Special Report

Sulejmen the Mysterious

Was the Teen's Rampage a Terrorist Attack, a Hate Crime or a Columbine?

By 2.21.07

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In the days after 18-year-old Sulejmen Talovic proceeded to a Salt Lake City shopping mall with a shotgun and a .38, and shot to death Jeffrey Walker, 52, Vanessa Quinn, 29, Kirsten Hinkley, 15, Teresa Ellis, 29, and Brad Frantz, 24, before being killed by police, several bloggers -- noting Talovic's Muslim or Turkic first name -- immediately spotted another instance of "Sudden Jihad Syndrome."

You will not find SJS in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, not even the latest edition. SJS, a phenomenon whereby law-abiding Muslims abruptly become violent, was first identified last March by Dr. Daniel Pipes, who is a writer, not a physician.

Dr. Pipes was describing the actions of Mohammed Reza Taheri-azar, the Iranian immigrant and recent college grad who ran down nine random infidels on the University of North Carolina campus with a rented SUV. By all accounts, Mohammed led a normal existence. He was student council president and a member of the National Honor Society. Classmates described him as kind and gentle, though somewhat of a loner. As it turned out, Taheri-azar's attack was not really that "sudden" either. According to Pipes, he had planned his attack for two years before carrying it out.

Sulejmen Talovic does not really fit the SJS pattern either. He was not exactly a law-abiding Muslim. At the age of 12 he pulled a knife on a young girl and threatened her life. Shortly afterwards there was a repeat performance involving his Bosnian landlord. Since his family was war refugees, Talovic got off with repeated warnings. Later he was picked up for shoplifting. While attending Horizonte Instruction and Training Center, in November 2004, the lad was disciplined after he was caught looking up AK-47s on the Internet. Not long after that incident he dropped out of school for good. Apparently, Talovic bided his time until his 18th birthday when his juvie record was expunged and he could purchase weapons legally.

Obviously he was a troubled teen, but a jihadist?

Little is known of his personal life, except that he regularly attended Friday prayers at the al Noor Mosque near the site of the shooting, but stopped when he began working full time at a uniform services company. Oddly, that behavior also fits the pattern of the jihadist, who will often stop attending mosque and frequently will go to great lengths to appear non-religious. Pipes notes that it is common for Islamists to surreptitiously adopt radical Islam, so it is not surprising when his relatives and neighbors say that he was a normal, gentle if perhaps high-strung teen.

Police say Talovic left behind little to help them understand his motivations. He left no note. He didn't appear to have any friends in whom he confided. His father told a reporter, "I think somebody push him," but he couldn't say who.

It is true that young misfit Muslims, unemployed or stuck in dead-end jobs, sometimes turn to fundamental Islam in order to find some meaning in their otherwise purposeless lives. Some have speculated that Talovic may have become radicalized via the Internet, though police found no computer in the teen's home. And the Somali imam at al Noor, Ali Mohamed, claims not to know the younger Talovic.

And here is yet another factor weighing against SJS. When he went on his bloody rampage, Talovic was heard to cry "Die mother," not the "Allahu Akbar" (God is great), or "Die infidel," we have come to expect from jihadists.

DON'T EXPECT QUICK ANSWERS. It took the Feds nearly a year to admit that Hesham Mohamed Hadayet was a terrorist (despite the fact that he told INS during his tourist visa interview that the Egyptian government considered him a terrorist). Hadayet murdered two Jews at the El Al ticket counter at Los Angeles International Airport on July 4, 2002. In contrast, Naveed Afzal Haq (described as a loner who had even converted to Christianity at one point), shot six women, one fatally, at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle because of Israel's treatment of Palestinians. Not a terrorist attack, police said. Just a hate crime.

The Feds themselves do not seem to know the difference. Taheri-azar's attack has yet to be officially labeled a hate crime or a terrorist attack (although he told police that he was trying to imitate his hero Mohammed Atta). UNC Chancellor James Moeser described Taheri-azar's attack as one of violence, not an act of terror.

Meanwhile in Salt Lake, half of the local media seem to be leaning toward the theory that Sulejman Talovic was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Talovic was born in the village of Talovici, Bosnia, in a home destroyed in the 1993 Bosnian War. He would have been four. He arrived in Utah with family members as war refugees in 1998. The other half is playing up the discrimination and Islamophobia angle, though for a supposedly anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim city, there has been no anti-Muslim backlash. In fact the opposite has occurred. Local residents have been supportive and compassionate, raising money to help send Talovic's body back to Bosnia for burial.

That seems to be the way the local authorities are playing it -- that Talovic is but another in a long line of lone gunmen with a history of mental instability, like the mad milk truck driver and Amish school shooter Charles Carl Roberts IV. Mental instability and hate doubtless played a role, but ideology cannot be ignored. We do not know enough about Talovic to say what his motivation was, but the aforementioned Muslim attacks -- whether labeled hate crimes or terrorist attacks -- were certainly motivated in part by jihadist impulses.

If one of the hallmarks of SJS is concealing your jihadist tendencies, it will be extremely difficult to prevent such attacks. After the shootings a few shoppers complained that concealed weapons were prohibited in the shopping mall. Some said that if they had been allowed to carry concealed weapons they might have saved lives.

Personally I find it a bit whacked to want to tote around a Smith & Wesson on the one-in-ten-billion chance a jihadist or a mad milkman is going to show up at the dry cleaners or the post office with a shotgun. Though I certainly understand how the relatives of the murder victims might feel that way.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.