The suspect in the deadly shooting at a military recruiting center in Arkansas last week, Abdulhakim Muhammad, is the latest in a series of Muslim converts who stand accused of planning or launching violent attacks in the U.S.
His given name was Carlos Bledsoe. He was 23, grew up in Tennessee and converted to Islam in high school. He traveled to Yemen in 2007, and FBI agents first encountered him in a Yemeni prison about a year later. Officials close to the investigation say what they learned about him alarmed them.
Fake Somali Passport
The young American claimed to be in Yemen to study religion, but he was linked to a school there that was well-known for its terrorist ties. He had a fake Somali passport, though he was carrying a perfectly valid American one.
Agents were concerned the Somali passport was a way for Muhammad to travel to places he didn't want U.S. authorities to know about — so when he returned to the U.S. his American passport wouldn't have stamps and visas from countries that bring suspicion.
Muhammad's lawyer in Little Rock, Ark., Jim Hensley, says the second passport wasn't so sinister.
"That Somali passport came into being because, I think he said, they are laying on park benches around Yemen," Hensley told NPR. "Somali passports were easy to get, and the whole reason he needed one was because he had overstayed his visa, he was married and did not want to leave."
Hensley said Muhammad wanted to stay in Yemen with his new wife.
Radicalized In Yemen
The prison interview with Muhammad in Yemen rattled FBI officials enough that they opened a preliminary investigation. It never got much further than that. After he was deported back to the U.S., agents visited him on several occasions, but aside from his suspicious affiliations in Yemen, officials had nothing on him. So there is no indication that last week's events could have been prevented.
That said, FBI officials do think Muhammad was radicalized in Yemen, and conversations Muhammad had with his lawyer seem to bear that out. Hensley says his client saw things in Yemen that upset him — things that changed him. And while Hensley stopped short of providing a motive for the shooting, he did say that Muhammad came back from Yemen very angry at the U.S. military.
Hensley says Muhammad told him he was working with children in Yemen and many of them were refugees from Afghanistan.
"Some of them are missing arms and some of them are terribly disfigured," Hensley says.
Muhammad told his lawyer that he blamed the U.S. military for the children's suffering. Muhammad also said he met Afghan women who claimed to have been raped by U.S. soldiers. This also clearly rankled him, Hensley says.
There is some debate over why, exactly, Muhammad ended up behind bars in Yemen. His parents say he told them that he was in for visa violations. Law enforcement officials said it was more than that but declined to be specific. What is certain is that prison added to the disillusionment Muhammad was already feeling toward the U.S.
"For whatever reason, he winds up in a prison in Yemen around people who certainly don't appreciate America," Hensley says. "And they start telling him, 'Look what you have seen; look what's going on.' And all this stuff weighs heavy on a young man, and he wants to do something."
Authorities say that something was the shooting outside the recruiting center in Little Rock. Last week, the chief of the Little Rock police department, Stuart Thomas, tried to tamp down speculation that Muhammad was part of something bigger.
"Mr. Muhammad appears to have acted alone," he told reporters. "There doesn't appear to be a wider plot at this point in time."
Hensley says that his client assured him there were no other attacks planned. FBI agents are still combing through Muhammad's past to make sure that is true. Hensley says there are lessons to be taken from the incident.
"If this young man, grown up in middle America, can be turned against his own country, if it happened to this young man, it can happen to any young man," Hensley says. "It can happen to anybody."
This, of course, worries the FBI and is why the investigation is continuing. Agents have questioned elders at a Tennessee mosque Muhammad attended. Agents in Yemen are trying to make sure that Muhammad's radicalization didn't include anyone else who might one day turn up in the U.S. in some violent way.