FLINT, Mich. – The man charged with stabbing a police officer at the Flint airport in a possible act of terrorism had unsuccessfully tried to buy a gun in the U.S. before allegedly committing the offence, according to the FBI.
In a press conference on Thursday, David Gelios, special agent in charge with the FBI’s Detroit division, said that Amor Ftouhi, 49, had attempted to buy a gun in the United States, and it’s a “good news story” that he was unable to do so. Instead, Ftouhi bought a knife somewhere in the United States and used that knife to attack the officer at the airport.
Gelios said that Ftouhi – who lived in Montreal – was not on the radar of either Canadian or American authorities and as yet, there is no indication that he knew anyone in Flint or the state of Michigan.
Investigators are working to learn more about Ftouhi, whom they describe as a lone-wolf attacker who made his way from Canada to the seemingly random destination of Flint, a struggling Michigan city once known for its sprawling General Motors factories but now better known for lead-tainted water.
The attack Wednesday at Bishop International Airport, about 50 miles (80.5 kms) northwest of Detroit, was being investigated as an act of terrorism, but authorities said they have no indication that the suspect was involved in a “wider plot,” said David Gelios, the FBI agent in charge.
Ftouhi, a dual citizen of Canada and Tunisia, stabbed airport police Lt. Jeff Neville with a large knife after yelling “Allahu akbar,” the Arabic phrase for “God is great.” According to the FBI, Ftouhi said something similar to “you have killed people in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, and we are all going to die.”
Ftouhi was immediately taken into custody and was charged in a criminal complaint with committing violence at an airport. More charges could be filed as prosecutors take the case to a grand jury, Gelios said Wednesday.
The suspect appeared in federal court in Flint to hear the charge and will get a court-appointed attorney. A bond hearing was scheduled for next Wednesday.
Ftouhi indicated to court officials that he has lived in Canada for 10 years and has three children.
“He said he was working off and on as a truck driver. Last worked about two weeks ago,” Linsey Carson, a court pretrial services officer, told a judge. “He indicated no mental or physical health problems and no drug or alcohol use.”
Meanwhile, Neville was “doing well” at a hospital, airport Director Craig Williams said Thursday.
“At this time, we view him as a lone-wolf attacker,” Gelios said. “We have no information to suggest any training.”
Ftouhi’s Facebook page shed little light on his views. The only posts in the past few years were two YouTube videos in Arabic – one about methods of memorizing the Qur’an and another about how to stop somebody from swallowing their tongue.
Police in Canada were searching a Montreal apartment. Montreal police spokesman Benoit Boiselle said officers were assisting the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in the search on behalf of an FBI request.
Three people staying at the residence had been taken in for questioning, Boiselle said.
Ftouhi lived quietly with his family at a Montreal apartment complex where he also worked informally as a part-time caretaker of the property, his landlord said Thursday.
He kept the building stairwells clean and always paid his rent on time, Luciano Piazza told The Associated Press.
Ftouhi, who lived in a two-bedroom apartment with his wife and teenage children, was “a good person” and “never made any trouble,” Piazza said.
The Villeray-St Michel-Parc Extension borough where Ftouhi lived is a large, ethnically diverse Montreal neighbourhood, with almost half of its 142,000 residents born outside Canada, according to city figures. Almost 8,000 claim Arabic as their first language.
North African emigrants often choose to settle in the French-speaking province of Quebec, drawn by its immigration policies that favour francophone applicants.
Investigators said they also want to know more about Ftouhi’s movements within the U.S.
Ftouhi legally entered the U.S. at Champlain, New York, on June 16 and made his way to Michigan as early as June 18. He went to the Flint airport Wednesday morning, Gelios said.
He spent some time in public, unsecured areas of the airport before going to a restroom where he dropped two bags before attacking the officer with a 12-inch knife that had an 8-inch serrated blade, Gelios said.
Neville “fought him to the end,” managing to stop the stabbing and bring Ftouhi to the ground as other officers arrived to help, according to Chris Miller, the airport police chief.
Witnesses described seeing the suspect being led away as Neville was bleeding, a knife on the ground.
Ftouhi asked an officer who subdued him why he did not kill him, according to the criminal complaint. Police described him as “co-operative” and said he was talking to investigators.
Gillies reported from Toronto. Jeff Karoub, Ed White and Corey Williams in Detroit, Ashraf Khalil and Tammy Webber in Chicago, Kenneth Thomas in Washington and Sadie Gurman in Phoenix, Arizona, contributed to this story.