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Monday, October 10, 2005

10 Reasons Why a Hinrichs Terrorist Link Seems Like the Most Plausible Possible Explanation

Journalists working on big reporting projects usually deduce a theory of the story at some point prior to publication. That theory may involve multiple possibilities or a single dominant scenario, but either way it provides a useful frame of reference for evaluating new information as it is developed.

I've reached that point regarding the Oct. 1 death of University of Oklahoma engineering student Joel Henry Hinrichs III. There are three possible scenarios to explain why he strapped a bomb to his body, walked several block from his apartment over to Oklahoma Memorial Stadium with its 84,000 fans watching the OU-Kansas State game, sat down on a bench within 100 yards of the crowd and died when the bomb detonated.

The least likely of the three scenarios is the official explanation that has Hinrichs killing himself as a result of severe depression and other life problems, having no terrorist links or associations whatever and intending only to harm himself while perhaps making a big public statement.

Here's why this is the least satisfactory of the possible explanations:

1. Hinrichs is the only one of the average annual 30,000 suicides in this country during the past decade to blow himself up. That makes his death what statisticians refer to as an extreme outlier. The conventional factors that explain the rest of the suicides simply don't apply to an extreme outlier like Hinrichs.

2. People who intend only to kill themselves do not maintain so much bomb-making material in their home that up to 24 hours might be needed to remove it all, as was the case with Hinrichs. Storing that quantity of lethal materials indicates a desire for multiple deaths, not a single death. Odds are good that the search warrant sealed from public view by the U.S. Justice Department describes those bomb-making materials in detail.

3. It would have been much "easier" for Hinrichs simply to put a bullet through his brain. He had a life-long fascination with explosives and guns and it is easy to buy or otherwise obtain firearms in Oklahoma. Such an individual in so much depressive pain that he would drop out of school for a year would know "it could all end" more quickly with one bullet than an elaborate scheme to blow himself up at a football game.

4. Given #3 above, the choice of a chemical compound known among Middle East terrorists as "Mother of Satan" is more likely a political statement than an indicator of personal pain. There are other explosive compounds that Hinrichs could more easily have used, given his life-long fascination with engineering processes - i.e. figuring out how things work.

These four considerations add up to a conclusion that the official version simply doesn't explain critical factors that are characteristic of an extreme outlier among all suicide victims, not a conventional death by one's own hand.

Here's why a terrorist link of some kind is the more likely explanation:

1. The quantity of bomb-making materials found in Hinrichs apartment, the constant presence in that apartment of as many as four or five individuals described by neighbors as being of Middle Eastern appearance and the close proximity to a mosque previously attended by Zacarias Moussaoui, the alleged "20th hijacker" of 9/11 indicates an environment conducive to the fermentation of a terrorist bomber; otherwise, the presence of these factors must be ascribed to mere coincidence.

2. A tree near the detonation site exhibits numerous small round holes that look like those that would be made by a ball bearing or a nailhead, both of which are routinely used by Middle Eastern terrorist bombers. Similar evidence on the scene that correlate with materials found in the apartment likely were removed by authorities but were described in the search warrant.

3. Proximity to the stadium at game-time. Detonation of a bomb like that used by Hinrichs in the immediate vicinity of 84,000 people in the stands would have caused havoc, including a lethal stampede to get away from a potential second blast. A lone suicide would not choose such a location.

4. But there is credible evidence that somebody who may have been Hinrichs did attemtp to enter the stadium but ran away when challenged to allow inspection of his backpack. The fact OU officials were unable to identify Hinrichs trying to enter the stadium from surveillance tapes means nothing because the upper half of his body was destroyed by the bomb. Thus, nobody knows what he looked like in the moments before detonation. Those tapes may well show Hinrichs attempting to enter the stadium but not as the Hinrichs seen in the photos published since his death.

5. Hinrichs registered his car in Oklahoma for only a nine-month period that would have ended in the first few weeks of his spring semester. Found in the same car were 13 plastic bottles. We don't know what those 13 bottles looked like or if analysis indicated the presence of volatile chemicals. We do know that plastic bottles are frequently found among bomb-makers materials.

6. The May letter from Zarqawi to Bin Laden describing an October offensive in the continental U.S. designed to make a vivid statement about the ability of Al Qaeda to strike anywhere in America. What better way to start such an offensive than killing and maiming thousands of fans at that most American of fall activities, a football game in the heartland.

All of these factors taken together are not prima facie evidence of a terrorist link in the Hinrichs death. But they certainly seem to me to make such a link the most likely explanation for why he blew himself as he did when he did where he did.

I noted at the outset I thought there were three possibile scenarios. And you may have noted that I didn't include in the factors above Hinrichs' attempt to buy ammonium nitrate at a local feed store in Norman, Oklahoma.

The thing that most strikes me about the feed store incident is the obviousness with which Hinrichs carried this scene out. Vest pockets stuffed and with wires hanging out and no credible explanation for why he wanted the substance or how much. That sounds very much like somebody who wants to be obvious and knows that such a request in an Oklahoma feed store is certain to generate official attention.

My third possible scenario is that Hinrichs was an involuntary participant in somebody else's terrorist bombing plot. Given his fragile mential state, he might have been recognized as a prime blackmail candidate by others. That approach is familiar in terrorist circles, particularly in recent months in Iraq. There is no logical reason to think the same approach would not be used in the U.S.

If Hinrichs was an unwilling participant, it is likely he went to his death convinced it was the only way he could protect somebody else, most likely his family. Sadly, this is also the scenario least likely ever to be proven.