Spy Agencies Check Background of Alleged Serial Knifeman

Elias Abuelazam, in an undated photo released by the Arlington County (Va.) Police Department. Arlington County Police Department-AP

Law-enforcement and intelligence agencies are urgently investigating the background of a purported Israeli citizen, using the name Elias Abuelazam, who is suspected of 20 stabbings across three states that left five people dead. The man was arrested Wednesday night at the Atlanta airport as he reportedly tried to board a Delta flight to Tel Aviv.

Federal counterterrorism investigators and experts have been asked to become involved in the investigation because the name the man was using sounds stereotypically Arab or Muslim. Initial indications, however, are that U.S. officials can not find the slightest trace of evidence or intelligence linking the man to terrorism. In fact, according to one official familiar with ongoing inquiries, who asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive information, investigators still believe it possible that Elias Abuelazam is not the real name of the person who has been arrested, and that it is conceivable that his true identity is not yet known to U.S. authorities. A second official said that the man is known to have been using multiple aliases.

CNN quoted two law-enforcement officials saying the suspect is an Israeli citizen whose presence inside the U.S. is legal. The network reported that a federal official involved in the investigation said the man was traveling on an expired Israeli passport.

According to officials and news reports, the suspect was picked up after Homeland Security officials at the Atlanta airport received a tipoff from the FBI, who became involved in the investigation after links were made between a series of stabbings that occurred in Flint, Mich., and similar crimes in Toledo, Ohio, and Leesburg, Va. All the stabbing victims were described as being either African-American or being dark-skinned.

According to CNN, authorities have said that the same stabber was responsible for three recent knife attacks in Virginia, a stabbing last weekend that injured a man in Toledo, and knife attacks that killed five people and injured 11 others in Flint. CNN quoted police saying that 14 of the 16 Michigan victims were African-American; in Leesburg, two victims reportedly were black and one was Hispanic. Victims were aged from their teens to 60, and all were male.

Law-enforcement and intelligence officials contacted by Declassified said that whomever the suspect turns out to be, they don’t believe that any connection will be found to terrorism, and that the bizarre nature of the alleged crimes bear no resemblance to the objectives or practices of any known terrorist group. Officials say their working theory is that the crimes were the product of some kind of serious mental illness. They also say that it is simply a sign of the times that when someone with what sounds like a Muslim name is implicated in a serious crime, government agencies find themselves obliged to at least look for any indications of a possible connection to terrorism.