ABOVE PHOTO: People stand near the entrance on the north side of Crossroads Center shopping mall in St. Cloud, Minn., Saturday, Sept. 17, 2016. Several people were taken to a hospital with injuries after a stabbing attack at the mall, which ended with the suspected attacker dead inside the mall. (Dave Schwarz/St. Cloud Times via AP)
By Jeff Baenen and Amy Forliti
ST. CLOUD, Minn. — Authorities are investigating the stabbings of nine people at a Minnesota mall as a potential act of terrorism, a finding that would realize long-held fears of an attack in the immigrant-rich state that has struggled to stop the recruiting of its young men by groups including the Islamic State.
A young Somali man dressed as a private security guard entered the Crossroads Center Mall in St. Cloud over the weekend wielding what appeared to be a kitchen knife. The city’s police chief said the man reportedly made at least one reference to Allah and asked a victim if he or she was Muslim before attacking. The rampage ended when the man was shot dead by an off-duty police officer. None of the injured suffered life-threatening wounds.
The motive of Saturday’s attack is still unclear, but FBI Special Agent-in-Charge Rick Thornton has said it is being investigated as a “potential act of terrorism.” The Islamic State claimed responsibility, but it wasn’t clear whether the attacker was radicalized. Authorities were digging into his background and possible motives, looking at social media accounts and electronic devices and talking to his associates, Thornton said.
The attack in St. Cloud, a city of about 65,000 people, began shortly after an explosion in a crowded New York City neighborhood injured 29 people. Hours before that, a pipe bomb exploded in Seaside Park, New Jersey, before a 5K race. But President Barack Obama said Monday that authorities see no connection between the New York area explosions and the Minnesota stabbing.
Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton met with St. Cloud’s mayor and other local officials Monday morning. Beforehand, he said in a statement that Obama called him to express concern about the stabbing, as well as “convey his high regard for the work” by law enforcement officials and “deep appreciation for the heroism of the police officer who stopped the attacker.”
It doesn’t appear anyone else was involved in the attack, which began at about 8 p.m. and ended minutes later, Police Chief Blair Anderson said.
Leaders of the Somali community in central Minnesota have condemned the stabbings, saying the suspect – identified by his father as 22-year-old Dahir A. Adan – does not represent them and expressed fear of a backlash.
Minnesota has the nation’s largest Somali community, with census numbers placing the population at about 40,000, though community activists say it’s higher. Terror recruiters have targeted young Somalis. Since 2007, more than 20 young men have joined militant group al-Shabab in Somalia, which the U.S. considers a terrorist group. Roughly a dozen people have left to join militants in Syria, and nine Minnesota men face sentencing on terror charges for plotting to join the Islamic State group.
The possibility of an attack on U.S. soil has been a major concern for law enforcement. Stopping recruiting has been a high priority, with law enforcement investing countless hours in community outreach and the state participating in a federal project designed to combat radical messages. If Saturday’s stabbings are ultimately deemed a terrorist act, it would be the first carried out by a Somali on U.S. soil, said Karen Greenburg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham University School of Law.
An Islamic State-run news agency, Rasd, claimed Sunday that the attacker was a “soldier of the Islamic State” who had heeded the group’s calls for attacks in countries that are part of a U.S.-led anti-IS coalition. It was not immediately clear if the extremist group had planned the attack or knew about it beforehand. IS has encouraged so-called “lone wolf” attacks, and also claimed past attacks that are not believed to have been planned by its central leadership.
St. Cloud Mayor David Kleis said an attack like Saturday’s is the type of worry that keeps him “up at night.”
Authorities haven’t identified the attacker, but his father, Ahmed Adan, told the (Minneapolis) Star Tribune his son’s name through an interpreter and local activists also identified Dahir Adan as Somali.
Ahmed Adan said his son was born in Kenya but was Somali and had lived in the U.S. for 15 years.
Ahmed Adan said police told him about an hour after the attack that his son had died at the mall and that the family’s apartment had been searched, with photos and other materials seized. He said he had “no suspicion” that his son had been involved in terrorist activity, the newspaper reported.
Police had had three previous encounters with the attacker, mostly for minor traffic violations, Anderson said.
The man was an employee of the security firm Securitas and was assigned for a few months to an Electrolux facility; that assignment ended in June, Electrolux spokeswoman Eloise Hale said. A spokesman for St. Cloud State University confirmed that Adan was a student majoring in information systems, but hadn’t been enrolled since the spring semester.
Anderson said the man began attacking people right after entering the mall, stabbing people in several spots. The victims included seven men, one woman and a 15-year-old girl. All have been released.
Five minutes after authorities received the first 911 call, Jason Falconer, a part-time officer in the city of Avon who was there shopping, began shooting the attacker as he was lunging at him with the knife, Anderson said, and continued to engage him as the attacker got up three times. “He clearly prevented additional injuries and potential loss of life,” Anderson said.
The mall reopened Monday after being closed Sunday.
Sydney Weires, 18, and two of her friends saw a man who appeared to be a security guard sprinting down the hallway, and then two men stumbled out.
“One was covered in blood down his face,” she said, and the other man had blood on his back. “They were screaming, ‘Get out of the mall. Someone has a knife,’” Weires said.
Falconer is the former police chief in Albany, about 15 miles northwest of St. Cloud, and the president and owner of a firing range and firearms training facility, according to his LinkedIn profile. His profile says he focuses on firearms and permit-to-carry training and teaches “decision shooting” to law enforcement students at St. Cloud State University.
No one answered the door Sunday at a home address listed for Falconer, and voicemail for a telephone listing was not accepting new messages. In a brief interview with the Star Tribune, Falconer said he had “been trying to stay away from it all, for the time being.”
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