Nashville rabbi was target of failed firebombing

| July 29, 2010

Abdul Hakim Muhammad returned to Nashville last year with a history of violence and the belief that he was a soldier of God.

A convert to Islam, he was angry about the actions of American soldiers in the Middle East. He believed they had desecrated the Quran and wanted revenge. His target was a home on Mockingbird Lane in Nashville, not far from West End Synagogue.

Muhammad mistakenly thought an Orthodox rabbi lived there. He hoped to burn the house down with a Molotov cocktail, but the homemade bomb bounced off the glass.

"It didn't go through," Muhammad said, according to a psychiatric evaluation filed in a Little Rock, Ark., court Tuesday. He is awaiting trial there for murder.

The failed Nashville firebombing was the first step in a multi-state terror attack that culminated when he opened fire on two Army recruiters on June 1, 2009, killing Pvt. William Long and wounding Pvt. Quinton Ezeagwula.

Until Tuesday, the former Tennessee State University student's Nashville attack and a subsequent failed attack at an Army recruiting station in Florence, Ky., were not public knowledge.

Rabbi Saul Strosberg of Congregation Sherith Israel, an Orthodox congregation in Nashville, said that Muhammad aimed at the wrong house. Strosberg said that he and his wife had moved from the home about a year before the attack.

The rabbi said he was shocked when he learned about the failed attack from the FBI last year, but was told by authorities to not talk about what was an ongoing investigation. He's thankful that the firebombing failed but aware that it could have been deadly.

"He wasn't really an expert at this Molotov cocktail business," Strosberg said. "He was not very bright but was dangerous."

The rabbi said he doesn't know why he was a target, having never met Muhammad.

"The fact that it made sense in his mind to kill a rabbi is just nuts," he said.

The failed firebombing isn't the first time local Jews have been targeted for violence. In June 1990, members of the Ku Klux Klan opened fire at West End Synagogue in an early morning drive-by shooting.

The latest attack was not far from West End, a Conservative congregation. Kliel Rose, the rabbi at West End, said that federal investigators suspected at first that he was the target.

Rose has been active in local interfaith work. This incident won't stop that, he said.

"My wife and I feel strongly about reaching out to people of other faiths," Rose said. "It won't deter us. But it leaves a bad taste in our mouths."

The 25-year-old Muhammad faces state charges in Arkansas of capital murder, attempted capital murder, aggravated assault and terroristic threatening. If convicted, he could face the death penalty. The psychiatric evaluation was performed to determine if he is fit to stand trial. Muhammad has told the court he wants to plead guilty, but he can't under state law because he faces the death penalty.

Fateful trip to Yemen

A Memphis native, he was known as Carlos Bledsoe before converting to Islam in 2004 while living in Nashville. He told the psychiatrist his violent actions were motivated by religion and his experience in Yemen. He moved there in 2007 to teach English and became involved with terrorists. He was arrested for trying to go to Somalia to fight as a jihadist and was jailed and then deported to the United States.

After returning in 2009, he began plotting his attack. He saved money while working for his father's Memphis-based bus company. He bought a rifle from Walmart as he planned his attack.

"This was a Jihadi attack on the infidel forces. That didn't go as planned," he wrote in a letter to an Arkansas circuit court judge. "Flat out truth."

Muhammad's attacks in the name of Islam have angered local Muslims, many who say such extremists create a false image that is damaging to the perception of their faith.

Rashed Fakhruddin, a member of the Islamic Center of Nashville, rejected Muhammad's claim that Islam justified his actions. Fakhruddin can't fathom how anyone would think God wanted them to attack a rabbi's house.

"That is a misguided and criminal interpretation," he said.

Fakhruddin hopes Muhammad is punished for his actions. He said that the Muslim faith teaches that everyone has a right to live in peace.

"We stand against this kind of action," he said. "A criminal is a criminal, no matter what his faith is."

Muhammad also admitted to being a gang member with a history of violence and drug use before his conversion.

Melvin Bledsoe, Muhammad's father, said his son's life took a dark turn after he went to Yemen. The father blames the federal government for not intervening after his son's deportation. He believes that his son fell victim to Muslim extremists overseas.

"They brainwashed him," he said. "Once you get over there, it's too late."

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Category: Synagogue/Jewish Security