COLUMBUS, Ohio — An Ohio State student drove a car into a crowd outside a classroom building Monday morning, then got out and slashed at people with a butcher knife, sending 11 people to the hospital in what authorities said was a planned assault.
University public safety officials identified the student as Abdul Razak Ali Artan, who neighbors said belonged to a large Somali family living in Columbus. Authorities said they did not yet know what motivated the attack but could not rule out the possibility of terrorism.
Police responded swiftly to the chaotic scene on campus Monday, and within a minute, a university police officer shot and killed Artan. But it was hours before people understood the details of what had happened on the flagship campus, as terrified witnesses described a crash, gunfire, stabbings and screaming students sprinting to find a hiding place.
It was yet another sign that universities, once thought of as peaceful havens, are vulnerable to sudden, violent attacks.
The violence prompted a shelter-in-place order at the country’s third-largest campus by population, just miles from the Ohio Statehouse.
Police said they believe Artan is 20 years old, and in an interview with the Lantern student newspaper in August he said that he was a junior in logistics management who had transferred from Columbus State Community College.
Columbus State said that Artan was enrolled there from 2014 until this past summer, graduating with an associate of arts degree last spring before taking a noncredit class during the summer. Artan had no records of behavioral or disciplinary problems while enrolled there, the school said.
In the interview with the Lantern, Artan described his Muslim prayers and said that Ohio State was so big that he didn’t know where to pray.
“I wanted to pray in the open, but I was kind of scared with everything going on in the media,” he said. “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. … I was kind of scared right now. But I just did it. I relied on God. I went over to the corner and just prayed.”
Louann Carnahan lived next door to Artan on the west side of Columbus in a community with many Somali families. She said Artan lived in an apartment with about eight other people, describing him as a pleasant young man who had told her he went to the mosque daily.
Jack Ouham, owner of the Hometown Market near Artan’s home, said he lived with several brothers and sisters and his mother in a three-bedroom apartment for the past year. He said the family is Somali but had lived in Pakistan prior to coming to Columbus. He described him as “a really nice guy, really quiet, very friendly. No craziness. A very normal, respectful guy.”
Video cameras recorded Artan driving onto the campus and heading to the scene of the attack, showing that he was alone in the car and during the assault, Craig Stone, chief of the Ohio State University police, said at a news conference. Stone said police do not yet know a motive or whether anybody else was involved.
Earlier Monday, Stone had said it was too soon to know whether this was a terrorist plot but that it was clear that “this was done on purpose.” The Islamic State and al-Qaeda have encouraged followers to carry out knife attacks, and the Islamic State also has urged its supporters to use cars as weapons. In July, a man the militant group called a “soldier” killed dozens with a truck attack in France.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said he was briefed on the attack Monday and said in a statement that it “bears all the hallmarks of a terror attack carried out by someone who may have been self-radicalized.”
“Here in the United States, our most immediate threat still comes from lone attackers that are not only capable of unleashing great harm, but are also extremely difficult, and in some cases, virtually impossible to identify or interdict,” Schiff said.
The choice of weapons in Columbus was consistent with attack instructions recently released by the Islamic State, according to Rita Katz, executive director of the SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks online communications of extremists.
This month, the extremist group released a video about knife attacks after its magazine wrote about using cars for attacks, Katz said.
U.S. intelligence agencies have found no indications that Artan was in contact with the Islamic State, a senior counterterrorism official said. Two law enforcement officials said investigators were looking into reports that Artan had posted frustrations to social media shortly before the attack.
Muslim and Somali leaders in Ohio on Monday night called the attack “horrific,” “sickening” and not representative of Islam or Somali culture.
“Today we all came here to condemn this tragic incident,” Horshed Noah, a Somali American imam at one of Columbus’ largest mosques, told reporters at a news conference organized by the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ local chapter.
Hassan Omar, president of the Somali Community Association of Ohio, said Monday afternoon that Somali refugees have been coming to Columbus for two decades and that the area has one of the largest Somali populations in the United States.
“This hurts,” he said. “We don’t want our friends and neighbors to be afraid of us. Our goal is to be a law-abiding community.”
That Artan was stopped before attacking more people was likely because an Ohio State campus police officer happened to be in the area due to an earlier report of a gas leak. That officer saw the violence and, within a minute, fatally shot Artan, officials said.
— OSU Emergency Mngmnt (@OSU_EMFP) November 28, 2016
The attack sent 11 people to hospitals Monday, one in critical condition, officials said. The injured included at least one faculty member as well as undergraduate students, graduate students and a university staff member.
Angshuman Kapil, a 25-year-old student, was waiting outside Ohio State’s Watts Hall with 50 or 60 other people who had left the building because of a fire alarm.
“A car suddenly appeared driving at a high speed,” he said. It hit three or four people and one victim was flipped over the car. The car also struck a concrete barrier. He and others ran inside the building. “My body was shaking,” he said.
When the attack happened, Officer Alan Horujko, who has been with the school’s police force since January 2015, was nearby because of the gas leak report. Police say they think the reported leak was not related to the attack. Horujko, 28, was “in the right place at the right time,” Stone said.
The officer called in a report at 9:52 a.m. about a car hitting several pedestrians, according to authorities. Seconds later, he reported that an officer was in trouble due to a man with a knife, and by 9:53 a.m., Horujko had called in that shots were fired and a suspect was down.
Horujko’s quick action helped minimize the toll of the attack, said Monica Moll, the school’s director of public safety.
Police released essentially no information about Artan other than his name, saying they have to speak with people who knew him and get a warrant to search his property. Law enforcement vehicles surrounded the home Monday.
“At the end of the day we will find out what happened,” Gov. John Kasich (R), who graduated from Ohio State in 1974, said at a briefing. “We may never totally find out why this person did what they did or why they snapped. We may never find out. But we’re going to have a lot more information.”
Michael V. Drake, the university’s president, said Monday afternoon that members of the university community prepare for “situations like this but always hope never to have one.” He said he was grateful it was neutralized rapidly. “This is obviously a tragic situation.”
Classes were canceled for the rest of the day Monday, but school will be open Tuesday.
“It’s emotionally draining and quite frightening,” Drake said. “This is a good day to step back from classes, get our footing and open again tomorrow.”
President-elect Trump posted on Facebook that he was “watching the news unfold” in Columbus, adding: “Our thoughts and prayers are with all of the students and administration.”
The university sent out its first “Buckeye Alert” warning students about an “active shooter on campus” at 9:56 a.m., and students and faculty were told to shelter in place for more than an hour. The school also urged people to “Run Hide Fight,” citing a training program for the campus community that is aimed at preparing for potential attacks.
Kim Jacobs, chief of the Columbus police, said there was no indication the attacker used a gun.
Logan Chapman, a senior at Ohio State, was in a thermodynamics lecture at Watts Hall, which houses the Department of Materials and Science Engineering, on Monday morning when a fire alarm went off and everyone went outside.
“We were waiting for the firetrucks to go. As soon as the firetrucks started to pull away, a white Honda Civic came flying into the crowd,” Chapman said. “It probably hit three or four people. We thought it was an accident at first. Once the car had stopped, everyone was making sure the driver was okay. But he got out of the car and immediately started slashing people closest to the car with a knife.
“After that, I ran,” Chapman said. “Once I recognized he was attacking people with a knife I got out of there as fast as I could. The guy next to me, his hand got cut.”
Martin Schneider, of Pittsburgh, was outside Watts Hall when he saw a car drive through the crowd. After the car hit several people, he said, the driver of the car came out waving a kitchen knife. “I saw him swing at people, and I was definitely scared,” he said.
Schneider then fled into the building with several other students and ran into a room in the basement with a professor whose ankle was bleeding from the attack.
Student Yoon Lee was in Watts Hall waiting to go into a class when he heard gunshots and looked out the window. He saw someone he believed to be the attacker on the ground, a person lying immobile and face-down.
Lee said police were nearby and that there were three or four people on a bench who appeared to be victims.
“I was really shocked,” he said. “I guess I was lucky.”
Ohio State has about 58,600 students on its main campus in the capital city of Columbus, just north of the downtown business area.
Bennet Givens, a psychology professor who is chair of OSU’s Faculty Council, said the university staff “are all thinking about the victims — and the community, too, the Somali student community. We want to support everyone as best we can and get back to the business of academics.”
Two days before the attack, droves of people wearing scarlet had streamed through the sidewalks that lace the Oval, the grassy historical center of campus, toward Ohio Stadium for the colossal game against Michigan, which Ohio State won 30-27 in two overtimes, setting off a massive celebration. By Monday, that same area felt ghostly, almost entirely unpeopled.
Nick Anderson, Libby Casey, Adam Entous, Abigail Hauslohner, Jennifer Jenkins, Ellen Nakashima and Julie Tate in Washington and Chuck Culpepper in Columbus contributed to this report. Gray reported from Columbus, Svrluga, Berman and Zapotosky reported from Washington.