LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – A Muslim convert charged with fatally shooting an American soldier at a military recruiting center said Tuesday that he doesn't consider the killing a murder because U.S. military action in the Middle East made the killing justified.
"I do feel I'm not guilty," Abdulhakim Muhammad told The Associated Press in a collect call from the Pulaski County jail. "I don't think it was murder, because murder is when a person kills another person without justified reason."
Pvt. William Andrew Long, 23, of Conway had just completed basic training and was volunteering at the west Little Rock recruiting office before starting an assignment in South Korea. He was shot dead June 1 while smoking a cigarette outside the building, and a fellow soldier, Pvt. Quinton I. Ezeagwula, 18, of Jacksonville was wounded.
Ezeagwula (eh-ZAG-u-la) spoke briefly at a news conference at a Jacksonville recruiting center Tuesday, saying he had wounds in his back, head and buttocks from the shooting.
The private, who also had just completed basic training, said he hopes to become a heavy equipment operator in the Army and later serve as a drill instructor. An Army captain repeatedly stopped Ezeagwula from answering questions about what happened during the shooting or his thoughts about the suspect.
Muhammad told the AP he admitted to his actions to police and said he was retaliating against the U.S. military.
"Yes, I did tell the police upon my arrest that this was an act of retaliation, and not a reaction on the soldiers personally," Muhammad said. He called it "a act, for the sake of God, for the sake of Allah, the Lord of all the world, and also a retaliation on U.S. military."
In the interview, Muhammad also disputed his lawyer's claim that he had been "radicalized" in a Yemeni prison and said fellow prisoners that some call terrorists were actually "very good Muslim brothers."
He also said he didn't specifically plan the shootings that morning.
"It's been on my mind for awhile. It wasn't nothing planned really. It was just the heat of the moment, you know," said Muhammad, who was arrested on a highway shortly after the attack.
Prosecutor Larry Jegley, who on Monday won a gag order in the case, declined to comment specifically on Muhammad's remarks.
"I asked for the gag order to protect Mr. Muhammad's right for a fair trial," Jegley said. "I've never had a situation like this with a gag order and I'm sure Mr. Muhammad's attorney will take care of it."
The Associated Press sent an interview request to Muhammad last week, before a judge ordered parties in the case to remain quiet. After Tuesday's interview, Muhammad's lawyer Jim Hensley sent an e-mail to the AP asking it to withhold his client's remarks.
Muhammad, 23, said he wanted revenge for claims that American military personnel had desecrated copies of the Quran and killed or raped Muslims. "For this reason, no Muslim, male or female, sane or insane, little, big, small, old can accept or tolerate," he said.
He said the U.S. military would never treat Christians and their Scriptures in the same manner.
"U.S. soldiers are killing innocent Muslim men and women. We believe that we have to strike back. We believe in eye for an eye. We don't believe in turning the other cheek," he said.
Asked whether he considered the shootings at the recruiting center an act of war, Muhammad said "I didn't know the soldiers personally, but yes, it was an attack of retaliation. And I feel that other attacks, not by me or people I know, but definitely Muslims in this country and others elsewhere, are going to attack for doing those things they did," especially desecrating the Quran.
Muhammad was arrested on a capital murder charge in state court and could face the death penalty. FBI spokesman Steve Frazier said Tuesday a federal investigation continues and any information that's gathered is being shared with local law enforcement. He declined to comment further.
An FBI-Homeland Security intelligence assessment document obtained by The Associated Press last week suggested the gunman may have considered targeting other locations, including Jewish and Christian sites in several eastern U.S. cities.
Muhammad had moved to Arkansas in the spring to work at his father's bus tour company and had never attended the Islamic Center of Little Rock, a mosque frequented by most of the area's Muslims, said Iftikhar Pathan, the center's president.
Pathan said he spoke with most of the nearly 300 people who attend Friday prayers at the mosque and no one knew him. Those at the mosque also spoke with FBI agents in the days immediately after the shooting, he said.
"What he had in his mind, God knows," Pathan said.
Last week, Hensley said his client, born Carlos Bledsoe, had been tortured and "radicalized" in a Yemeni prison after entering the country to teach English. He was held there for immigration violations, and Yemeni officials have denied mistreatment.
"Those claims ... are all lies," Muhammad said Tuesday. "That never happened in Yemen. The officials dealt with me in a gentle way."