clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

There's nothing linking the Oklahoma beheading to any groups, terrorist or otherwise

An undated booking photo of Alton Nolen.
An undated booking photo of Alton Nolen.
Via NBC News

An Oklahoma prosecutor announced Thursday that he plans to seek the death penalty for Alton Nolen, a man accused of beheading one women and attempting to murder a second. Nolen is a recent convert to Islam and his Facebook posts indicate sympathies for terrorists such as Osama bin Laden. That, and the similarity of his alleged crime to beheadings carried out by ISIS members, has led to speculation in conservative media that Nolen was a "jihadist."

While it's possible that Nolen's anti-American views were a motivating factor in his alleged crimes, prosecutors so far have said they think Nolen was motivated more by race than religion. The immediate trigger seems to have been anger over losing his job — his extreme, violent reaction could be a sign of mental illness.

More important, no evidence has emerged of links between Nolen and ISIS or any other militant group. Whether or not Nolen was trying to ape the ISIS beheadings, it appears that he acted alone.

Who is Alton Nolen and what did he do?

Alton Nolen is a 30-year-old man who police say has confessed to the gruesome murder of one woman and the attempted murder of another. The crime occurred at Vaughan Foods processing plant in Moore, Oklahoma.

Nolen was an employee at the plant until Thursday, September 25, when, according to prosecutor Greg Mashburn, he "made remarks indicating he didn’t like white people." (Nolen is black.) These comments were reported to management, leading to Nolen's suspension.

According to the police account, he then went home, got a knife, and returned to work. Nolen then allegedly cut off the head of 54-year-old Colleen Hufford. According to police, he then attempted to do the same to 43-year-old Traci Johnson, but Johnson was saved when Nolen was shot by company executive Mark Vaughan.

Nolen and Johnson both survived their injuries. Prosecutors are charging Nolen with murder and intend to seek the death penalty.

This isn't the first time Nolen has faced criminal charges. In 2006, according to CNN, "a police officer saw him throw bags of crack cocaine and marijuana out a car window as he was being pulled over for traffic violations." He pled guilty for assault and battery of a police officer after a 2010 incident in which he escaped police custody, leading to a manhunt.

Why did he do it?

The immediate motivation appears to have been related to anger over his termination. Police say the surviving victim, Traci Johnson, was the woman who told management about his hostile comments about white people, triggering his dismissal.

Police officials told CNN that Nolen felt oppressed at work and was upset about not getting a raise.

More broadly, the violent reaction to a workplace dispute suggests Nolan may have suffered from mental illness.

Were Nolen's actions motivated by radical Islamic beliefs?

There's evidence that Nolen subscribed to some form of radical Islamist beliefs, but we don't know whether or not those beliefs played a role in his alleged actions.

Nolen was raised as a Christian but converted to Islam while in prison, or shortly after his release in March 2013. He discussed religion on his Facebook page and over the last year his posts became increasingly violent and anti-American.

One image on Nolen's Facebook page included a quote from the Koran: "I will instill terror into the hearts of the Unbelievers: smite ye above their necks." (As with any Koranic verse, there are multiple translations.) There were also pictures of Osama bin Laden and of militants carrying military-style weapons. And there were rants against the United States for failing to follow Islamic law.

But it's important to remember that quite a number of people have gone on violent rampages in America in recent years. What they have in common is not any specific religion or ideology, but mental illnesses and anger management problems. Mashburn, the prosecutor, says he believes the attack was more about race than religion.

Is Nolen affiliated with militant groups such as ISIS?

Nolen's alleged crimes happened a few weeks after the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) beheaded two American journalists, as well as a British aid worker. That has led many people to speculate that the events might be related.

Given the widespread media attention paid to the ISIS beheadings, and Nolen's apparent sympathy for violent Islamist extremism, it's certainly possible that the ISIS beheadings piqued Nolen's interest in the gruesome tactics. A law enforcement official told CNN that Nolen spent time watching beheading videos online, though they didn't know if they were ISIS-related. Mashburn says that Nolen had "some sort of infatuation with beheading."

But there's no evidence that Nolen was affiliated with ISIS or other militant groups. Nor is there any evidence that international terrorist groups recruited or trained him to attack his co-workers.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.