Family: Soldier Accused in Grenade Attack Troubled Over Race & Religion Issues
— U.S. Army Sgt. Asan Akbar, the soldier being detained in connection with a grenade attack on his fellow soldiers, told his family members that he encountered racism as an African-American and a Muslim in the armed services.
His stepfather, William Bilal, who was once married to Akbar's mother, Quran Bilal, said that his stepson was resentful toward the military and had complained several years ago that it was difficult for a black man "to make rank" in the military.
"Asan was pushed to this. We've got that clear," William Bilal told WBRZ, ABCNEWS' affiliate in Baton Rouge
, La. "Everybody's got a breaking point, to put it that way. Everybody's got a breaking point. If he did this, he was driven."
On ABCNEWS' Good Morning America, Bilal expressed a toned down version of his previous statements, saying that Akbar was likely misunderstood.
"All I'm saying is that Islam has been misrepresented, and a lot of people don't understand the religion of Islam," Bilal said. "And the problem is, the stereotyping and the discrimination, I can't say exactly, directly, if that was Asan's case," he said.
Now, the 31-year-old soldier is in custody for an alleged grenade attack Sunday that killed one and wounded 15 others in the 101st Airborne Division at Camp Pennsylvania in Kuwait. He has not been charged with a crime, but Akbar was the only person being questioned in the attack, George Heath, a civilian spokesman at Fort Campbell in Kentucky said. Three grenades were allegedly thrown into three separate tents.
According to the Los Angeles Times, soldiers who witnessed Akbar's arrest said that Akbar yelled out: "You guys are coming into our countries, and you're going to rape our women and kill our children."
Akbar, part of the division's 326th Engineer Battalion, recently had some problems with his battalion, Heath said.
"He was having what some people might call it seems an attitude problem," Heath said.
Akbar's brother, Ismail Bilal, who recently obtained an early discharge from the Air Force, said he was shocked when he heard that his brother was accused in the attack. "It was too many emotions involved to pinpoint one emotion, how I felt at the time, you know? Because it was like a melting pot of emotions," Bilal said. He said his older brother, Akbar, seemed fine when he spoke with him one month ago.
"He just spoke just like any other soldier, you know, going overseas. 'Man, we about to go overseas and about to spend all this time over there.' You know, just the same way every soldier feels when he get deployed," Bilal said.
Officials have not released any motive in the attack, but said Akbar will be brought back to Fort Campbell for judicial proceedings, and that the Army could seek the death penalty.
Neighbors Say Akbar Was Quiet
News of the incident shocked Akbar's neighbors back home in the small military town of Clarksville, Tenn., who described him as a mild-mannered man who didn't drink or swear.
Akbar proudly wore his uniform, even when he was off duty, said neighbor Willie Shannell Jr., who spoke to Akbar shortly before he was deployed.
"There was no resentment at all. I don't want to go, you know, I'm going to run," Shannell said. "No. Zero."
Another neighbor agreed that Akbar was no troublemaker.
"I was shocked really because he was one of the quietest ones in the neighborhood, he kept to himself and you wouldn't expect anything like that from him at all," said Heather Dill.
Not From Muslim Teachings
Akbar is originally from California, where he lived for some time with his mother and sisters in Merino County. He was born Mark Kools, but his mother changed his name after she remarried when he was a boy. He attended Locke High School in the heart of Los Angeles, and school sources say he was a model student with a 3.6 grade point average.
He was raised Muslim and Akbar and his family attended the Bilal Islamic Center, across the street from their family home before he moved to Tennessee for the military.
His mother said she changed his name to Asan Akbar after she remarried when he was a young boy. In some public records, the first name is spelled Hasan.
His mosque's leader says Akbar's actions are a puzzling contradiction to the messages he learned at the mosque as a boy.
"We don't tell them not to join the Army because they might run into a problem with another Muslim country," said Abdul Karim Hasan. "That's just the way it is. That's what armed forces are trained to do. They are trained to fight."
Meanwhile, U.S. troops preparing to fight an outside enemy are now grappling with the reality of an attack, possibly by one of their own.
"When someone is firing at you, you know who the enemy is," Heath said. "But when they're standing in the same chow line or using the same shower as you, it's had a detrimental effect probably on the morale."