The stabbing death of an American schoolteacher in a bathroom at an upscale mall in Abu Dhabi this week has shocked the United Arab Emirates, citizens and international residents alike. Violent crime is rare in the Emirates, a place where glitzy shopping centers are the hub of social life.
An Emirate woman in her 30s is suspected of having killed Ibolya Ryan, formerly of Colorado. Security police say the suspect was identified from surveillance video at the Boutik Mall that shows her near the scene of Monday’s attack dressed from head to toe in a black robe and black gloves. Officials announced her arrest on Thursday.
Authorities said the suspect confessed that she targeted Ryan because she was an American. A police statement said the attack was based “on nationality alone and had nothing to do with personal issues.”
The suspect has been linked to another crime that same day involving an American. Authorities say they defused a homemade bomb that had been placed at the front door of a 46-year-old Arab-American doctor.
That the suspect is a citizen of the UAE has unsettled a country that values security over democracy and that depends on stability for its impressive economic growth in a region where stability is rare.
“We never had an event like this,” says academic Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, his voice rising as he insists the violence is isolated and will not be repeated.
U.S. embassies in the region have issued warnings in recent weeks after radical websites encouraged attacks on American teachers. That followed a Sept. 22 statement from the spokesman of the so-called Islamic State, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, directing supporters to kill Westerners and people from any country that takes part in attacks on the Islamic State — and wherever possible to “kill him in any manner or way however it may be.”
The schoolteacher was slashed to death with a kitchen knife recovered at the scene.
The UAE has taken a prominent role in the fight against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. Emirate pilots, including a highly publicized female jet pilot, joined the U.S.-led coalition in air attacks in Syria and Iraq.
“It was almost inevitable that there would be blowback,” said one American resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity on a sensitive topic. “At the same time, it doesn’t mean the country will collapse.”
The UAE is a haven for international residents, who make up 91 percent of the population. “Everyone is welcome here,” the American says. “Bring your money, but don’t make problems.”
But the regional instability seems to have swept into that Abu Dhabi shopping mall. The attack fits a trend of terrorist acts through inspiration rather than a direct order from militant groups such as the Islamic State. After the Islamic State issued a call in September to kill Westerners, a group in Algeria murdered a French tourist, a Canadian soldier was killed in Ottawa, and Saudi Arabia saw deadly attacks on Shiites in the Eastern province as well as separate attacks on a U.S. national and a Danish national.
“This woman doesn’t represent the UAE; it’s isolated” says Abdullah, the academic.
To ensure the violence remains “isolated,” security authorities sent a strong message to any other potential “lone wolves” in the UAE. The surveillance video was released within hours of the crime, a detailed set of clear images showing a black-clad woman moving quickly from the scene of the crime as shoppers tried to grab her. Police also released a highly produced video of the arrest — more than a dozen heavily armed agents shown standing over a woman kneeling on the floor after a murder in the mall.