The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Random act or Islamist terrorism? Questions linger as Ohio restaurant reopens after machete attack

Police shot and killed a man in Columbus after he attacked people inside the Nazareth Restaurant with a machete on Feb. 11. At least five were injured. (Video: Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load

Four victims, hundreds of stitches, several nearly severed fingers, one corpse and no clear answers.

That is what is left behind in the wake of last week’s bizarre and bloody machete attack in Columbus, Ohio.

As Nazareth Mediterranean Cuisine reopened for business on Monday, just four days after a machete-wielding man suddenly began hacking at customers eating dinner, questions remained about who the attacker was and why he had committed the horrifying act.

The restaurant’s Israeli owner said his business had been targeted. And Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz agreed, tweeting: “It’s no accident a machete-wielding terrorist attacked a restaurant named Nazareth and owned by an Israeli immigrant.”

While officials acknowledged that some evidence points towards a “lone wolf” terrorist attack, they argued that other key facts remain unclear. They also sought to correct misreporting regarding the attacker, who was killed Thursday by police shortly after his restaurant rampage.

On Monday, an FBI spokesman said that the attacker, 30-year-old Mohamed Barry, hailed from the west African country of Guinea, not from Somalia, as CNN and CBS had initially reported.

Authorities did admit, however, that the FBI had previously investigated Barry, a Muslim, for allegedly making radical Islamic threats four years ago, but the agency had abandoned the investigation, according to NBC4.

So far, little about the attack seems to fit any recognizable mold.

‘I just thought he was going to…slash me up’: Machete attack at Middle Eastern restaurant in Ohio

Start with the attacker. Barry was a handsome, soft-spoken and seemingly clean-cut immigrant from Guinea. He moved from the impoverished west African nation to Philadelphia in 2000, and then to Columbus two years ago in search of a job.

“I’ve never seen him fight,” his uncle told NBC News.

Strangest of all, Barry was just three weeks from getting married when he launched his machete attack, his uncle said.

If there was any hint of what occurred on Thursday, it was in the threats he allegedly made four years ago, although authorities have not released details of their aborted investigation.

Much more is known about his alleged target, Nazareth owner Hany Baransi, but it still doesn’t explain why Barry attacked the restaurant.

Baransi describes himself as an Israeli Arab Christian.

“I am the minor, minor, minor of the minority,” he told the Columbus Dispatch. “So nobody likes me.”

In fact, he is a popular local figure whose restaurant is a multicultural mingling place.

That multiculturalism might be a clue to why Barry attacked the restaurant. An Israeli flag hangs in the window, as does an Arabic greeting. A painting inside shows a Muslim, a Christian and a Jew in polite conversation.

“Obviously, we were targeted, because there’s a whole bunch of businesses around here,” Baransi told the Dispatch. “I’m the only foreigner.”

On Thursday evening, the lives of the two foreign-born men intersected, although not as directly or violently as Barry intended.

At around 5:30 p.m., Barry entered the restaurant and inquired after Baransi, who had just gone home early because of a migraine. When Barry asked where the owner was from, the employee answered Israel. Barry then left.

Half an hour later, however, Barry returned with a machete and began slashing at the regular customers as they ate their gyros.

“He yelled ‘Allahu Akbar’ and then he attacked them with the machete,” Baransi told pro-Israel news website The Tower, apparently relaying messages from his employees, who actually witnessed the attack.

“He came to each table and just starting hitting them,” Karen Bass, who was in the restaurant at the time, told WBNS-10TV, adding that she fell five times trying to escape. “There were tables and chairs overturned, there was a man on the floor bleeding, there was blood on the floor…My legs felt like jelly. I just thought he was going to come up behind me and slash me up.”

Barry slashed four people, including couple Debbie and Gerald Russell.

“He had a look on his face that was [indescribable],” Gerald Russell told NBC4. “And it was just a lot of hate and anger, and I have no idea where the rage is coming from.”

The Russells incurred severe cuts to their hands while trying to defend themselves. They each nearly lost several fingers in the attack, and received hundreds of stitches afterwards. The only reason Gerald wasn’t killed, he told the Dispatch, was that the machete blade must have been sideways when it struck him.

Another man fared even worse. William Foley, a musician who was performing at Nazareth when Barry went berserk, “aggressively attempted to subdue” the attacker and sustained critical injuries, Foley’s friend Bonnie Stern told NBC News. He remains hospitalized in serious condition. A fourth victim, Neil McKeein, sustained more minor injuries and has been released.

The attack ended when a young Nazareth employee picked up a baseball bat and chased Barry outside.

“It didn’t feel right to just run out while someone else is fighting him off,” said the employee, Shafi Ali, who also happens to be an immigrant, in his case from Dubai. “We can’t let one evil person determine our future or ruin our love for one another.”

Shafi Ali, a young Nazareth employee and immigrant from Dubai, saved customers by using a baseball bat to scare off Barry.

After escaping the restaurant, Barry jumped in his car and narrowly missed hitting a police patrol car before speeding off. He led authorities on a five-mile chase before plowing his vehicle into another car, sending his machete flying into the air, according to witnesses.

When Barry exited his car and allegedly lunged at a Columbus Police officer with his machete, cops opened fire, killing the 30-year-old.

Although the shooting ended the nightmare, it also ensured that questions would linger about Barry’s intentions. Did the quiet immigrant suffer a mental breakdown? Or was the attack an orchestrated act of international jihad, as claimed online by a host of anti-Islamic groups?

“I wanted to know why” he attacked us, Gerald Russell told the Dispatch. “But the more I thought about it, I really don’t need to know why.

“It’s irrelevant,” he said. “It meant something to him, but it means nothing to me.”

Instead, the Russells are focused on the concrete things: the things they can hold onto, even with their mangled hands.

“I’m not going to be bitter,” Debbie Russell told the Dispatch, pointing out that she and her husband got to spend Valentine’s Day together, albeit wrapped in bandages and in adjoining hospital beds.

“My husband is OK, I’m OK. We’re going to make it,” she said. “If we’re a few fingers short, we’ll still be sitting next to each other till the end.”