IT WASN'T A CAR BOMB, but the University of North Carolina must now come to terms with its first potential case of vehicular terrorism after an Iranian born, recent UNC graduate confessed to authorities his motive for driving a rented Jeep Grand Cherokee across the UNC campus into nine students was to "avenge the deaths of Muslims around the world."
"The Pit" is a popular area on the UNC campus and on Friday, March 3rd, made a ripe target for 22-year-old Mohammed Reza Taheri-azar, who simply said "Yes," when asked by reporters if he was trying to kill people. No one was seriously injured in the attack even though Taheri-azar admits to renting the heaviest model available to inflict the largest amount of damage.
Taheri-azar is already facing nine counts of "attempted murder and assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury with intent to kill." If convicted, he could face more than 100 years in prison and is currently being held on $5.5 million bail. No one appears to question the validity of his surrender and subsequent confession, which included his intent to "punish the government of the United States for their actions around the world." Nonetheless, there is a heated debate as to whether or not his actions amount to terror.
UNC professor and military historian Dick Kohn says the debate over Taheri-azar "almost instantly became politicized" following his attack. The campus student Muslim association quickly released a statement clarifying Taheri-azar was not a member of their organization and had only attended a few prayers, noting, "Regardless of what his intentions prove to be, we wholeheartedly deplore this action."
Kohn notes the attack, "really surprised and shocked the campus," but says it's too early to call it terrorism. "It's too early to make that judgment. We need to know what his links were, if any, to groups. We need to know his background, any statements he made. Until that time, we should not rush to judgment. It would be premature to do so."
One of Kohn's students disagrees with him and helped organize an anti-terrorism protest on campus. Jillian Bandes, a former student fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, put the event together with UNC senior Kris Wampler.
Wampler is no stranger to activism on the UNC campus. In 2002, he was part of a group that sued the campus over a rule obligating incoming freshman to read a book on the Koran. Wampler's group eventually lost their case but the university did agree to remove the "required" label from the book's recommendation. "The university is very pro-Islamic, and it's been that way the whole time I've been here," Wampler said in a phone interview.
According to press accounts, about 50 protesters showed up advocating a charge of terrorism against Taheri-azar last week. A number of counter-protestors showed up as well, some holding signs that read "forgive."
The same day of the protest Taheri-azar appeared in court to face his charges. When Orange County District Court Judge Patricia Devine asked him if he had any questions, he replied, "I actually don't have any questions. I am thankful you are going to hear this trial to learn more about the will of Allah, the creator." In addition, Taheri-azar said he intended to defend himself. Photographs showed him smiling as he left the courtroom as he described his attack as "the will of Allah, the creator."
I CALLED the UNC Department of Public Safety to discuss the charges against Taheri-azar. Though police Chief Derek Poarch did not address the issue directly, his office told me "the investigation remains open" and that they reserved the right to file additional charges.
As Taheri-azar's hearing approaches the lives of most UNC students appear to have returned to normal. Kohn tells me one of his students, who declined to be interviewed by the media, was the first victim struck in the attack. "I spent some time with him at the hospital until his girlfriend showed up. He was back at classes last Wednesday."
However, even as UNC's students resume their normal lives, the debate over whether they were the victims of a terrorist attack continues. "I think we are edging closer to that," said UNC professor Cori Dauber, "It's clear that he was trying to kill people." Dauber hopes the FBI will release details as to what was found inside Taheri-azar's apartment during their investigation and whether he received training from terrorist websites. "We need to know if he acted alone."
Eric Pfeiffer is a national reporter for the Washington Times.