Weeks before he would be accused of detonating a bomb in a New York subway corridor, Akayed Ullah was a "happy" religious man, so "loving and giving" that he traveled hundreds of miles, at one point sleeping under a tree, to deliver medicine to Rohingya refugees. That's the portrait painted by friends and relatives of the Bangladesh native interviewed by the New York Times, which presents a strikingly different portrayal alongside its own. The Times reports Ullah—who investigators say was monitoring jihadi websites—might not have been "following his own heart" but rather the directions of al-Qaeda, which had urged Muslims to help the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic group that recently fled Myanmar. Ullah would later tell investigators he was inspired by the Islamic State to attack the US for policies targeting Muslims.
Those who knew him say the 27-year-old didn't seem like the kind of person to commit a terrorist act, though his mother-in-law says he returned from refugee camps in September enraged that the Rohingya were "living in hell." Around the same time, he tried to get his wife to read a book written by a jailed Islamic scholar calling for the murders of those who insult Islam. Some wonder whether Ullah met militants known to be recruiting at the Rohingya camps. "Definitely someone helped him around," a former member of an Islamist group tells the Times. A complaint, however, states Ullah began reading about ISIS online in 2014, three years after he moved to New York, and researched explosives in 2016, per Quartz. "You guys in the West are naive," an analyst tells the Times. "You give more space for the preachers, the hate speech. We don't tolerate it."