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Jersey Jihadist

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Jersey Jihadist

Why have investigators downplayed a murder suspect’s radical beliefs? September 17, 2014
Photo by Seattle Police Department

Brendan Tevlin was catching up with old friends and classmates after returning home to Livingston, New Jersey, following his first year at the University of Richmond. On the night of June 25, the 19-year-old spent several hours at a friend’s place in West Orange, a town bordering his own, then texted his mother that he was heading home. He never arrived. Somewhere around midnight, as Tevlin pulled up to an intersection bordering a large wooded area, at least three and possibly four men approached his car. One of the men opened fire, killing the college student in a murder that shocked the quiet neighborhood, where violence is rare.

In the ensuing days, authorities claimed that their preliminary investigation determined that Tevlin had been “targeted,” a phrase suggesting that perhaps the young man had been the victim of a hit engineered by someone he knew. The viciousness of the killing—Tevlin had been struck by eight bullets—was one indication, investigators said, that this was more than just a chance encounter, such as a robbery gone bad. “It does not appear to be random,” a chief investigator said. Friends and family, however, were baffled by the authorities’ conclusion. “He was literally a good kid. No enemies—he always avoided controversy,” a family friend told the press.

Those who knew Tevlin were closer to the truth than the investigators. Three weeks after the incident, police tracked down Tevlin’s alleged killer, Ali Muhammad Brown, living in a wooded area not far from where he’d shot the former Seton Hall Prep lacrosse player. Fingerprints that Brown had left on several items he’d stolen but later discarded led investigators to Seattle, where they learned that he was wanted for several killings. Ballistics tests determined that the same gun used to kill Tevlin had been employed in the Seattle-area murders of Dwone Anderson-Young and Ahmed Said on May 31. Witnesses identified Brown as the shooter, and Seattle police issued an alert for him, but he somehow made it across the country in just a few weeks, evading detection.

Essex County, New Jersey prosecutors said that robbery had been the apparent motive in the Tevlin case, too, and they now believed that Brown had seemed to select Tevlin randomly. But the investigators’ characterization of the crime didn’t account for the viciousness of the killing, and something else bothered local residents. Press coverage in Seattle, the only other place that was writing about the Tevlin killing, noted that Brown had previously been convicted of bank fraud and served time in federal prison—and that Brown had claimed to be a Muslim jihadi.

Then, in late August, the Kings County, Washington, prosecutors’ office charged Brown with a fourth murder, of Leroy Henderson, whom he allegedly shot on April 27 when Henderson was on his way home. In those charging documents, the Seattle Times reported, prosecutors revealed that Brown had described his four murders as “just kills,” or justified murders, in response to U.S. combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan: “All these lives are taken every single day by America, by this government. So, a life for a life.” According to the Seattle report, the authorities there suspected that the motive for Brown’s bank fraud, which he undertook with several acquaintances who regularly gathered to discuss jihad, had been to raise money for Somali terrorists, though investigators hadn’t traced the money to any specific groups.

These revelations cast an entirely different light on Tevlin’s killing and the ensuing investigation. New Jersey’s largest newspaper, the Star-Ledger, said in an editorial that authorities’ initial description of Tevlin as “targeted” by someone he might have known raised false assurances among local residents by implying “that the killer had some private beef with Tevlin and went after him.” The paper added that the message investigators apparently wanted to send was that “The danger is confined to people who associate with killers.”

Tevlin associated with no killers, and local residents now know that a jihadist had been hiding out among them for weeks after killing Tevlin. Brown had camped out at two sites in West Orange, a town intersected by the Watchung Mountains, where homes nestle next to hiking trails and wooded recreation areas. He put some thought into choosing his hiding place in an area dotted with wealthy homes. In his notebooks, police found jihadist rants suggesting, in effect, that taking cover among the rich was the best way to evade detection. Before being apprehended, Brown had committed at least one other local crime, emerging from the woods to rob a man at gunpoint and force him into the trunk of his SUV.

The story doesn’t end there. After arresting Brown, authorities collared two accomplices in the attack on Tevlin. In August, they announced that possibly a fourth accomplice remained at large. When pressed, investigators wouldn’t elaborate, except to say that “the public shouldn’t be alarmed.”

The late-summer revelations have sparked uncomfortable memories in a community scarred by the 9/11 attacks. On this past September 11, local family members who lost loved ones at the World Trade Center gathered at the Essex County 9/11 memorial at Eagle Rock Reservation in West Orange, not far from where Tevlin was murdered. Donald Robertson, an acquaintance of the Tevlin family whose own son died in the North Tower, said that the revelation about Brown and his local jihad “was like going through 9/11 all over again.”

Brown’s jihad has received little coverage outside of New Jersey and Seattle. Perhaps that’s because investigators chose only to reveal Brown’s jihadist intentions in obscure court papers filed well after the crimes were committed. Or maybe, in a summer in which the magnitude of the ISIS threat has become clear, the media was too consumed by terrorist dangers elsewhere. Seattle authorities have requested that Brown be extradited to face murder charges in Washington, where he could face execution. In Jersey, which no longer has the death penalty, officials haven’t decided whether to try Brown on the Tevlin murder first. But William C. Banks, a terrorism expert and director of the Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism at Syracuse University, told the Star-Ledger that based on his statements to investigators, Brown could also be tried by federal officials as a terrorist.

On the corner of Walker Road and Northfield Avenue in West Orange now sits a small cross planted in the ground, over which hang rosary beads and a Seton Hall Prep ribbon. Resembling those improvised roadside memorials that friends of accident victims sometimes erect, the tribute to Tevlin is easy to miss, though it’s within walking distance of a bustling, family-friendly zoo and arena that sits at the edge of the woods. The remembrance is nothing like official 9/11 memorials—the massive and expensive Reflecting Absence at Ground Zero, the Shanksville, Pennsylvania, memorial to Flight 93, or the tribute to those who died at the Pentagon. But it’s now clear that the same jihadist ideology that rained terror down on the 9/11 victims also took the lives of Brendan Tevlin and three other innocent souls in Seattle.

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