The stabbing death of a 37-year-old American teacher in Abu Dhabi, apparently at the hands of a black-cloaked figure in a shopping mall, is a major security breach for the United Arab Emirates, which has long prided itself on standing against Islamic extremism and providing an oasis of calm in a turbulent region.
The murder comes just weeks after the U.S. Embassy in Abu Dhabi warned that an anonymous posting on a jihadist Web site called for the murder of American teachers in the Middle East, however, there’s still no evidence Monday’s stabbing could be considered a “terrorist” act.
The teacher, whose name has not been released but who has the initials ABR, was killed on Monday at the glitzy Boutik Mall after an apparent altercation with the figure in a women’s restroom. The Abu Dhabi Ministry of Interior released CCTV footage—with the bizarre addition of music from “The Dark Knight”—that showed the figure, clad in the all encompassing abaya, black gloves and a niqab face covering, a common outfit for religiously conservative Emirati women.
The video shows the figure enter the mall, speak briefly with a security guard, take a newspaper and enter a women’s restroom. According to time stamps on the video, approximately 90 minutes later, several women are seen scattering out of the entrance to restroom and the black-clad figure scurries toward the elevator. Another woman tries to block the figure’s path, but then retreats quickly. The figure enters the elevator and is then seen quickly leaving the mall, black cloth flapping behind it.
“The injured woman was immediately rushed to Sheikh Khalifa Medical City where she succumbed to the wounds she sustained in the attack,” the Abu Dhabi police force said in a statement. An investigation is underway, the police said, but that the suspect’s identity and motive were still unknown.
One nearby restaurant worker said she heard the two women arguing in the toilet, giving the first public account that the attacker was another woman.
“Women go to the bathroom together and gossip, talk and argue all the time,” Vithi Cuc told The National. “But then I heard one of them threatening the other saying, ‘Sit down or I’ll kill you.’”
Cuc then said she heard banging sounds in the stall.
“I heard one of them try to call out for help. By this time there were three of us outside the toilet and one of us ran to get security. When the female security guard arrived they told us to leave the bathroom.”
The blood-spattered knife—a blue-handled, 8-inch chef’s knife—was recovered at the scene, and the video shows the aftermath of what must have been a gruesome struggle, with the victim’s blood trailing through between the stalls.
The woman was a divorced mother of two 11-year-old twins, who are currently being cared for by local police until their father can come fetch them.
In an Oct. 29 posting on its web site, the U.S. Embassy in Abu Dhabi warned of “a recent anonymous posting on a Jihadist website that encouraged attacks against teachers at American and other international schools in the Middle East.”
“The Mission is unaware of any specific, credible threat against any American or other school or individual in the United Arab Emirates (UAE),” the statement continued. “Nonetheless, the Mission is working with local schools identified with the United States to review their security posture.”
Monday’s stabbing represents a rare and surprising failure of security in the Emirates, which are widely regarded as the safest and most stable countries in the region. Nearly 85 percent of its population are expats drawn to work in the rapidly growing tax-havens. Abu Dhabi’s Reem Island, where the Boutik Mall is located, is one of the most upscale and secure areas of the oil-rich emirate.
“I find it easy to live here as a westerner. There are so many of us around, and it is a very urban setting,” Natalie Cantini, an Italian-Austrian teacher who recently moved to Abu Dhabi, told Gulf News back in January.
Abu Dhabi, and the neighboring Dubai, have long been thought to be relatively inured to terrorist violence because of its robust security force and the attraction of its don’t ask, don’t tell banking laws. But it has recently taken a large role in the air war against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, earning it the nickname among American generals as “little Sparta.”
U.S. fighter jets are based at al-Dhafra Air Base, and UAE pilots have conducted more strikes against ISIS targets than any other country in the U.S.-led coalition, save the United States itself. In 2012, the UAE deployed six F-16s to Kandahar where its pilots were considered so skilled that they were allowed to fly hundreds close air-support missions and bomb Taliban positions, relieving NATO troops. In the campaign against ISIS, UAE pilots sometimes have even been given overall command on missions involving U.S. aircraft in close attacks on militants’ positions.
But whether that cooperation has made UAE more of a target for extremist groups is currently unknown, as were the motives of Monday’s attack at the mall.