By Todd Bensman
December 31, 2018
This fall, the U.S. Supreme Court essentially cemented the execution of America’s least known Islamic terrorist. Jihadist convert Alton Nolen is now set to be put to death in Oklahoma, likely by nitrogen gas inhalation.
The Supreme Court’s October 1, 2018 rejection of Nolen’s final death penalty appeal went unremarked upon by any news media and so, partly as a result, even I missed it. But the Nolen case is very much worth remembering along with all religiously motivated attacks that occur on U.S. soil, if not just for the victims and their survivors but for lessons that can and must be learned.
The September 24, 2014 attack in Oklahoma is somewhat notable in the annals of many officially uncalled terrorist strikes in that he emulated a favourite ISIS death tactic no doubt learned online: he fully beheaded a co-worker – the very beloved wife, mother and grandmother Colleen Hufford – inside the Moore, Oklahoma food processing plant where they both worked. Shouting “Allah Akbar” throughout the attack, Nolen was using the same oversized butcher knife on the neck of a second co-worker, Tracy Johnson, when the company’s chief operations officer, a reserve law enforcement officer named Mark Vaughn, burst in with an AR-15 rifle. He shot and wounded Nolen as Nolen disengaged from his second victim and charged at him with the bloody knife.
Such an attack must feel a particular horror to its witnesses and, when Nolen is finally put to death, one should keep in mind what Colleen Hufford must have experienced in her last moments.
Rather than to charge this attack under federal terrorism statutes and ascribe a religious motive to it, President Obama's U.S. Department of Justice let the local district attorney charge Nolen under state murder statues (and as an assault and battery against survivor Traci Johnson). The whole disgusting affair was quickly forgotten by the rest of the nation, government and all but those involved and some locals.
But make no mistake; This was a jihadist attack on American soil, motivated by interpretations of the Quran that are commonly preached in Wahhabi mosques and cited by killers across the globe.
Some have argued that earmarking attacks aggrandize and gratify the killers. There is something to be said for that. But the Nolen attack – as well as events such as the Supreme Court’s rejection of his appeal and, one day, the execution itself – warrants our full national attention and should be properly memorialized until all related matters are finally resolved, not least for any comfort doing so can still bring the victim, survivors, and witnesses. Government acknowledgement of a repetitive motivation for killings like this, and media treatment of it, can encourage the nation to comfort those who were there and help them close the emotionally important loop of knowing WHY loved ones and innocents died, who did it and for what Cause.
But calling out Islamist religious motivation for murder portends practical benefits too. It can open the throttle on investigations that identify co-conspirators and foreign connections. Public acknowledgement and remembrance can spur suspicious activity reporting from the general public, which can roll up other cocked and loaded extremists before they too kill.
Also importantly, identification of repetitive Islamist motivation for violent acts helps homeland security authorities look inward to determine if intelligence failures occurred. Homeland security professionals learn from those what not to repeat and how to fix broken processes, to reduce the chances of future law enforcement intelligence failures, which invariably lead to funeral processions.
The Obama administration decided not to involve itself in a prosecution under federal terrorism statutes, even though Nolen, a prison convert to Islam, had filled his Facebook page with hideous ISIS propaganda and openly praised the death cult’s rise to global prominence through constant blood-letting. Nolen had just been suspended after co-workers rejected his Islamist proselytizing and demands for religious accommodations at the company, Vaughan Foods. This gave those already predisposed to downplay Islamist motivations for attacks the excuse needed to suggest workplace violence and mental illness was somehow at play, instead.
Proof of Motivation Overflowed at Trial
The 2017 trial, which received only some highly localized Oklahoma TV news coverage, decisively showed this was neither mental illness nor workplace tension drove Nolen to do what he did.
Taped police interviews of Nolen and other evidence showed Nolen was motivated by Quranic scripture and the very same well-worn extremist ideology we have seen cited for attacks across the globe, to include the 9/11 attacks. Nolen has proven unrepentant.
On September 29, 2017, a jury rejected defence arguments that Nolen was insane after hearing the evidence.
Right after the attack, for instance, police asked a very calm and collected Nolen if anyone told him to behead unbelievers. He responded that the Qur'an gave him the idea. (Qur’an 47:4 states that "When you meet the unbelievers, strike their necks.) Nolen answered: "Uh, no. I read the Qur'an. Like I say, the Qur'an is easy to understand. No one guides me but Allah."
When asked why he beheaded Hufford, he answered: "I just feel like...I did what I needed to do. What Allah says in the Qur'an to do. Oppressors don't need to be here. You know the Muslim is somebody who submits their will to Allah...Whatever he wants done, that's what we do...And you know he wants us to get the oppressors out of this place."
When asked if he regretted murdering Hufford, Nolen answered: "There wasn't nothing but a trial for me. I passed it because, like I said, I felt oppressed. I knew for sure that, if I was to die right then, I was going to heaven." He added: "I feel, you know, you know what I'm saying, if I was to die in five or 10 minutes, I'm going to heaven. That's all that matters to me."
Nolen also confirmed that he screamed “Allahu Akbar” as he beheaded Hufford.
Traci Johnson testified that she ran into the next room after hearing screaming and saw Nolan standing over Hufford with a bloody knife. "When I saw the defendant, I was frozen. I couldn't move. And I saw the knife with the blood on the knife, and he made a mad dash toward me and pushed me up against the wall and held me up with his forearm against the wall and just started splicing my neck. He was just going back and forth like he was just cutting a piece of meat."
The hero of this tragedy is Mark Vaughan, then COO of Vaughan Foods and an Oklahoma County Sheriff's Office Reserve Deputy. When the call came that a knife attack was underway, Vaughan suited up with his weapon, ammo and first aid on a vest. Vaughan testified that he and another employee entered the building where the attack was underway and saw Nolen on top of Johnson. He testified that he called for Nolen to stop. Nolen jumped up, ran around a corner and charged Vaughan at full speed. Vaughan said he fired three rounds.
Nolen leaned against a wall and fell to the ground. Vaughan then held Nolen at bay until police arrived and took the suspect away.
Execution Date Unclear But Deserves Right-Of-Passage National Acknowledgement and Coverage
Although Nolen’s execution warrants national notice, no solid date was readily available. Oklahoma has been caught up in political wrangling with death penalty opponents and shut down the state’s supply of lethal injection drugs. Most of the state’s executions are awaiting a resolution over state plans to start using nitrogen gas. Earlier this year, the state announced it was working to develop a new execution protocol making nitrogen hypoxia the preferred method.
When this is all sorted out, politically and legally, Nolen’s turn will come and bring the state’s only possible final resolution to this episode so we can all properly move on. And when that resolution is at hand, I hope somehow the world finds out about it.
Todd Bensman is a Texas-based senior national security fellow for the Centre for Immigration Studies and fellow at the Middle East Forum. For nearly a decade, Bensman led counterterrorism-related intelligence efforts for the Texas Intelligence and Counterterrorism Division.