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WAR WITH IRAQ

From Honor Student to Suspect in Grenade Attack

Locke High graduate Asan Akbar, held in attack at base, is recalled as devout and humble.

March 25, 2003|Duke Helfand, Dan Morain and Steve Hymon | Times Staff Writers

Asan Akbar seemed like the kind of kid who might launch his own business, a devout Muslim who graduated third in his high school class, belonged to an honor society and won scholarships, classmates and teachers said.

Fifteen years later, he is under military arrest, suspected of a grenade attack in Kuwait that killed a 101st Airborne Division captain and wounded 15 soldiers -- a grisly chapter in the war against Iraq.

The gap between those two images of Akbar baffles those who believed they knew him, and those who are investigating.

Akbar had no motive for launching an attack against fellow soldiers, his mother said Monday. "My child wouldn't do anything like that."

Federal agents say they are investigating several scenarios that could have led to the deadly episode, including the possibility that Akbar's attack had long been planned.

"This whole idea that he could have been pre-positioned in the military is something that has to be looked at," said one Justice Department official. But so far there is no evidence that Akbar acted in concert with others, he added.

Even Akbar's decision to join the military in April 1998 came as a surprise.

One housemate from Akbar's years at UC Davis said he was astonished that Akbar enlisted.

"He just struck me as coming from a different culture," said the housemate, a former Marine who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Witnesses said the suspect in the killings rolled a grenade into each of three tents of sleeping officers and senior noncommisioned officers and shot at least two fellow soldiers as they ran out of the tents. Capt. Christopher Scott Seifert, 27, was killed in the attack.

The incident is under investigation and charges have not yet been filed, military officials said.

Quran Bilal, Akbar's mother, said she had not heard about the incident until a newspaper reporter called her in Louisiana on Sunday. "I thought it was someone joking with me or playing a game with me," Bilal said.

Bilal said she last saw her son, a combat engineer, in January at Ft. Campbell, Ky., where he was stationed. "He was putting all his stuff in storage," she said. "He said he was going [to Iraq] to blow up bridges."

Bilal described her son as a good Muslim who regularly attended services at a mosque. He was not a man who harbored grudges, she said. "He never expressed any anger about the Army to me."

She added, "I would like to see him. I want to see him in his face. I don't believe nothing until I see him.... What would he want to do this for? He had no reason, no motives. When you have children you know what they would do, and my child wouldn't do anything like that."

Akbar was born in Los Angeles 31 years ago as Mark Fidel Kools. His mother changed his name to Hasan Akbar when he was 3. Later, the spelling of the first name was changed to Asan.

Bilal and her family moved to Louisiana when Akbar was young, staying for about eight years before returning to Los Angeles. For a while, the family lived on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard near Central Avenue, almost directly across the street from the Bilal Islamic Center, where Akbar attended Sunday classes.

To those who knew him at Locke High School, Akbar was a model student.

He spent his junior and senior years at the South Los Angeles campus, where he competed in track, worked in the college counseling office and distinguished himself as a member of the academic decathlon team.

By the time he graduated in 1988, Akbar had a 3.67 grade-point average.

"He was a sound, straight student -- a humble, well-mannered young man," said Principal L. Gail Garrett, who was a Locke teacher in the late 1980s and remembered Akbar well.

Akbar did not make his religious beliefs known to others and never expressed antipathy toward the United States, Garrett said.

Akbar was well liked by those around him; he was nominated by his teachers and peers to join the Ephebians -- an honor society reserved for top students as a reward for good grades and community service in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

On Monday, Garrett pulled out a copy of Locke High's yearbook from 1988 and showed Akbar's senior class picture. In it, he looked younger than his peers, his smile and cheeks filling the entire picture.

"Look at him," she said, "he was just a sweetheart."

An SAT score high relative to others at Locke won Akbar scholarship money and acceptance to UC Davis.

Locke's college counselor, John Mandell, said he expected Akbar to attend graduate school and that his former student talked about starting his own engineering firm to improve the lot of other young people.

"He was very passive, even-keeled. A nice sense of humor. He wasn't a radical."

But at Davis, Akbar's reputation as a diligent student rapidly diminished.

"He didn't seem to be a very good student because he wasn't really into it," professor Mont Hubbard said Monday.

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