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Oklahoma Beheading Suspect Shared Photos of Himself Giving ISIS Salute

Oklahoma Beheading Suspect Shared Photos of Himself Giving ISIS Salute

Was Muslim convert Alton Nolen, who allegedly beheaded co-worker Colleen Hufford and stabbed another woman in Oklahoma on Sept. 25, inspired by ISIS, the Islamist group that rules large parts of Syria and Iraq? (ISIS is also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, ISIL, Islamic State, and Da`esh.)

Law enforcement and the media have, as usual, distanced the attack from Islam and terrorism, implying the alleged crime is an example of “workplace violence” due to Nolen’s recent firing from Vaughan Foods.

But co-workers report Nolen had a history of attempting to convert them to the Muslim faith. Law enforcement officials have not yet revealed if this was a contributing factor in Nolen’s termination. In addition, Robin Marsh of KWTV-9 reports that Nolen was “shouting Islamic phrases” while attacking his victims.

It is Nolen himself, however, who provides the best initial evidence that radical Islam in general and ISIS in particular motivated his alleged murder a fellow worker, evidence worth documenting in some detail.  Though limited information is currently available, we are able to learn about Nolen in his own words and posted photographs on social media and use these as a basis to understand his beliefs and speculate about his motives.

After his conversion to Islam, Nolen posted on Facebook (under the name Jah’Keem Yisrael) his support for Islamist causes, including images celebrating Osama bin Laden and the attack on the World Trade Center.  He also specifically promoted ISIS. 

In February 2014, Nolen enthused about “Some of my Muslim Brothers!!!!!” and posted a time-stamped picture showing ISIS terrorists, above. The relatively obscure photograph is dated February 16, was shared on ISIS Internet forums on February 16, and was posted by Nolen on the very same day, implying he closely followed ISIS online. The picture features Omar al-Shishani, the red-bearded Chechen thought to be the terror group’s “military” chief, on his arrival to the A’zaz District of Aleppo in Syria.

Of particular interest in the photo is the prominent display of the ISIS hand signal – the index finger held up on the right hand. This appears to be the first time Nolen posted a photograph including the ISIS hand signal and it quickly becomes a recurring theme which Nolen, himself, emulates.

Some background: this hand gesture was originally created by Islamists to represent tawhid, the belief in monotheism as it pertains to Islam.  ISIS adopted the gesture as the symbol of its group, and uses it to indicate solidarity with ISIS in a fashion similar to the way that criminal street gangs utilize hand signals to communicate gang affiliation.

In Foreign Affairs, Nathaniel Zalinsky explores the significance of the ISIS hand signal:

the concept of tawhid is central to ISIS’ violent and uncompromising posture toward its opponents, both in the Middle East and in the West…  When ISIS militants display the sign, to one another or to a photographer, they are actively reaffirming their dedication to that ideology, whose underlying principle demands the destruction of the West …

The gesture is equally important for what it means to Westerners, most of whom cannot read Arabic. By raising their index fingers, militants send an easy-to-understand message of the group’s goals of theological supremacy and military hegemony…  those who underestimate the dangers posed by the Islamic State need look no further than the index finger, which makes ISIS’ ambitions all too clear.

Nolen himself publicly communicated this message for the first time on April 21, 2014. He posted a photograph of what appears to be himself using the right-handed index-finger signal against the backdrop of a Muslim prayer rug that depicts the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. (The Dome of the Rock has become a symbol for Muslims worldwide to conjure images of conquest and dominance over Israel and its capital.)

Nolen posted a photograph on May 30, 2014, of a young man giving the index-finger signal along with the caption, “One whom was guided to Islam 2day I offered him Dawah and he took shahada!” Dawah means to proselytize Islam and shahada is the Muslim declaration of faith. In other words, Nolen wrote that the young man converted to Islam that day. The photograph indicates Nolen was not only proselytizing the Muslim faith but also ISIS ideology.

In a photo series posted on August 7, 2014, the Facebook status reads, “A night at the Islamic Mosque in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma with two of my brothers from Morocco!” and shows Nolen himself giving the ISIS index-finger hand signal.  

Nolen’s support of radical Islam transcended hand signals, however, and his own fascination with beheadings dates back at least to March 7, 2014, when he posted an Islamist propaganda photograph of a severed head along with the following caption:

“I will instill terror into the hearts of the Unbelievers: smite ye above their necks and smite all their finger-tips off them.” Qur’an 8:9-13

The information Nolen shared on Facebook clearly indicates his Islamist orientation. It also reveals that Nolen posted messages supportive of ISIS and adopted the group’s popular hand signal, and it suggests he closely followed ISIS on jihadi forums. On Sept. 22, these forums broadcast a renewed ISIS call for “lone-wolf” attacks. One of its sheikhs, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, pleaded: “If you can kill an American or European infidel… put your trust in Allah and kill him in any way or manner whatsoever.” Days later, Nolen stands accused of beheading his co-worker. 

Regardless if Alton Nolen answered this specific call to violence, he clearly admired his “Muslim brothers” in ISIS and their ideology. This leads one to conclude that the gruesome beheading in Oklahoma could be the first case of an ISIS-inspired terror attack on US soil. In all likelihood, it will not be the last.

Danielle Avel is an investigative researcher and photojournalist.  She can be reached through her website, on Twitter @DanielleAvel, and on Facebook.

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