Seeing beyond the Islamist extremism narrative in cases of Muslim attackers

Hannah Allam reports: Hours after Mohammad Abdulazeez fired 100 rounds into Chattanooga military offices, gunning down four Marines and a sailor before being killed by police, the emerging story was one of a “lone wolf” jihadist with possible ties to extremist groups abroad.

But Abdulazeez’s family made a decision that would quickly redirect the story of their son’s rampage last July in ways that didn’t happen after attacks in San Bernardino or, now, Orlando: They hired an attorney who turned the Chattanooga aftermath into a case study of what it takes to add nuance to a national tragedy involving a Muslim perpetrator.

The attorney, who asked that his name not be published because of the sensitivity of the case, first urged the parents to go public with a statement about their son’s history of depression, explaining that “the first thing you say is critical.” Convinced that Abdulazeez was no diehard jihadist, they also leaked the attacker’s suspected bipolar behavior, abuse of alcohol and painkillers, his struggle to stay employed, and how he faced bankruptcy and a drunken-driving charge.

The effect was immediate, with all major TV networks and newspapers pivoting from the terrorism angle to the shooter’s “troubled past.” The lesson, the attorney said, is that it’s hard – but not impossible – to make Americans see beyond Islamist extremism in cases of Muslim attackers.

“It would’ve been ‘ISIS lone wolf plans deliberate, premeditated attack on a military installation,’ ” the attorney said, imagining the headlines had the family not been up front about Abdulazeez’s struggles. “It would’ve been about the propaganda rather than the factors that converted that to action.”

That more nuanced public examination of Abdulazeez’s motivations remains the exception in a climate where fear of the Islamic State and other Muslim extremist groups seem to make the more simplistic jihadist storyline irresistible to news organizations and useful to politicians, according to interviews with attorneys, counter-terrorism analysts and representatives of civil liberties groups. Often, they said, that angle persists even with little or no evidence that the assailant was motivated by extremist ideology. [Continue reading…]

Print Friendly, PDF & Email