The 101st Airborne Division soldier accused of killing a division captain and wounding 15 fellow soldiers is a Muslim who made anti-American statements after he was apprehended, according to soldiers who survived the grenade and automatic weapon attack early Sunday.
The soldier, who rolled a grenade into each of three tents of sleeping officers and senior noncommissioned officers of the 101st, shot at least two fellow soldiers as they raced from their tents, the witnesses said.
Outside the charred and blood-splattered tents Sunday, soldiers recalled hearing the suspect say as he was being led away by armed soldiers: “You guys are coming into our countries and you’re going to rape our women and kill our children.”
Military authorities identified the suspect, who was being questioned Sunday but had not been charged, as Sgt. Asan Akbar, 31. Akbar appears to have spent much of his youth in California.
George Heath, a spokesman for the division’s home base at Ft. Campbell, Ky., said Akbar had been “having what some might call an attitude problem.” Max Blumenfeld, an Army spokesman in Kuwait City, said the suspect’s motive “most likely was resentment.”
Akbar graduated from Locke High School in Los Angeles. He also studied at the Masjid Bilal Islamic Center, a predominantly African American mosque in South-Central Los Angeles.
Federal agents visited the mosque complex twice on Sunday, asking for information about Akbar, said its imam, Karim Abdul Hasan. Agents also questioned at least two residents of Davis, Calif., who had rented rooms to Akbar while he was a student at the UC campus there.
The soldier killed in the attack was identified as Capt. Christopher Scott Seifert, 27. Witnesses said they believed Seifert was the soldier shot in the back by the assailant as the officer paused outside his tent to put on his gas mask, as required when the camp is under threat.
Two of those wounded were treated at the scene and released. Ten others were treated for superficial wounds; three others were seriously wounded and were being flown to Germany for treatment, according to a military source.
Akbar, who was overpowered by a 101st Airborne major, was carrying two grenades and an incendiary grenade, along with a standard-issue M-4 automatic rifle. His leg was bleeding, apparently cut by shrapnel from one of the exploding grenades.
Soldiers described a terrifying and chaotic few minutes that began at 1:09 a.m., when the first grenade exploded. The suspect shouted, “We’re being attacked!” at the same moment that, coincidentally, this desert camp’s Patriot antimissile battery fired, triggering an emergency alarm.
That led many soldiers to believe that the camp was either under an enemy missile attack or being overrun.
“The first thing I thought was some sort of commando attack, or a terrorist raid,” said the commander of the division’s 1st Brigade, Col. Frederick B. Hodges, his right arm bandaged in three places and his fatigue pants smeared with his own blood from a grenade wound.
The brigade’s command sergeant major, Bart Womack, who shares the tent with Hodges, said he was watching a televised golf show at the front of the tent when someone rolled an incendiary grenade past him. The grenade set the tent on fire and created a cloud of black smoke, he said.
“I was furious,” Womack recalled, standing next to pools of blood and scorched canvas inside the tent. “I was thinking, ‘How did the enemy get into our camp?’ ”
He shook the colonel awake, Womack said, just as a fragmentation grenade exploded next to Womack’s cot, spraying shrapnel and wounding Hodges. Much of the impact was absorbed by stacks of military food packets, heavy boxes of water and the sergeant’s storage chest, Womack said.
The colonel said he and Womack struggled to get out of the tent. “I ran into something and realized the tent was on fire,” Hodges said. “I was crawling on the floor trying to find my weapon and [gas] mask.”
Hodges had stumbled into his executive officer, who emerged from the small tent’s entrance, only to be shot in the leg. Womack said Akbar had been lying in wait by the tent entrance with his rifle. Akbar ran to the next tent a few paces away, Womack said, and tossed a fragmentation grenade inside. When an officer ran out, Womack said, “The guy just stopped, shot the officer in the back when he paused to put on his mask, then he kept on running.”
As some soldiers called for medical aid, others ran through the brigade’s emergency accountability procedures and quickly realized that Akbar was not accounted for. According to witnesses, the suspect had put on a gas mask and ducked into a ground-level concrete bunker near the officers’ tents, bleeding from the leg.
Inside the bunker, a major told everyone inside to shout out his name as part of the accountability procedure. When Akbar shouted his name, the major overpowered him. With the help of other soldiers, witnesses said, the suspect was disarmed and taken into custody. He could face murder charges.
The attack left many at the remote camp, home to 3,000 troops and located about 25 miles from the Iraqi border, feeling vulnerable and betrayed. After the attack, the camp went to “threat con delta,” the highest threat level; no foreign nationals were allowed on the base and all meals were canceled.
“It’s bad enough we have to worry about enemy forces, but now we have to worry about our own guys,” said Spc. Autumn Simmer, 19, who had been sleeping in a row of tents behind those that were attacked.
Spc. Annushka Albee, 26, who had been sleeping in the same tent as Simmer, said: “He’s a Muslim, but he’s also a coward. That’s a loser for you, wait till people go to sleep and then attack them. He should be a real man and do it face-to-face.”
Pfc. Nicolas Kelly, who heard about the attack later, said fellow members of the division were “just kind of baffled” that one of their own Screaming Eagles would turn on them. “To have a guy in our own unit do something like this, it’s just not something we ever, ever would’ve expected,” he said.
Some who knew Akbar in other contexts responded to the news of his arrest with disbelief. Imam Hasan said the Akbar that he remembered was a quiet, shy and studious boy who stayed out of trouble, even normal schoolyard scuffles and roughhousing.
“He was never a troublemaker,” Hasan said. “I’m remembering him as a kid and listening to what he’s charged with, and it doesn’t compute. It’s completely against the character of the person I knew.”
Hasan said Akbar’s mother, Quran Bilal, called him from Louisiana on Sunday evening to let him know about the charges against her son.
“A mother knows her son better than anyone and she said, ‘They must have gotten the wrong boy,’ ” Hasan said.
Officials at UC Davis said Akbar, who also used the name Mark Fidel Kools, enrolled in 1988 and graduated in 1997 with a double major in aeronautical and mechanical engineering.
Ramona Morrow, Akbar’s landlady in 1997, said Akbar was married for at least part of the time he was a student but later was divorced. She remembers him spending lots of time at the Islamic center and working as a night watchman.
“He talked about carrying a gun,” she said. “He thought that was really neat.”
On Sunday afternoon, the tents at Camp Pennsylvania were roped off with yellow crime tape as investigators from the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division sorted through the wrecked tents. Personal belongings such as shaving cream, towels, sneakers and toothpaste were piled in the sand outside.
The air smelled of soot and smoke, and an American flag in front of the operations center snapped in the desert wind. Soldiers mingled in small groups, staring at the mess.
Sgt. Maj. Womack stood in the biting wind, holding up a pair of his underwear he had retrieved from his tent. They were peppered with tiny holes left by grenade fragments.
“If I had been sleeping on my cot,” he said, gesturing to a hole blasted in the plywood floor beneath where his cot had stood, “I’d look like this underwear.”
Col. Hodges, moving stiffly, said the brigade planned a memorial service for today. After that, he said, the officers and staff planned to pick up and move ahead.
“Our goal is to accomplish the mission,” the colonel said, his dried blood still on his boots, “and we will do that. We will continue the mission.”
Times staff writers Robin Fields, Sue Fox, Jeff Gottlieb, Dan Morain and Teresa Watanabe contributed to this report.