The Journal Punts

This article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal sets out to debunk speculation about whether Joel Hinrichs, the University of Oklahoma student who blew himself up outside the Oklahoma football stadium, may have intended a terrorist attack. It fails. The Journal cites a number of blogs, including us, who have talked about the OU incident. (We discussed it here, here, and here.) The reporters interviewed several bloggers for their story, but didn’t make any attempt to contact us.

The Journal’s article acknowledges the features of the story that have led many to wonder whether there was more going on here than a tragic case of suicide by a depressed college student:

Several facts about the case fed the speculation: Suicides committed with bombs are rare, as are those committed in public near a crowded event. Mr. Hinrichs … had a Pakistani roommate. They shared an apartment one block away from the only mosque in Norman — the same mosque attended in 2001 by Zacarias Moussaoui, who pleaded guilty earlier this year to helping plan the 9/11 terrorist attacks. ***

Adding to community concern was the revelation that two days before he blew himself up, Mr. Hinrichs visited a feed store and inquired about buying ammonium nitrate — the same chemical Timothy McVeigh put in the bomb he used in 1995 to blow up the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City, 20 miles to the north.

But the Journal goes on to dismiss these troublesome facts, and to assure its readers that there is nothing to the Hinrichs story:

To that unsettling set of facts, blogs and local Oklahoma TV stations added several apparent inaccuracies, including: that Mr. Hinrichs was a Muslim and visited the mosque frequently; that he tried to enter the stadium twice but was rebuffed; that he had a one-way airplane ticket to Algeria; that there were nails in the bomb and that Islamic extremist literature was found in his apartment.

None of these claims are true: Mr. Hinrichs’s family, university officials and the Federal Bureau of Investigation say Mr. Hinrichs suffered from depression, and the explosion was an isolated event.

The FBI’s investigation is nearly complete. On Oct. 4, the FBI issued a statement saying, “At this time, there is no known link between Hinrichs and any terrorist or extremist organization(s) or activities.”

The Journal seems to be making a logical leap here. It is very likely true that Hinrichs had no connection to any terrorist or extremist organization; I wrote here that:

I assume that Hinrichs was, at most, a “free-lance Islamic terrorist,” like the D.C. snipers of three years ago, not an al Qaeda operative.

But the question whether Hinrichs was part of a terrorist cell is entirely different from the question whether he intended mass murder. There are two intractable facts that suggest that there was more going on here than an “individual suicide.” The Journal acknowledges both facts, but fails to deal with them. The first fact is that additional explosives were found in Hinrichs’ apartment:

In fact, authorities did find, in Mr. Hinrichs’s bedroom, additional explosive material. They detonated them at the police firing range the next day, jolting the city again.

Given that Hinrichs had enough explosives left in his apartment to “jolt the city,” isn’t it reasonable to wonder whether more was going on here than an “individual suicide”?

The second problematic, and undisputed, fact is that two days before his death, Hinrichs tried to buy a load of fertilizer at a feed store–the same material that Timothy McVeigh used to blow up the federal building in Oklahoma City. I suppose it is possible that someone could commit suicide by detonating a truckful of fertilizer, but I’ve never heard of it, and it certainly would be a roundabout way to do away with oneself. It is, on the other hand, a common method of committing a terrorist bombing.

So the Journal’s assurance that there is no story here is profoundly unconvincing. Especially so, in view of the fact that the paper gives no explanation of how it knows that “none of these claims are true.” In particular, it has been reported that Hinrichs, or someone like him, tried to enter the stadium but fled when a gate worker wanted to search his backpack. We have no idea whether these reports are accurate. I assume the FBI has investigated them. But the quote cited by the Journal for the proposition that “none of these claims are true” sheds no light at all on these important facts. The FBI simply said, on October 4, “At this time, there is no known link between Hinrichs and any terrorist or extremist organization(s) or activities.”

As we have said before, we have no independent knowledge of Joel Hinrichs. We don’t know whether he was a free-lance terrorist, part of an extremist group, or just a depressed student. But it simply won’t do to cite bland, “no known link” statements by the FBI as an excuse to sweep all questions under the rug. It is important to know whether Hinrichs intended a spectacular terrorist attack at an Oklahoma football game. If he did, it is important to know whether he was inspired by extremist ideology, and it is important to know whether he was part of an extremist group that is still operating. The answers to these questions may be No, No and No. But at this point, we have no reason to believe that the authorities actually know the answers. And the Journal’s effort to stifle discussion of the subject is unworthy of that newspaper.

Speaking for myself, I’m still waiting for an explanation of why Hinrichs wanted that load of fertilizer.

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