This post has been updated
The FBI has opened an inquiry into the shootings of three young Muslims in Chapel Hill, N.C., a move that followed multiple calls this week for authorities to investigate the violence as a hate crime. And Palestinian officials are asking to join the investigation, saying that the victims were of Palestinian descent.
Police are investigating the shootings of three people — newlyweds Deah Barakat, 23, and Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19 — on Tuesday afternoon at a housing complex near the University of North Carolina.
On Friday, President Obama issued a statement on “the brutal and outrageous murders,” saying that the FBI would look to see if federal laws were broken during the shooting.
“No one in the United States of America should ever be targeted because of who they are, what they look like or how they worship,” Obama said.
Palestinian officials on Saturday branded Craig Hicks, the accused shooter, as “an American extremist and hateful racist,” according to Reuters.
“We consider it a serious indication of the growth of racism and religious extremism which is a direct threat to the lives of hundreds of thousands of American citizens who follow the Islamic faith,” the Palestinian foreign ministry said in a statement, which also called for “a serious investigation” and the involvement of Palestinian investigators.
The Embassy of Jordan in Washington said Friday that it also was “closely following the ongoing investigation” because the sisters killed in Chapel Hill also had Jordanian citizenship.
Alia Bouran, Jordan’s ambassador to the United States, went to North Carolina on Friday to meet with the families of the victims and expressed the sympathies of Jordanian King Abdullah II.
As the shooting attracted global attention, Obama was criticized for not speaking out about it sooner.
“If you stay silent when faced with an incident like this, and don’t make a statement, the world will stay silent towards you,” Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said during a visit to Mexico on Thursday, according to Reuters.
The FBI announced “a parallel preliminary inquiry” on Thursday, which stops short of being a full investigation, as had been reported in multiple media outlets since the probe was announced. Rather, it is a review that could ultimately become an investigation down the line, depending on what evidence is found, an FBI spokeswoman said on Thursday night. It was opened by the FBI, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle district of North Carolina.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a statement Friday that this inquiry will figure out if “any federal laws, including hate crime laws, were violated” in the shooting.
Hicks, 46, has been arrested and charged with three counts of murder in the shootings. The FBI has been working with the Chapel Hill Police Department on the investigation, helping the department process evidence in the case.
Police have said that their initial investigation suggests that the shooting was motivated by a parking argument, something that has been echoed by Hicks’s wife. But this explanation has seemed unconvincing to people in Chapel Hill and beyond, who point to the religion of the three victims and to Hicks’s repeated social media postings criticizing organized religion.
Hicks called himself an atheist on his Facebook page, and his postings there frequently attacked religious groups and beliefs. Many observers have pointed to these posts and Hicks’s views in asking authorities to explore the possibility that religion played a role in the killings.
“We welcome the FBI’s increased involvement in this tragic case and hope the added resources and expertise the bureau has to offer will help see that justice is served,” Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council of American-Islamic Relations, said in a statement. “This case is quickly becoming a touchstone for the American Muslim community’s sense of security and inclusion.”
The police in Chapel Hill have said they understand concerns that the shooting might have been “hate-motivated” and have promised to investigate that possibility.
For Muslims in the Chapel Hill region, the shooting has stirred a deep sense of fear and vulnerability. As thousands gathered Thursday to mourn the victims, more and more people there were discussing whether bias played a role in the shootings and the larger issue of anti-Islamic sentiment. At the funeral services, the remembrances of the three lives lost were mixed in with this sentiment and calls for a broader investigation.
“This has hate crime written all over it,” Mohammad Abu-Salha, the father of the sisters who were killed, said during the funeral as he asked the FBI to investigate
[This post has been updated. First published: Friday at 11:09 a.m.]