The young refugee smiled broadly as he accepted his associate degree from a local community college less than seven months ago, jumping in the air on stage as the announcer said, “Abdul Razak Artan, cum laude.”
Mr. Artan, who had been in the United States for just two years, seemed to be a success story in this city’s large network of Somali refugees, excelling in his classes at Columbus State Community College and getting accepted as a transfer student to nearby Ohio State University.
But the image of a jubilant graduate in a cap and gown conflicted sharply with Mr. Artan’s actions on Monday, when the police say he rammed a car into pedestrians on a sidewalk at Ohio State before jumping out and stabbing people with a butcher knife.
Mr. Artan was shot dead within about a minute by a university police officer, and the 11 people injured are expected to survive. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack, and social media posts have led investigators to believe Mr. Artan may have been inspired to act by that terror group or by Anwar al-Awlaki, the American Qaeda operative who was killed in a drone strike in Yemen in 2011.
While some of Mr. Artan’s background remains unknown, accounts from law enforcement officials, classmates, Mr. Artan’s neighbors and Somalis in Columbus portray a deeply religious young man who took college seriously and seemed to be adapting to life in America, and whose decision to act violently came as a shock.
As 10 a.m. approached, Ohio State’s campus was lurching back to life after the Thanksgiving break. The first classes of the day were over, and students had evacuated Watts Hall, an engineering building, because of a fire alarm.
Mr. Artan, a logistics management major who lived off campus and was enrolled in 14.5 credit hours this fall, had woken up hours earlier, venturing to a Walmart and buying a knife, police officials said. There is some question about Mr. Artan’s age, though college records say he was 18.
His whereabouts in the hours after he bought the knife remain unclear, and investigators have appealed for help in piecing together his movements. At some point, he logged onto Facebook and wrote a manifesto hinting of what was to come.
He wrote that he was “sick and tired of seeing my fellow Muslim brothers and sisters being killed and tortured EVERYWHERE,” according to a law enforcement official who did not want to be identified because of the continuing investigation. “Willing to kill a billion infidels in retribution for a single DISABLED Muslim,” the post continued.
As students gathered outside Watts Hall, Mr. Artan approached alone in a car registered to one of his brothers. The vehicle veered off the road, striking pedestrians before becoming lodged in a concrete planter. William Clark, a professor emeritus of engineering who had taught a class that morning, was sent flying by the car, bloodying his leg.
“I didn’t know what to think — I thought maybe this was a car accident,” Professor Clark recalled after being discharged from the hospital. Then he heard screams, apparently as Mr. Artan got out of the car and started slashing people with a knife. “At that point, I figured out it was more than just a car accident,” he said.
Officer Alan Horujko of the university’s Police Department, who was nearby, arrived within about a minute and warned Mr. Artan to drop his knife, the authorities said. When he did not, Officer Horujko fired, killing Mr. Artan and injuring a bystander.
Abdul Razak Artan in Columbus in August. Mr. Artan, a Muslim, told The Lantern, a campus publication, that he felt uneasy about praying in public. Credit Kevin Stankiewicz/TheLantern.com, via Associated Press
Adjusting to Campus Life
On his first day on Ohio State’s sprawling campus in August, Mr. Artan was waiting for a class to begin and struggling to find a private place to pray.
Kevin Stankiewicz, a reporter for Ohio State’s student newspaper, The Lantern, happened to be passing by, and asked Mr. Artan if he would be open to an interview. He agreed, and the two engaged in a wide-ranging discussion of Islamophobia, Mr. Artan’s unease with worshiping publicly and his journey from Somalia to Pakistan to Texas to Ohio.
“This place is huge, and I don’t even know where to pray,” Mr. Artan told Mr. Stankiewicz, apparently unaware that Ohio State provides a prayer space in the student union. “I wanted to pray in the open, but I was kind of scared with everything going on in the media. I’m a Muslim, it’s not what the media portrays me to be. If people look at me, a Muslim praying, I don’t know what they’re going to think, what’s going to happen.”
Mr. Stankiewicz said that Mr. Artan also told him Donald J. Trump, who months later would be elected president, “was not educated on Islam,” and that he rattled off a list of news events that he said revealed anti-Muslim bias in American society.
Mr. Artan, who spoke English with only a slight accent, came across as smart, thoughtful and engaging, Mr. Stankiewicz recalled.
“It was just such a great conversation,” said Mr. Stankiewicz, who snapped a few photos of Mr. Artan before they parted ways, excited to publish part of the interview in The Lantern. “I was like, ‘This is what people need to hear.’”
Finding Refuge From War
Mr. Artan arrived in the United States in 2014 as the child of a refugee. He had fled war-ravaged Somalia as a youth, finding refuge in Pakistan, where he lived with other refugees on a narrow Islamabad road known to locals as Somali Street.
“He was a very normal, young boy,” said Muhammad Ali, who knew Mr. Artan during his time in Pakistan. “He was religious and used to pray regularly, but he did not have any extremist tendencies.”
Mr. Stankiewicz said Mr. Artan spoke highly of his time in Pakistan. When he came to the United States, Mr. Artan initially settled in Dallas, apparently with help from Catholic Charities, but soon left for Columbus, where the Somali population has grown considerably in recent years.
Neighbors in Ohio said Mr. Artan was part of a large immigrant family, but few knew much about them.
At Columbus State, a two-year college where many Somalis study, some classmates recalled him as a diligent student. Myranda Thompson, who took a sociology class with Mr. Artan, said he “had a passion for his religion” and spoke of Islam frequently. Frank Oteng, who helped Mr. Artan with his statistics classwork, said Mr. Artan was focused on his studies, spoke hopefully of transferring to Ohio State and “seemed very normal.”
Since Monday, many whose paths had crossed with Mr. Artan said they have struggled to reconcile their memories of him with the image of an extremist.
Just days before the attack, Mr. Oteng spotted Mr. Artan at Ohio State and congratulated him on transferring. It was a pleasant, cheerful conversation, he said. Mr. Stankiewicz, the campus newspaper reporter, said he never saw Mr. Artan after that interview on his first day at Ohio State.
“I don’t know what happened,” Mr. Stankiewicz said.
Mitch Smith reported from Columbus, and Adam Goldman from Washington. Reporting was contributed by Salman Masood in Islamabad, Pakistan, and Owen J. Daugherty, Sheridan L. Hendrix and Travis Hoewischer in Columbus.