What motivated the Pentagon shooter?

Back in June, a local man was arrested in a string of shootings at military targets. He was born in Ethiopia and was named Yonathan Melaku. There were also reports that he’d had al Qaeda materials and had shouted “Allah Akbar” (it was actually “Allahu Akbar”).

Naturally, I had questions.

There were details that indicated Melaku was disturbed. His name struck me as decidedly Christian, not Muslim (which commenters confirmed). But the other details sounded like signals that the acts might have a basis in Islamic terrorism.

So I wondered why the media weren’t more curious. There are tons of D.C. media outlets and yet nobody seemed to answer what struck me as basic questions.

Yesterday, Melaku pled guilty. The local and national news covered it. Here’s the local NBC outlet:

An ex-Marine from Virginia, accused of firing shots at the Pentagon, the Marine Corps museum in Quantico and other military-related targets, pleaded guilty in court Thursday.

But other than a mention that Melaku’s family requested a psychological evaluation be done on him, we didn’t get any answers.

Here’s what ABC added:

Yonathan Melaku, then 22, was arrested on June 17, 2011 after he was seen in Arlington National Cemetery at night with a backpack. The backpack allegedly contained a package labeled ammonium nitrate, a common fertilizer than can be used in explosives, spent firearm ammunition and a notebook referencing the Taliban, Osama Bin Laden and al Qaeda.

After his arrest, FBI agents searched his Virginia home and found a list of bombmaking components as well as a video of Melaku shouting “Allahu Akbar” as he fired his gun at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in October 2010. The shots did $90,000 worth of damage to the museum windows.

That’s almost exactly what we heard at the time of the shooting. The ABC report doesn’t mention anything about mental illness.

Finally, let’s look at the Washington Post. Tons of interesting information:

Federal prosecutors revealed Thursday that Melaku, a 23-year-old former Marine Corps Reservist, was on a mission to desecrate the graves of veterans who died in Iraq and Afghanistan. They said he was poised to spray paint Arabic statements on the markers and leave the explosive materials nearby, part of a solitary campaign of “fear and terror” that included the earlier shootings. …

Though Melaku acknowledged shooting at the buildings — attacks that did not injure anyone but caused an estimated $111,000 in damage, mostly to windows at the Marine Corps museum — it still remains unclear why he did it. In a video entered into evidence and released by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia, Melaku says that he wants to target the museum and “turn it off permanently.”

FBI officials and prosecutors said Melaku was on a personal terror mission, but they could not say what started Melaku down that path. They said it does not appear his service in the Marine reserves provides any clear sign of trouble, but they said he researched jihadism on the Internet, had references to terrorism in a notebook and on his computer, and yelled “Allahu Akbar” repeatedly during a video of a shooting. …

Authorities later found instructions for making improvised explosive devices in Melaku’s home in the Alexandria section of Fairfax, and they found a notebook with references to Osama bin Laden and “The Path to Jihad.”

It’s somewhat odd to see the line “it still remains unclear why he did it” combined with information about “references” to bin Laden and the like. But I’m curious why — with charges filed and guilty pleas announced — we still don’t know more about these “references.” Counter-terrorism officials probably have notebooks in their house with “references” to such things. That doesn’t really tell us what we need to know. Haven’t the intervening seven months given us an opportunity to find out more?

And one other thing. I noticed this comment posted in the reader section below the story:

This is Josh White, the reporter who wrote this story. Thank you all for reading and commenting. As the issue of religion has been raised here numerous times, I wanted to provide some additional information I was able to find this afternoon:

Melaku’s defense attorney told me today that Melaku’s family is of the Coptic Christian faith and that they were stunned to learn of the crimes and any connection between their son and Islam or jihad, as there were no overt signs to them that he had any involvement with it whatsoever. It is unclear to everyone I have interviewed — prosecutors, police, Melaku’s attorney — why exactly he was shooting at the buildings or wanted to deface the gravestones or what led him to that point. It is possible that only he knows that. We will continue to post and publish new information as we get it.

It really is “unclear” what was going on. I think that the information contained in this comment is important and actually should be included in stories about Melaku. It is understandable that even after reporting the heck out of a story, you may not be able to find out key information. But I think it’s good to tell readers exactly why you are writing that motivations aren’t clear.

I had already been wondering — based on his very Christian name — whether this was a standard case of Islamic terrorism. But I noticed many people thought that the Washington Post was trying to hide his Islamic terrorism. There are good reasons that readers are skeptical about how religious terrorism is covered. In this case, the reporter had very good reason for writing about the lack of clarity with regard to motivation.

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  • Jerry

    It really is “unclear” what was going on.

    Why did you use the scare quotes around “unclear”? Why is it “unclear” rather than unclear? And I have the same question about “references” versus references.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Ha! I was just quoting the article. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and sometimes quotes are just quotes, I guess!

    The Washington Post reporter used those words — “unclear” and “references” — and I was just asking questions about or affirming the use of same. Thus quotes.

    As you can tell from my post, I don’t doubt that it’s unclear (no quotes!) — I agree that it is. I hope for more reportage of same, but I agree that things are unclear.

  • Kaleb

    I am from Ethiopia and his name surely sounds a typical Christian name. It is worthwhile to further dig in and do some sort of press investigation to learn about his motive(as despicable and clearly criminal as it is). It just didn’t sit well with me to take the “Allahu akbar” and “bin laden’ references. Shouldn’t a person be a Muslim before becoming a fundamental one. I am just wondering.

  • sari

    Unclear to me why no one asked why a psych eval wasn’t performed during the seven months between arrest and trial. Or, the results if the eval was performed.

    Rather than conversion to Islam, I wonder if he was looking to commit criminal acts to engender negative sentiment towards Muslims.

  • http://davidgriffey.blogspot.com/ Dave G.

    It’s somewhat odd to see the line “it still remains unclear why he did it” combined with information about “references” to bin Laden and the like.

    Doesn’t seem the least bid odd. Some things we are trained, by the narrative of our time, to assume out of the gate. Other times, when events go against the narrative of our time, we will scratch our heads and puzzle over the obvious. Happens all the time.

  • Suzanne

    I’m wondering if there’s something the authorities have told the reporter that’s causing him to be so reticent.

    Frequently when reporting cops, I ran across situations where a reported crime was not what it seemed. For example, someone reported a “home invasion” by “unknown persons” when police knew in reality it was one drug dealer robbing another. They couldn’t say things on the record, but strongly advised not to take the report at face value. Maybe something of that kind is going on here.

    That said, the reporter should have added the information he got “this afternoon” from the family. If he’s reporting in in the comments, then it’s clearly on-the-record and attributable, so I don’t understand why he isn’t updating the story with it (at least the last update I looked at).

  • Chris

    Some stories just refuse to fit neatly into our boxes.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Often converts to religions will be the least restrained. This problem can be added to if the person comes in contact with extreme groups of Muslims in the United States who have very little connection to historic Islam, such as the followers of H. Rapp Brown.

    If he is from Ethiopia his family are also not Copts. They would possibly be Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, who have close religious ties to the Copts. However the Copts are an ethno-religious group indigenous to Egypt.