Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Muslim Suspect Faces Trial in the Murder of US Soldier at Little Rock Recruiting Office

February 17, 2010

A Muslim Son, a Murder Trial and Many Questions

New York Times

MEMPHIS — When Monica Bledsoe spoke to her younger brother late last May, he seemed his old upbeat self. He had just led his first sightseeing tour of Little Rock, Ark., for their father’s new tour bus company and all went well. The tips had flowed.

A week later, her brother, Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, opened fire with a semiautomatic rifle on a military recruiting center in Little Rock, killing one soldier and wounding another.

Ms. Bledsoe was stunned. “I would never have thought this could happen,” she said.

Eight months after the shooting, Mr. Muhammad’s family is still sorting through the confusing pieces of his shattered life. A gentle, happy-go-lucky teenager, he had become a deeply observant Muslim in college, shunning gatherings where alcohol was served. He traveled to Yemen to study Arabic, married a Yemeni woman, was imprisoned and then deported for overstaying his visa. After returning to Memphis last year, he stewed with anger about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Recently, Mr. Muhammad, 24, thrust himself back into the news by claiming in a note to an Arkansas judge that he was a member of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a terrorist group based in Yemen. He asked that he be allowed to plead guilty to capital murder, a request that will probably be denied.

The note has renewed questions about his case, which had been nearly forgotten in the wake of subsequent attacks, most notably the shooting rampage in November at Fort Hood, Tex., and the attempted bombing of an airplane on Christmas Day. Like both of those cases, Mr. Muhammad’s involved a Yemeni connection and the failure by the authorities to anticipate an attack, despite having clues.

In Mr. Muhammad’s case, the same F.B.I. agent interviewed him twice before the shootings: once while he was in prison in Yemen and then again in Nashville soon after he returned. But the Federal Bureau of Investigation did not place Mr. Muhammad under surveillance, law enforcement officials have said, apparently believing that he did not pose a threat.

In January, Senator Frank R. Lautenberg, Democrat of New Jersey, sent a letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. requesting information about the F.B.I.’s interviews with Mr. Muhammad before the shootings, raising questions about why someone possibly suspected of extremist ties was allowed to buy a firearm.

But no one is more vocal about shining light on Mr. Muhammad’s radicalization than his father, Melvin Bledsoe. Though he has hired a lawyer for his son, visits him in his cell in Little Rock on weekends and contributes to his defense, Mr. Bledsoe, 54, says he has no illusions about his son’s guilt.

“My heart bleeds for the families of the victims,” he said.

What he wants, Mr. Bledsoe says, is to understand how “evildoers” brainwashed his son, as he puts it. And he wants the F.B.I. held accountable for what he considers its negligence in preventing the attack.

“They didn’t pull the trigger, but they allowed this to happen,” Mr. Bledsoe said. “It is owed to the American people to know what happened. If it can happen to my son, it can happen to anyone’s son.”

The F.B.I. said it could not discuss Mr. Muhammad on orders from the judge.

It also appears that Mr. Muhammad’s trial, set for June, will answer few questions about his radicalization. Prosecutors say that they consider it a straightforward murder case and that they intend to try it without delving into Mr. Muhammad’s religious conversion, political beliefs or possible ties to terrorists.

“If you strip away what he says, self-serving or not, it’s just an awful killing,” said Larry Jegley, the lead prosecutor for Pulaski County, which includes Little Rock. “It’s like a lot of other killings we have.”

Pvt. William A. Long of Conway, Ark., was killed in the shooting, and Pvt. Quinton Ezeagwula of Jacksonville, Ark., was wounded.

Despite Mr. Muhammad’s claim to be a Qaeda soldier, Mr. Jegley said “it looks to me like he was acting alone,” a view supported by some law enforcement experts. Those experts, and Mr. Bledsoe, also say there is no evidence that Mr. Muhammad was ever in contact with Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical Yemeni-American cleric who exchanged e-mail messages with the accused Fort Hood gunman, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan.

Why Mr. Muhammad might fabricate links to Al Qaeda is a subject of debate. Mr. Bledsoe suggests that his son may be trying to fulfill a sense of martyrdom; some experts say it may be a form of self-aggrandizement.

But whether Mr. Muhammad is a lone-wolf jihadist or a Qaeda soldier, his case underscores the immense challenges of identifying homegrown extremists, experts say.

Mr. Muhammad was born Carlos Bledsoe in 1985. Raised a Baptist, he was by all accounts a sunny child who loved playing basketball and telling jokes. After graduating from high school in 2003, he went to Tennessee State University in Nashville to study business, saying he wanted to take over his father’s company someday.

In his freshman year, he was arrested for possessing an illegal weapon. Though the charge was later expunged, the incident caused him to explore religion more deeply, his father said. He considered Judaism, attended a speech by Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader, and then, to his parents’ dismay, decided to become a Sunni Muslim.

He dropped out of college at the end of his sophomore year and began working odd jobs in Nashville hotels and restaurants. He was also becoming more religiously devout, spending time in Nashville’s Somali community, praying regularly at the Islamic Center of Nashville, wearing Arab-style clothing, forswearing alcohol and changing his name.

In 2007, wanting to learn Arabic and visit Mecca, he decided to move to Yemen and signed a contract to teach English for $300 a month in the southern port city of Aden, records show.

Before he left, he told his sister that he hoped to marry in Yemen and move to Saudi Arabia. When she expressed concerns about Islamic terrorists, she recalled, “He looked me in the eye, held my hand, and said, ‘I’m not one of those Muslims.’ ”

Details of his life in Yemen remain sketchy. In addition to teaching, he took Arabic at The City Institute in the capital city, Sana, the Yemeni government has said. And a year after arriving, he married one of his students, Reena Abdullah Ahmed Farag, in Aden, according to a copy of the marriage license.

On about Nov. 14, 2008, just two months after his wedding, he was arrested in Sana for overstaying his visa. What might have been a simple immigration case turned complicated when the police found fake Somali identification papers on him.

Somalia is considered a training ground for Islamic extremists by American counterterrorism officials. The Yemeni government threatened to put Mr. Muhammad on trial.

Mr. Bledsoe says that although the F.B.I. interviewed Mr. Muhammad soon after his arrest, he did not learn of his son’s detention until two weeks later, when Mr. Muhammad’s wife contacted him. Under prodding from the American Embassy in Sana, the Yemeni government deported Mr. Muhammad on Jan. 29, 2009.

Mr. Muhammad told his father that while in prison he met Islamic radicals who told him that the American government had forsaken him. “We are your real brothers,” they said, according to Mr. Bledsoe.

Back home, Mr. Muhammad often seemed uneasy, his sister said, fuming sullenly when he saw news reports about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mr. Bledsoe decided to open an office in Little Rock to give his son a job so that he could bring his wife to the United States. By April, Mr. Muhammad was living in a spare apartment less than three miles from the recruiting center.

These days, Ms. Bledsoe said, her brother can seemed relaxed one moment, but strident the next.

“He gives a history of what the meaning of paradise is,” she said. “That’s where he wants to go. He wants to go to paradise.”

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