Somalia to Pakistan in 2007, before immigrating to the United States in 2014 with refugee status. Like all who enter the United States with refugee status, Artan was subject to extensive background checks — but there were no apparent warning signs.
Artan was a top student in high school in Pakistan and he did not have a history of violence. He seemed friendly to most who knew him, and he graduated cum laude with an associate degree from Columbus State Community College before continuing to study logistics at OSU.
His postings on social media suggest a political motive. In a Facebook post preceding the attack, Artan posted a tirade criticizing U.S. intervention in Muslim countries, recommending the United States make peace with the Islamic State, and celebrating Anwar Al Awlaki, a U.S.-born cleric associated with Al Qaeda who was killed by a drone strike in 2011.
Artan was also angered “to the boiling point” by the persecution of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. He appears to have purchased two knives shortly before the attack, including one from a Home Depot in Washington D.C., indicating his actions were premeditated.
In an interview with a campus newspaper, Artan expressed anxiety about praying in public, and police records show his family reported that an animal heart had been left on the hood of their car when they first arrived in 2014.
However, the accounts of Artan’s acquaintances and the content of his other posts on social media do not paint the picture of a reclusive fanatic rejecting Western culture wholesale.
Investigators have so far found no evidence that Artan had accomplices or support from a terrorist organization. The attack echoed similar knife attacks in a Minnesota mall and an Israeli restaurant in Columbus earlier this year which resulted in the deaths of no one but the attackers.
Artan appears to fit the profile of a “self-radicalized” attacker whose extremist beliefs were inspired by jihadist propaganda on the Internet, rather than being directly fostered by a terrorist organization. Whether out of mental illness or personal convictions, it seems Artan acted alone.
Columbus is also my hometown. Two of my family members were on campus when the attack took place. For an hour I followed the news, text messages and emergency emails, trying to piece together what was happening. As the confusion dissipated, I was relieved to learn there had not been greater loss of life — and saddened by how this incident would inevitably be politicized.
Columbus has prospered in the last few decades thanks to the university campus and the city’s status as a popular test market, leading to flourishing downtown districts such as the Short North. The city and the state are also emblematic of other regions in the United States. Columbus has become more liberal and multicultural at the same time as the surrounding rural counties have become more conservative, winning Ohio for Donald Trump this year by more than 8.6 points.
Yet Ohio is ranked amongst the least diverse U.S. states, which makes it all the more curious that Columbus has the second largest population of Somali immigrants in the country — with the Twin Cities in Minnesota claiming first place. Somalis are estimated to own more than 350 local businesses and it’s possible to purchase triangular sambusa pastries stuffed with spiced beef or goat meat at several Somali-owned cafes and restaurants throughout the city.
Somali refugees first began to arrive during the 1980s as Somalia tore itself apart during the rebellion against the brutal dictatorship of Siad Barre, who enjoyed U.S. support. Today, a reconstituted Somali national government is fighting an insurgency waged by Al Shabab, a violent Islamic fundamentalist group.
Somalis continue to seek safer shores.
I first had the pleasure of working with Somalis on refugee issues in 2002 as part of an internship with a local resettlement organization, the staff of which included both foreign- and native-born employees. I was fortunate to be taken under the wing of Somali Americans who taught me numerous job skills I had never practiced before.
They worked tirelessly to aid people hailing from around the world in reuniting with their families, and ensure newly arrived families had access to health care, education and employment. They were my first models of dedicated public servants. I continued volunteering with them during my college years, and would happily do so again.
Some will argue my having met some kind and capable Somali Americans doesn’t prove anything about the population in general. Indeed, it would be crazy to judge a group numbering in the tens of thousands because of a few individuals, wouldn’t it?
Well, predictably, Fox News has written that Artan’s attack is the “latest stain” on Columbus’ Somali community — citing a handful of plots and one attack perpetrated over the last 15 years, all of them involving lone Somalis.
Using such language, Fox News implies that every Somali in Columbus bears collective responsibility for individuals such as Artan. By extension, one must presume the same Fox News writers feel that every American community that gave birth to a mass shooter — and there are sadly many in the United States by now — is forever “stained” as well.
Then on Nov. 29, the Islamic State released a statement via its Amaq news agency claiming Artan was a “soldier” for its cause. This continued the terrorist group’s well-established tradition of claiming credit for violent acts it only became aware of after the fact.
Indeed, the Islamic State recently advised sympathizers living in Western countries to kill people with cars and knives if they could not acquire guns. However, investigators maintain they have found no evidence so far that Artan was in contact with members of the terror group.
The Islamic State is vehemently opposed to Muslims integrating into Western society. According to its ideology, all Muslims have a duty to move to the Islamic State-governed caliphate straddling Syria and Iraq, a state cleansed of religious minorities and governed by the group’s particularly extreme version of Sharia religious law.
Muslims fleeing Islamic State-held territory for Europe or North America are depicted as traitors. A secular society tolerant of diverse religious views — or the gray zone in I.S. parlance — is anathema to the group’s beliefs and objectives. Therefore, the Islamic State applauds each isolated act of violence perpetrated by and against Muslims in Western society as feeding a vicious cycle which works to its benefit.
Thus, attacks by supporters generate a backlash against Muslims in the West in general. That backlash then helps foster xenophobia by the non-Muslim population, contributes to policies cracking down on national and religious minorities and legal paths to immigration — and inspires acts of hate directed at those same groups, ranging from racial slurs to acts of vandalism and violent assaults.
This, the Islamic State hopes, will drive Muslims out of Western countries, potentially back to regions where the group may have more influence over them — or it may help radicalize additional attackers within Western society, thereby perpetuating the cycle.
The Islamic State and other militant groups believe that a person’s religious identity should define every aspect of their personhood and their value as a human being. In short, we can only effectively oppose this ideology by rejecting its Manichean worldview.
The fact that Abdul Artan became radicalized and chose a path of violence also does not somehow invalidate the rights and personhood of tens of thousands of Somali Americans, or the millions of Muslim Americans, who have lived in the United States for decades.
It does not “prove” that most of them are a threat, any more than the shootings in Columbine “proved” disaffected high schoolers are a threat.
Pointing this out is not to deny that Islamic fundamentalism has inspired violent attacks around the world. The Islamic State’s ideology is a global threat, and has found adherents among disaffected segments of many different societies.
But the number of Muslims involved in extremism in the United States is still a tiny fraction of the whole. Assigning collective blame and punishment to entire groups of people based on their religion or nationality is precisely the kind of thinking the Islamic State seeks to foment.
Former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee once suggested refugees were like a batch of peanuts that could be justifiably thrown out if even a few were poisoned, as if people seeking to flee war zones were a disposable snack you could toss in the garbage can.
Those who share his point of view will now point to this incident as justifying fear-mongering, even though the number of native-born Americans involved in plotting or carrying out violent attacks in the United States dwarfs the number of domestic terrorists born abroad.
Leaders of Columbus’ Somali community have braced themselves for the backlash Artan’s attack may engender. However, while the likes of Fox News and Breitbart scramble to cast blame, public and social media around Columbus does not appear to have followed their example.
As one OSU student told me of the reaction on campus, “I don’t think we’re focusing as much about the identity of the attacker. I haven’t heard people saying hateful things on campus.”
The attack on Nov. 28 injured a few and shocked thousands more. However, the assault will not achieve its intended purpose so long as Americans hold to their values as members of an inclusive society that does not discriminate on the basis of religious identity or ethnic background.