UNC attack called terror

Experts say driver was, luckily, inept

Staff WriterMarch 14, 2006 

Taheri-azar is said to match lone-wolf terrorist's profile.

Only luck and lack of training kept Mohammed Reza Taheri-azar from committing a deadly act in the name of Allah, three terrorism experts said Monday.

Even so, the former high school honor student, who drove a rented sport utility vehicle into a crowded campus gathering spot at UNC-Chapel Hill on March 3, matches the modern profile of the unaffiliated, lone-wolf terrorist.

Such hard-to-track suspects present a burgeoning security challenge to law enforcement and counterterrorism agents, said Solomon Bradman, chief executive officer of Security Solutions International, a Miami company that will present a one-day suicide terror prevention course for local law enforcement officials today at Wake Technical Community College.

"Well, he's a terrorist," Bradman said of Taheri-azar. "In this world of global terrorism, you don't have ties back to any particular group. In this new world, terror comes from incitement -- it doesn't come from an organization. The only thing that makes this not look like a terrorist act is that he did a lousy job of it."

Taheri-azar's open-court statement that he plowed a Jeep Cherokee through The Pit, injuring nine people, to avenge the killing of Muslims by the U.S. government echoes the motivations of Middle East suicide bombers and the suicide hijackers of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, said Bradman, whose lead lecturer will be Omer Cohen, a former officer with the Israeli internal security and counterintelligence agency Shin Bet.

So far, Taheri-azar, 22, faces only state charges of first-degree attempted murder and assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill for each of the nine people he struck with the rented vehicle. He is being held at Raleigh's Central Prison in lieu of $5.5 million bail.

But Taheri-azar shows the characteristics of a terrorist with religious and cultural motivations, Bradford said. The UNC graduate has said he intended to kill those he struck, will defend himself in court with the aid of Allah and sees a future trial as a forum for instructing people about the will of Allah.

"The person who is willing to do this is the perfect recruit for terrorists," said Bradman. "The guy made a decision and he went through with it. We got lucky he wasn't better trained."

Taheri-azar, who was born in Iran but reared in the U.S., is also reminiscent of home-grown terrorists such as Timothy McVeigh, who was executed for the 1995 bombing of a federal office building in Oklahoma City, said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at the California State University at San Bernardino.

Operating alone or in small, ad-hoc groups, a would-be terrorist can use the Internet for indoctrination and a sense of belonging to a larger movement. Instructions for home-made explosives and bomb-laden vests can also be found in the virtual universe.

"The battle against terrorism today is against a violent ideology rather than a well-organized, top-down group," Levin said. "It's just a matter of time before we get someone -- an immigrant or someone American-born -- who commits a higher-intensity act of terrorism."

Cohen said terrorist cells are already operating in America and could aid would-be suicide bombers with money and explosives. He points to the wave of suicide bombings that struck Israel in 2001 and 2002 at a rate of one a week. Those bombings crippled the Israeli economy and caused people to fear leaving their homes.

"It's out there and things are going on right under our noses in the U.S.," Cohen said. "It took us a lot of time to understand this and find ways to prevent it."

Today's training session is expected to draw more than 200 law enforcement officials, including officers from the Raleigh Police Department and the Wake County Sheriff's Office. It will focus on the recruiting and intelligence-gathering tactics of groups that sponsor suicide bombers, Bradman said. Case studies of past attacks, including the Sept. 11 jetliner strikes, video interviews with failed suicide bombers and how to harden potential targets will also be presented.

"We're trying to get them to know the enemy better," said Bradman, whose company has a sister organization in Israel. "If you think like a terrorist, it's going to help you."

Staff writer Jim Nesbitt can be reached at 829-8955 or jim.nesbitt@newsobserver.com.

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