Sniper suspects in hand
Evidence mounts against a former soldier and a teenager. Motives for killing spree may include revenge and outrage.
A killing spree like no other in American history may finally be at an end. But even with suspects in custody, a central question remains unanswered: Why?Skip to next paragraph
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It's unlikely that terrorism, even of a homegrown variety, was the main motive behind the sniper shootings that have clouded life in Washington this October, say experts.
Details about the men arrested Thursday morning in connection with the case suggest instead that a mix of anger, self-importance, and desire for revenge lay behind the murders.
"I do think that the hyper-test public reaction to this was sensitized by 9/11, but the notion that this action carries on the work of ... terrorists makes no sense to me at all in terms of the pattern of action," says Jerrold Post, a former CIA profiler who is now a George Washington University professor.
It may be days, if not weeks, before a conclusive picture can be drawn of the men seized at a rest stop in western Maryland John Allen Muhammad, a former Army combat support specialist, and John Lee Malvo, a teenager described by law enforcement sources as Mr. Muhammad's stepson.
But former neighbors, wives, and colleagues have begun providing some details about Muhammad's life, describing him as an outgoing person and unremarkable neighbor who nevertheless had at times seemed to demonstrate an unseemly desire to control other peoples' lives, as well as angry reactions in personal disputes.
It is clear, for example, that Muhammad converted to Islam several years ago, but just changed his last name from "Williams" to "Muhammad" last year. It also appears that he spent 15 years in the US military, including stops at Fort Lewis Wash., and Fort Ord, Calif., and service in the Gulf War.
Several people, including law enforcement officials, said that both Muhammad and his stepson were known to speak sympathetically about the 9/11 hijackers.
Ideology may have played a part in Muhammad's actions, but as yet there is no proof. Among crucial unanswered questions: Why did he leave the military after fifteen years, with twenty years' service and full pension rights in sight? What are his links, if any, to domestic paramilitary extremist groups?
"There are a lot of scattered, little ... pieces, but nothing really pulls them together yet," says Stanley Bedlington, a former senior analyst at the CIA's Counterterrorism Center.
John Allen Muhammad is described by his former business partner in Tacoma, Wash. as having strong Muslim beliefs. Felix Strozier, who operated a martial arts school with Mr. Muhammad several years ago, also told reporters that Muhammad had attended the "Million Man March." Minister Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, who has a history of anti-Semitism, organized that event in 1995. (Some reports had Muhammad claiming to have been part of the security force for the event.)
Experts on rightwing extremism say there are - paradoxically - overlaps between black nationalism/radical Islam and white supremacist types in that both hate Jews and both hate the US government. Chip Berlet, an expert on rightwing extremists with Political Research Associates in Somerville, Mass., notes that "the US extreme right shares three ideological affinities with some Islamic clerical fascist movements such as the Taliban and the al Qaeda networks, and some Black nationalist groups."
Mr. Berlet says these include: "A hatred of Jews who are seen in the traditional anti-Semitic caricature of running the world through secret conspiracies. A hatred of the U.S. government, seen as not just a global bully but also controlled by Jews. A desire to overthrow existing governments and replace then with monocultural nation states built around the idea of supremacist racial nationalism or supremacist religious nationalism or both mixed together."
At this point in the investigation, there appears not to be any distinguishing connection between the sniper's shooting victims - other than the fact that most were around the nation's capital. But that in itself may have been enough for a hateful and perhaps mentally unbalanced person to associate them as "enemies."