A search for motives in sniper shootings

Legions of investigators are combing the country, as well as the Caribbean isles, to discover what may have led John Allen Muhammad and John Lee Malvo to allegedly kill 10 people and wound three others in one of the nation's most notorious shooting sprees.

What is emerging so far is a dark narrative of two troubled lives – of failed marriages and businesses, of a youth's slavish devotion to a charming but malevolent faux father, of lives lived small and schemes that were, seemingly, grandiose.

Still, whether the sniper shootings were the outgrowth of a disturbed personality, or some philosophical pique, or even part of a larger international conspiracy remains uncertain. Were the suspects sympathetic with Al Qaeda terrorists bent on anti-American treachery? Were they possibly associated with militant anti-American groups at home?

More deeply, is it even possible to separate terrorism from "regular" criminality at a time when indiscriminate rifle fire or targeted anthrax attacks causes widespread fear? And perhaps the most frightening question: In the "new normal" atmosphere following last year's 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States, will others – either for philosophical reasons or because they are mentally disturbed – be emboldened to become lone terrorists?

"Certainly at the very least it can influence some individuals who already are inclined to maybe favor a certain ideology, like maybe anti-Americanism," says Candice Skrapec, professor of criminology at California State University in Fresno.

"The fuel takes the form of essentially affirming their own feelings of anger and their need to retaliate, and also maybe giving them ... specific direction about how to do that," says Dr. Skrapec, who has studied serial killers. "Indeed, if your anti-American sentiments or your antiauthority sentiments are affirmed by the actions of another, that can give you the impetus or the courage to proceed with your own campaign because you feel much more justified."

While intelligence and law-enforcement officials are not ready to predict that more criminal/terrorist actions are in store as a result of 9/11 and its aftermath, they would not be surprised if that were the case.

"I think it's a psychological and historical given than when times are uncertain, or when the fabric of society and civilization are perceived as fraying, acts of violence, terror, and lawlessness become much more common," says Stacie Dotson, a senior analyst with Hawkeye Systems, a defense contractor in Alexandria, Va., specializing in counterterrorism.

"I do not think the true measure has yet been taken of the psychological impact of 9/11," says Ms. Dotson, a lawyer who has worked in naval intelligence and criminal investigations. "Those of us who have been in the military, or in law enforcement, or otherwise on the front lines of life where bad things happen, probably were not as surprised and shocked as the rest of the country."

Although Mr. Muhammad had converted to Islam some years ago, and more recently changed his name to reflect that, there is no evidence so far to connect him to any radical Islamic group – even though witnesses have said he expressed support for the Middle Eastern terrorists who attacked American targets last year.

In this sense, Muhammad – if he proves to be the Washington-area sniper – has acted in a pattern similar to Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. Mr. McVeigh sympathized with antigovernment radicals in this country, although apparently he had very little direct contact with such groups.

Instead, he acted as a "lone wolf" or individual domestic terrorist cell whose aim was to cause such social and political disruption that it would undermine the government. In Muhammad's case, says criminologist Skrapec, his true target may not have been the individual victims but the agents of government authority – in this case, law-enforcement officers.

"What he was doing is killing their reputation ... showing up their incompetence," she says. "And when you show someone how stupid they are, in effect, what you are really doing is showing that you are smarter, you are superior. I've seen that with some serial murderers."

While Muhammad's motivations seem (at this early stage in the investigation, anyway) to have been more personal than philosophical, political, or religious, experts say his conversion to Islam coupled with his alleged support of the 9/11 attacks should not be ignored.

"Converts to a religion sometimes feel the need to prove themselves through aggressive action to show their devotion and the seriousness of their intent," says Chip Berlet, an authority on right-wing extremists with Political Research Associates of Somerville, Mass. "If so, there may be a tendency to pursue the most dogmatic and zealous aspect of a particular religion. Then those militant Muslims that praised the 9/11 attacks would be pointing at actions deemed praiseworthy."

"It is possible that some people who are suffering from some forms of mental illness become caught up in political or religious subcultures where apocalyptic thinking and demonization are commonplace," says Mr. Berlet.

"They then lack the psychological restraints that keep other similarly situated people from acting out on their beliefs in a violent manner."

"At the same time," he adds, "relatively sane people in political or religious subcultures where apocalyptic thinking and demonization are commonplace can become so angry and frustrated that the barriers to violence are simply breached by arguments that the violence prevents a greater moral harm."

A troubled past

Whether or not that happens with greater frequency now remains a troubling unknown. So far, Muhammad and John Lee Malvo – the perhaps impressionable young man who lived until their arrest as a kind of surrogate son to Muhammad – have said nothing to indicate what might have been their motives in the case. Family members and acquaintances seem baffled as well.

Muhammad and Malvo, or their part, reportedly aren't saying anything. In fact, published reports have suggested that Mr. Malvo, while being left alone for a few minutes in an interrogation room while chained to a table, broke the table and tried to escape through a ceiling duct.

Still, investigators have a considerable number of people coming forward, and have arrested Nathaniel Osborne, a material witness in the case, who apparently helped Muhammad purchase the now infamous 1990 Chevrolet Caprice. Moreover, in addition to the Bushman .223 rifle removed from the car, investigators retrieved a handgun and a laptop computer that are now being evaluated.

But as authorities piece together the troubled lives of Muhammad and Malvo, they certainly will be looking for connections both to international or national militant groups.

For example, John Allen Williams, while converting to Islam about 17 years ago, only changed his last name to Muhammad last year. He was a member of Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam, but Mr. Farrakhan said Muhammad hasn't been active in the association since 1999.

"We need to know what, if any groups, he belonged to," says Stanley Bedlington, a retired senior CIA counterterrorism official.

It could be that Muhammad, like the convicted shoebomber, Richard Reid, who tried to blow up an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami last December, was acting in sympathy with the 9/11 hijackers and Al Qaeda.

"Osama bin Laden has always maintained that his main goal is inciting others," says a senior intelligence official. "You can see that manifesting itself now in Bali, Yemen, Kuwait, Richard Reid, and these other recent attacks."

But it could also be post-9/11 anti-Americanism. Two men who associated themselves with Muhammad in Washington state have provided some insights into Muhammad's and Malvo's behavior over the past two years.

In August 2001, Muhammad left Antigua where he had fled after allegedly kidnapping his children from his second wife in March 2000. He along with two of his three children (but not Malvo), showed up at the Lighthouse Mission, a homeless shelter in Bellingham, Wash.

The Rev. Al Archer, director of the shelter, has told reporters that Muhammad's stay there was uneventful until he enrolled the children in school under assumed names. At the end of August, the authorities took the children out of school and returned them to their mother in Tacoma, Wash. At about this point, Mr. Archer said, Muhammad received a telephone call from a travel agent, and began to disappear for several days at a time, apparently traveling overseas. He said he began to wonder if Muhammad may be part of a terrorist cell, providing logistical support to a terrorist group.

He says he alerted the FBI, but never heard if they followed up.

Earlier plots?

Another associate, Harjeet Singh, tells an even more chilling story. He says he met Muhammad and Malvo in February 2002 while working out at the Bellingham YMCA. They became friends – talking about exercising and other things, such as joint displeasure with US foreign policy.

But Mr. Singh says Muhammad went even further than expressing displeasure. Singh said that Muhammad told him that the 9/11 attacks should have happened a long time ago.

Moreover, Singh said, in May 2001, Muhammad told him of a plot he had hatched to hide in a wooded area and shoot a fuel tanker on a freeway, causing it to explode. Muhammad also told Singh, according to a report in the Washington Post, that he wanted to kill a police officer, then kill mourners at the funeral.

Singh says he told a Bellingham police officer about his discussions with Muhammad in early June 2001, and that the officer then summoned an FBI agent. Singh reportedly said he didn't think the officers believed his story.

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