The arrest of Elias Abuelazam in connection with a series of 18 stabbings across Michigan, Ohio, and Virginia – five of them fatal – has so far offered no further clues into the potential motivation behind the 11-week spree of senseless violence.
Mr. Abuelazam, a bulky Arab Christian from Israel living in the US on a green card, told an Atlanta judge Friday that he would not fight extradition to Michigan, where the majority of the attacks happened and where he has already been charged in one of the cases.
The facts of the cases are spare but perplexing to criminologists. Nearly all of the victims were black, but it is unclear whether race was a factor. Piecing together the shreds of information that exist, a criminologist suggests that the attacker may have been something of a hybrid – employing the tactics of a serial killer but harboring motives, such as hate, that more typically drive mass murderers.
"Whether it was directed at Americans in general or black Americans, I do think [the spree] was motivated by hate," says Jack Levin, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston and author of "Serial Killers and Sadistic Murderers: Up Close and Personal."
"The complicating factor here is that the defendant is not an American citizen," he says. "There is little doubt that he would have fit the category of a hate-motivated killer – someone who targeted black Americans out of racial animosity – but the fact that he was from Middle East also raises the possibility that he hated Americans."
Police in Leesburg, Va., where three of the stabbings took place last week, have said that they believe Abuelazam was motivated by the dark color of the victims' skin. If true, that would be somewhat unusual.
Serial killers, who stalk multiple victims in multiple attacks, are rarely motivated by hate, but usually by sex, power, or profit. By contrast, mass murderers, who kill many people at once, are often driven by hate.
For instance, investigators say the primary suspect in the mass shootings at Fort Hood last year, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, was motivated by hate. Also, in the Hartford Distributors rampage earlier this month, accused gunman Omar Thornton killed eight people and then himself after complaining that his co-workers were racists.
"If this had been a mass killing, if the killer had shot to death a number of people in the same category all at once, it would have made more sense," says Mr. Levin.
An early report suggests that anti-Americanism may not have been a factor.
The Israeli Internet newspaper Ynet reported Friday that federal counterterrorism investigators are part of the investigation because of Abuelazam's Arab name. "Initial indications, however, are that US officials cannot find the slightest trace of evidence or intelligence linking the man – a 33-year-old Christian who grew up in [the Israeli town of] Ramla – to terrorism," Ynet writes.
Abuelazam agreed to be extradited to Michigan so that he could fight the current charge – and the others expected to be filed.
Though Abuelazam reportedly has a Florida driver's license, he spent time in Flint, Mich., and worked at a party store where his manager has told the Associated Press that he didn't seem to harbor any racial resentments. Authorities have said Abuelazam has an uncle in the Flint area and a sister in Leesburg.
All but four of the stabbings happened in in the Flint area. They began May 24 and crescendoed at the end of July, when attacks occurred daily.
Three of the stabbings occurred in northern Virginia at a time when Abuelazam was known to be there. In fact, police in Virginia stopped Abuelazam last week for failing to obey a stop sign. They briefly impounded Abuelazam's car because of an outstanding assault warrant against him.
Abuelazam was released, and the three Virginia knife attacks happened shortly afterward. The Virginia police said they had no knowledge of the Flint stabbings and so had no reason to hold him.
The final stabbing that police connect to Abuelazam was of a church custodian in Toledo, Ohio, Aug. 7.
Police allege that Abuelazam would approach lone victims at night, asking them for help with his car or for directions. Once they were off their guard, he would stab them, police say.
After police received numerous tips, Abuelazam was apprehended by four police officers at Hartsfield-Jackson international airport in Atlanta on Wednesday night after being paged over the airport intercom and told to report to a ticket counter. He was set to board a plane to Israel.
Passengers on the Tel Aviv-bound Delta plane said he appeared tense, according to the Associated Press. He was talking to someone on his cell phone "about not being violent and different things like that," passenger Eugene Williams said after the plane landed in Tel Aviv, the AP writes.