The heavily armed man who ambushed Fargo police officers investigating a fender bender last week likely had a bigger and bloodier attack in mind, with at least two fairs taking place at the time in and around North Dakota’s largest city, authorities said Friday.
Mohamad Barakat killed one officer and wounded two others and a bystander before a fourth officer shot and killed him, ending the July 14 attack.
Over the past five years, Barakat, 37, searched the internet for terms including “kill fast,” “explosive ammo,” “incendiary rounds,” and “mass shooting events,” state Attorney General Drew Wrigley said Friday during a news conference in Fargo, a city of about 125,000 people.
But perhaps the most chilling search was for “area events where there are crowds,” which on July 13 brought up a news article with the headline, “Thousands enjoy first day of Downtown Fargo Street Fair.”
Had Officer Zach Robinson not killed Barakat, authorities said they shudder to think how much worse the attack might have been. All evidence suggests that Barakat came upon the traffic crash by “happenstance” and that his ensuing ambush was a diversion from his much bigger intended target, Wrigley said.
“The horrible winds of fate sometimes,” he said. “Those events fell into place and fell into his path.”
On the day of the attack, the downtown fair was in its second day and was less than three miles (five kilometres) from the crash scene. It’s unclear if it was the intended target, though, as Barakat also searched for information on the Red River Valley Fair, which was just a six-mile (10-kilometre) drive from the scene, the attorney general said.
After driving by the fender bender, Barakat pulled into an adjacent parking lot to watch from his parked car, Wrigley said. He said Barakat’s car was loaded with guns, a homemade grenade, more than 1,800 rounds of ammunition, three “largish” containers full of gasoline, plus two propane tanks, one completely filled and the other half-filled not with propane, but with “explosive materials concocted at home, purchased lawfully.”
With police and firefighters busy helping, Barakat watched for several minutes until the officers walked by him, when he lifted a .223-calibre rifle out of his car window and began firing, Wrigley said.
The rifle had a binary trigger that allowed it to fire so rapidly that it sounded like an automatic weapon, he said. A binary trigger is a modification that allows a weapon to fire one round when the trigger is pulled and another when it is released — in essence doubling a gun’s firing capacity. The three officers who were shot had no time to react and fell in rapid succession. He also shot and wounded a fleeing woman, Karlee Koswick, who had been involved in the fender bender, he said.
Robinson, who was badly outgunned but was the only officer at the scene who hadn’t been shot, engaged Barakat in a two-minute shootout. It ended with Robinson shooting and killing Barakat as bystanders crouched nearby.
Wrigley described Robinson as “the last man standing in that blue line at that moment.”
“What he was standing between was not just the horrible events that were unfolding there, but between the horrible events that Mohamad Barakat had envisioned, planned and intended and armed himself for — beyond fully — that day,” he said.
Barakat killed Officer Jake Wallin, 23, and wounded Officers Andrew Dotas and Tyler Hawes. Wallin and Hawes were so new that they were still undergoing field training.
‘Driven by hate’
Barakat was a Syrian national who came to the U.S. on an asylum request in 2012 and became a U.S. citizen in 2019, Wrigley said, adding that he didn’t appear to have any ties to the Muslim community in Fargo. He said Barakat had some family in the U.S., but not in the Fargo area, and that investigators are still looking into his history before he arrived in the country.
In recent years, Barakat amassed his arsenal. And his internet searches about causing mayhem date back to 2018, with periods in which they abated before picking back up, the attorney general said. Nothing from online, Barakat’s phones, the community or his family suggested he had a hatred of the police, he said.
At this stage in the investigation, it seems all of his weapons were purchased legally, and he had many of them in his car on the day of the shooting, Wrigley said. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is looking into whether he got any of the gun components illegally.
Wrigley said Barakat was wearing a vest that was “absolutely stuffed” with magazines and that he “was putting the finishing touches on his shooting skills in the last hours before this assault.”
As for the propane tanks, Wrigley said it was “quite dramatic” when the bomb squad detonated them. He suggested the tanks contained something similar to Tannerite, a commercial explosive that can be easily detonated with a shot from a high-powered rifle.
“Obvious motive to kill,” Wrigley said. “I mean, driven by hate. Driven by wanting to kill. Not particularized to some group that we can discern at this moment, not particularized to one individual that we can see.”
Reported to threat tracking system
Barakat had worked odd jobs, and briefly trained as an emergency responder at a nearby community college. He had no criminal record or social media presence and had so little contact with other people that the only photo law enforcement could provide was a blurry image of him lifted from a video.
He had, however, been reported to something called the Guardian Threat Tracking System. The FBI routinely opens what it refers to internally as assessments — the lowest level, least intrusive and most elementary stage of a terrorism-related inquiry — when it receives unconfirmed information about potentially suspicious behavior.
That information is catalogued in the Guardian system. During the assessment stage of an investigation, FBI agents are permitted to take certain basic investigative steps such as conducting online research or visual surveillance, but more sophisticated tools such as wiretaps cannot be undertaken without additional evidence of wrongdoing.
Mac Schneider, the U.S. attorney for North Dakota, said the Guardian system is a way for members of the public to engage with local law enforcement about “things of concern.” But he provided no additional details.
Whether Barakat had intended to survive the attack was unclear. He wore no body armor but did have a way to monitor what was happening at his apartment from afar, perhaps suggesting he had a plan, Wrigley said.
He added that there was no immediate indication that anyone had helped Barakat.
“There are lone wolves,” Wrigley said. “That’s a real concept.”
Wrigley said Koswick was badly injured and will have a difficult recovery. Zibolski said the wounded officers were briefly able to stand up out of their hospital beds on Thursday.
Wallin, who had been sworn in as a Fargo police officer in April and was still in field training, will be laid to rest Saturday in Pequot Lakes, Minn., where a funeral service will be held.
A military veteran, Wallin served in the Minnesota Army National Guard and was deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq from November 2020 to July 2021, according to a spokesperson for the Minnesota National Guard.
He will receive final military honours at a private interment.
“He served his country, came back here and wanted nothing more but to serve in a position with purpose and meaning — his exact words — and he did that,” Fargo police Chief David Zibolski said at a media briefing after the shooting.