Flint — Authorities are investigating the stabbing attack of a police officer at Bishop International Airport on Wednesday as an “act of terrorism,” according to the FBI.
A 49-year-old Canadian man whose face witnesses say was “totally blank” when he stabbed the police officer Wednesday morning yelled “Allahu Akbar,” which means “God is great” in Arabic, authorities said.
The man, identified as Amor Ftouhi, attacked Lt. Jeff Neville, who was in full uniform, before 9:40 a.m., stabbing him in the neck with a 12-inch knife with a green handle and a black serrated blade marked “Amazon Jungle Survival Knife.” Authorities say Neville fought off his attacker for a minute as other police assisted in subduing the suspect.
According to authorities, Ftouhi continued yelling “Allah” after the stabbing.
“He further exclaimed something similar to ‘You have killed people in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and we are all going to die,’ ” said FBI Special Agent Thomas Sondgeroth in an affidavit.
After he was in custody, Ftouhi allegedly asked an enforcement officer why he didn’t kill him, according to Sondgeroth.
Neville was originally listed in critical condition but was later upgraded to stable Wednesday afternoon and was in “satisfactory condition” after surgery, according to authorities.
Ftouhi of Quebec, Canada, has been charged with committing an act of violence at an airport, a 20-year felony. He appeared before Magistrate Judge Stephanie Dawkins Davis on Wednesday in Flint, according to Gina Balaya, a spokeswoman with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Michigan. He was given court-appointed counsel and detained pending a detention hearing scheduled for 2:30 p.m. Wednesday in Flint, Balaya said.
The FBI said he appeared to have acted alone.
“We’re seeking search warrants for electronic media for his vehicle,” said David Gelios, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Detroit office. “... We view him as a lone wolf attacker.”
Gelios said they are examining whether anyone assisted the suspect, whom he described as cooperative and talked about his motivations.
“... We have no information to suggest any training,” Gelios said. “... We interviewed the subject for a good period of time ... Suffice it to say, he has a hatred for the United States and a variety of other things that motivated him to come to the airport today to commit this act of violence.”
Montreal police spokesman Benoit Boiselle said officers with the department were assisting the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in a search of an apartment in the city after the FBI requested the investigation. A number of police officers stood guard outside of the apartment building in the east end of Montreal, on Bélair St. in St-Michel borough.
Canadian TV footage showed police escorting at least one person from the Montreal building where Ftouhi is believed to have lived.
A landlord there said Ftouhi was a model tenant. Luciano Piazza said Ftouhi has lived in the building for six years and is married with children.
“I never had any problems with him … I’m really surprised,” Piazza said.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement that he was “proud of the swift response” by authorities from both nations. He said Wednesday morning’s attack will be “prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
According to authorities, Ftouhi entered the country at Lake Champlain, New York, on June 16 before heading to Flint.
Christopher Miller, director of public safety at Bishop International Airport, said there was no prior engagement between Neville and Ftouhi. “It took four people to apprehend the suspect after the man walked up to Neville and started stabbing.
“It was horrible,” he said. “ ... This is an officer I’ve known for 35 years, this is someone I started my career with, my friend, to see something like that happen, I’m devastated. But you go into a security and law enforcement mode, you shut it down as quickly and as safely as you can ...”
Neville, Miller said, “fought him right to the end.”
“Lt. Neville never stopped fighting until I handcuffed this person.”
Authorities say Ftouhi entered the airport at 8:52 a.m. Wednesday, carrying a red duffel bag and a dark satchel bag. About 18 minutes later, he went up an escalator to the second level of the airport, heading to a restaurant. At 9:37 a.m., Ftouhi left the restaurant with both bags and entered a second-floor restroom. A minute later, he exited the restroom without either bag, pulled out a knife and attacked Neville, yelling “Allahu akbar.”
The Consulate General of Canada in Detroit acknowledged Wednesday that it was aware of the attack and that Canada “condemns this heinous and cowardly act.” It noted Canadian authorities are working with their U.S. counterparts and are fully engaged.
Flint Mayor Karen Weaver said she was grateful for those who subdued the suspect, including a good Samaritan and law enforcement.
“It’s a sad day but it could have been worse,” she said. “People came together quickly to make sure we were protected. We also need to thank another person. There was an unsung hero that saw what happened and she came to his aide to help and had she not been in the place she was at that time, it could have been worse.”
Gov. Rick Snyder tweeted: “Even with this attack, we must continue to balance our need for increased security with understanding and tolerance.”
U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, called the attack “shocking and horrific.”
“The FBI and other law enforcement agencies continue to investigate this as an act of terrorism in our community,” he said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the injured officer, Lieutenant Jeff Neville, and his family.”
Flint Islamic Center officials denounced the violence and planned an interfaith prayer vigil for Thursday evening.
“What happened this morning was a despicable act of violence that cannot be justified under any circumstance,” said Dr. Mohammed Saleem, president of its management committee at FIC. “We as the people of Flint must remain united against such senseless acts of violence against anyone, and in particular against any law enforcement officers. We will not allow others with their own political agendas to divide us.”
Dawud Walid, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Michigan chapter, added: “We continue to stand with our interfaith allies and pray that such acts of violence aren’t used as a means to try to divide our community.”
The incident stunned residents and others with ties to Flint.
“When you see these (terrorist) attacks happening in London, Paris and Brussels, no one thinks it could happen in Flint, Michigan,” said Frank Manley, an attorney based in the city who knew Neville for more than 30 years. “It’s just terrible that these types of events can reach into an area that is so far away from what people would consider hubs of world events.”
Neville previously spent years as a Genesee County Sheriff’s deputy and earned renown as an “outstanding person of the highest integrity,” added Manley. “It’s ironically tragic that someone who has given so much to the public would be attacked in this manner. He’s the definition of public service — always has a smile on his face, always willing to help.”
Traveler Cherie Carpenter told Flint station WJRT-TV that she saw the attacker at the airport Wednesday morning. She was awaiting a flight to Texas to see her new grandchild.
Carpenter described the man in custody as appearing “blank, just totally blank.”
She and another witness say they saw the airport officer bleeding from his neck.
Ken Brown told the Flint Journal that he was dropping off his daughter at the airport and saw the officer in distress. He said he saw a man detained by police and a knife on the ground.
“The cop was on his hands and knees bleeding from his neck,” Brown said. “I said they need to get him a towel.”
The airport was closed for several hours before being reopened Wednesday afternoon. Officials urged travelers to visit the airport’s Facebook page for updates on flights. The airport was initially evacuated after the incident.
Standing with luggage, Anthony McGee, 22, and his friend were stranded on the side of the road near the airport.
They remained there since the morning, trying to catch their 10:15 a.m. flight to Chicago. Both on their way home to Kansas City.
“We got here an hour or so early and were turning in right when they were starting to block things off,” McGee said. “The police just told us to wait. “
McGee added: “We didn’t hear much, only that someone got hurt.”
Weaver said, as a precaution, Flint police had stationed officers around Flint City Hall Wednesday. She said City Hall remained open for business but with heightened security.
“My thoughts and prayers are with all of our law enforcement officers who work to service and protect us each and every day,” Weaver said in a statement.
Lone wolf attacks against the West are increasing, said one terrorism expert from Michigan who was jolted by the incident Wednesday.
“It could run the gamut of a lone wolf to an organized collection of three or more individuals which would constitute a cell,” said Richard Chasdi, a Walsh College professor.
Chasdi said he feels violated by an attack so close to home.
“Even though I’ve been studying this for 20 years, this is home and I felt sad and angry and curious to what the particulars are, what this terrorist incident was all about,” he said. “I was thinking about Manchester and London and France.
“This is something we have to grow accustomed to,” Chasdi said.
Wednesday’s attack was not first incident in Michigan investigated as terrorism. In 2009, a Nigerian man, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, wore an explosive in his underwear aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253, which was bound for Detroit on Christmas Day. Abdulmutallab’s explosive caused a fire but didn’t destroy the plane as it approached Detroit Metropolitan Airport. He was severely burned and made incriminating statements while being treated at a hospital.
Abdulmutallab, the European-educated son of a wealthy banker, pleaded guilty to trying to blow up the airliner on the second day of trial in 2011 and received a life sentence.
Detroit News staff writers Mark Hicks, Candice Williams and the Associated Press contributed.