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New questions emerge about background of UC Merced attacker

UC Merced Chancellor Dorothy Leland, right, flanks Merced County Sheriff Vern Warnke on Thursday as they discuss the attack carried out by Faisal Mohammad, 18 on the campus Nov. 4. Warnke confirmed Monday that authorities have turned over control of the criminal investigation of the incident to campus police and the FBI. A law enforcement official, who spoke to the Sun-Star on condition of anonymity, said the reason included questions about the manner in which Mohammad was dressed during the Nov. 4 attack and the types of websites he may have visited in the weeks and days before.
UC Merced Chancellor Dorothy Leland, right, flanks Merced County Sheriff Vern Warnke on Thursday as they discuss the attack carried out by Faisal Mohammad, 18 on the campus Nov. 4. Warnke confirmed Monday that authorities have turned over control of the criminal investigation of the incident to campus police and the FBI. A law enforcement official, who spoke to the Sun-Star on condition of anonymity, said the reason included questions about the manner in which Mohammad was dressed during the Nov. 4 attack and the types of websites he may have visited in the weeks and days before. akuhn@mercedsunstar.com

New details that have emerged about the 18-year-old computer science student who was shot and killed by police after stabbing four people last week at UC Merced have led authorities to hand control of the criminal investigation to campus police and the FBI, Merced County Sheriff Vern Warnke confirmed.

The decision was made after “new information” about Faisal Mohammad came to light Saturday, Warnke said. He declined to elaborate.

“I’m not at liberty to discuss the information, but the developments on Saturday caused us to turn that over to (UC Merced) and the FBI will assist them,” Warnke said.

A law enforcement official, who spoke to the Sun-Star on condition of anonymity, said the information included questions about the manner in which Mohammad was dressed during the Nov. 4 attack and the types of websites he may have visited in the weeks and days before. Additionally, the official said, investigators found a printout of an image of an Islamic State flag among Mohammad’s belongings.

The significance of the items, and any possible connection to the attack, is unclear and remains under investigation, the official said.

Warnke said Friday that a two-page note found in Mohammad’s pocket indicated the attack was motivated by revenge. The note, he said, expressed the teen’s anger over having been kicked out of a study group. The sheriff told a crowd of reporters Thursday “there is nothing to indicate this was anything other than a teenage boy who got upset with fellow classmates.”

Investigators have described Mohammad as a troubled, isolated young man who knew few people on campus. They believe that, in planning how to stage his attack, he may have sought to model behavior by the extremist group.

Dipak Gupta, a political science professor who specializes in public policy, terrorism and ethnic conflicts at San Diego State University, said determining whether an attack was an act of terrorism hinges on whether the attacker believed his or her actions would have any political ramifications.

Gupta, who declined to comment directly on the UC Merced attack, said the goal of groups like the Islamic State is to inspire individuals to act out on their own as a “lone wolf.”

“The question we should always be asking is whether he or she believed they were sending or making a political statement,” Gupta said in a telephone interview. “If there is proof of that (belief), then an act can be considered an act of terrorism.”

Warnke has said Mohammad’s manifesto made no mention of a political or religious motive, only vague references to “Allah.”

Mohammad, who graduated in June from Wilcox High School in Santa Clara, plotted an elaborate, step-by-step attack on students in a morning class on the second floor of the Classroom and Office Building. The violent plan included using a 10-inch knife to force a student to zip-tie other students to desks. He plotted to smear petroleum jelly on the floor by the door to cause a police officer to slip and fall. He then planned to take that officer’s gun and shoot numerous people inside a student dormitory.

Mohammad stabbed one male student inside the classroom around 8 a.m., but the rest of his plans were interrupted quickly by Byron Price, a 31-year-old construction worker who heard screams coming from the classroom. Price struggled briefly with Mohammad and was slashed near his waistline. Mohammad then fled the building, stabbing another male student and a UC Merced employee before he was shot and killed by a campus police officer.

Witnesses reported hearing two gunshots.

Aside from Price, names of the victims have not been released. The UC Merced employee, a female student adviser, remained hospitalized Monday. The others have been released from hospitals, and all four were expected to make full recoveries, according to UC Merced spokesman James Leonard.

It was unclear Monday when the officer who shot Mohammad would be identified, Leonard said. Warnke confirmed the Merced County Sheriff’s Office would continue to investigate the shooting that ended the attack.

The FBI declined to comment on the case other than to say the agency would continue to “assist” and “offer support” in the UC Merced investigation, spokeswoman Gina Swankie said.

Warnke and Leonard both said local law enforcement agencies received no warnings from the FBI or anyone else regarding a potential attack on campus before Wednesday.

“Neither Chancellor (Dorothy) Leland nor UC Merced campus police participated in any such briefing with the FBI or were warned by the FBI about the potential for a terrorist attack on campus,” Leonard said Monday.

Authorities believe Mohammad was a practicing Muslim, but he appears to have been unknown to Muslim groups in Merced before the attack.

The Muslim Student Association at UC Merced said Mohammad wasn’t a member of the group and had never attended their prayer sessions or meetings. “No one knew who he was,” said Homza Al-Ariemy, the president of the group.

Sannaullah Hussain, the imam at the Islamic Center of Merced on Ashby Road, said he never saw Mohammad during Friday prayers at the mosque. Investigators asked Hussain and other members of the mosque, including UC Merced students who pray there, if anyone knew Mohammad, and no one did.

Hussain echoed students’ thoughts about Mohammad: “Nobody knew him from this community.”

Abdur Wali, the imam for the Merced chapter of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community also had “no idea” who Mohammad was before hearing of the attack.

Gupta encouraged people to “have some perspective,” saying that since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, fewer than five people have died in terrorist attacks on American soil. “More people die every year from drowning in their bathtubs,” he noted.

He also noted, however, that in the age of social media “everything is already everywhere” and disturbed individuals can seek inspiration from all corners of the globe. “If you assume that because you live in Merced that you’re immune to the rest of the world, then you’re living in a fool’s paradise,” Gupta said. “But that doesn’t mean we’re all in danger. Shocking acts of violence tend to bring a fear of a general lack of security, which is not the case.”

Gupta said the goal of extremist groups such as ISIS is to “instill a sense of collective vulnerability.”

“If we succumb to that sense then we have allowed them to achieve their goals.”

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