Police in Mountain View, California denied Wednesday that the family of the woman believed responsible for a shooting at YouTube headquarters warned them she might take violent action, as authorities confirmed that they believe her rage over the company’s policies motivated the attack.
Around 1:40 a.m. Tuesday, Mountain View officers located a missing woman sleeping in her car in a shopping center parking lot. They spoke with her for about 20 minutes, confirmed she was okay, and notified her family that she had been located.
Eleven hours later, authorities say the same woman, Nasim Najafi Aghdam, walked up to staffers at YouTube headquarters in San Bruno about 25 miles north armed with a semiautomatic handgun and opened fire.
Three people were hurt in the attack, and a fourth injured an ankle while fleeing. Police believe Aghdam then took her own life.
Aghdam, who was in her late 30s, had been reported missing by her family Saturday, according to police. She had reportedly been living with her grandmother in San Diego, about 500 miles south of San Bruno.
Her father, Ismail Aghdam, told the Mercury News he had informed police she might be going to YouTube’s offices because she hated the company. Her brother told KGTV he made a similar warning to police after learning she was found in Mountain View, alerting them that “she might do something.”
In a Facebook post Wednesday, Mountain View police disputed the family’s account of those conversations. During the 20 minutes officers spoke with Aghdam on Tuesday morning, she gave no indication that she was a threat to herself or others and she made no mention of YouTube. She merely told officers she had left home because of family issues and was living out of her car while looking for a job.
Officers then contacted Aghdam’s father and brother, who confirmed the family was having issues but did not seem to express concern about why she had left, according to the Facebook post.
“At no point during that conversation did either Aghdam’s father or brother make any statements regarding the woman’s potential threat to, or a possible attack on, the YouTube campus,” police said. “Also, there was no indication from either Aghdam or her family that she may have been in possession of any weapons.”
About an hour later, Ismail and the brother called the police back and said Aghdam was angry about something YouTube did to her videos and she might have been in the area because of that. Again, Mountain View police said, the family did not raise the possibility of her lashing out violently.
According to John Iannarelli, a former FBI special agent and author of “How to Spot a Terrorist,” investigators will need to know exactly what the family said and who they notified to determine whether the warnings were handled properly. Officers might not have had a basis to do much about it unless there were signs of violent intent.
“You would need some sort of specific threat to be able to detain her, but if she’s making those sorts of veiled threats, at the very least security at YouTube should be notified,” he said.
Investigators are still working to determine exactly what Aghdam’s plan was, but information from social media postings and family members paints a picture of a troubled vegan animal rights activist with a deep hatred for the video-sharing site.
"We know she was upset with YouTube, and now we've determined that was the motive," San Bruno Police Chief Ed Barberini said Wednesday.
Born in Iran, Aghdam had social media accounts in English, Farsi, and Turkish. Videos she posted on YouTube and another video site, Daily Motion, included workout instructions, music parodies, vegan cooking tips, and animal abuse PSAs. She also had a YouTube page devoted to hand art.
Aghdam’s YouTube content and other social media posts were stripped from the web after she was identified as the suspected shooter. A personal website detailed her complaints about YouTube policies until it too was deactivated Wednesday.
“BE AWARE! Dictatorship exists in all countries but with different tactics!” she wrote on nasimesabz.com. “They only care for personal short term profits & do anything to reach their goals even by fooling simple-minded people, hiding the truth, manipulating science & everything, putting public mental & physical health at risk, abusing non-human animals, polluting environment, destroying family values, promoting materialism & sexual degeneration in the name of freedom,..... & turning people into programmed robots!”
She claimed that “close-minded youtube employees” filtered her videos, suppressed her voice, and slashed her profits. One screenshot showed she only received 10 cents in ad revenue for 367,000 video views.
According to family members, Aghdam complained often about YouTube’s treatment of her, asserting that the site ruined her life and insisting she was not the only victim. She had questioned why her nonsexual exercise videos were age-restricted while sexualized pop music videos were promoted.
In recent years, YouTube has become more aggressive in flagging offensive content. By marking Aghdam’s videos as age-restricted, the site also made them ineligible to receive payments for advertising. Others have lodged similar complaints about the monetization policies, but obviously none have gone this far.
“There is no equal growth opportunity on YOUTUBE or any other video sharing site,” Aghdam wrote, “your channel will grow if they want to!!!!!”
Posts on other social media sites reportedly followed the same themes. Her Facebook page featured a photo with the heading “YouTube Dictatorship.”
"When it comes to freedom of speech, do you think that Iran is better than USA or USA is better than Iran?” she asked in an Instagram video.
Aside from the YouTube rants, the nasimesabz.com site also showcases her animal rights activism with photos of herself holding a rabbit and a chicken. Alongside a photo of a car tire with a nail in it, she complained that “anti-vegan animal business supporting criminals” had tried to “harm/kill” her.
Police will be speaking to Aghdam’s family and friends, analyzing her computers and mobile devices, and reviewing medical records to try to piece together her history. Barberini revealed Wednesday that she visited a shooting range in the hours before the attack.
According to Iannarelli, Aghdam stands out from typical suspects in mass shootings and workplace shootings in two ways.
“What makes yesterday different is the fact that it wasn’t an internal known employee,” he said. “However, it’s not unheard of that you have disgruntled customers come in and commit this kind of shooting.”
Also, the vast majority of shooters are male. Of 28 mass attack incidents in 2017, the Secret Service reported that none of the suspects were women. An FBI study of 220 active shooter cases from 2000 to 2016 found only 4 percent of shooters were female.
“Traditionally, we don’t see women engage in these types of actions, with the exception of cases of terrorism,” Iannarelli said.
A study led by Adam Lankford, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Alabama, examined 292 mass shootings around the world from 1966 to 2012 and identified only one female suspect. It is not clear how significant Aghdam’s deviation from that pattern would be, though.
“It’s certainly interesting and unusual that it was a woman, but because female offenders have been so rare,” Lankford said, “there’s not a statistical basis to make assumptions that female shooters are different from male shooters.”
The disparity reflects similar trends in murder in general. According to the FBI, only 7.7 percent of murder offenders in 2015 were known to be female.
“It may be human nature and personalities and acting with aggression,” Iannarelli said. “It’s not to say you can’t have aggression in both men and women. It just seems to be more prevalent in men. But obviously acting out in this way is not the norm.”
Though most shooters historically are male, Peter Langman, a psychologist and author of “School Shooters: Understanding High School, College, and Adult Perpetrators,” cautioned against focusing too much on physical characteristics.
“There is no one profile,” he said. “They’re just too diverse. They’re different kinds of people who commit different types of attacks for different reasons.”
According to Thomas Veivia, a former FBI agent who served as a senior SWAT team leader responding to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, Aghdam’s alleged behavior follows common patterns for perpetrators of targeted violence.
“It begins with a perceived or real grievance and then escalates through the ‘pathway to violence,’” he said. “In this case, she had a grievance against YouTube for ‘demonetizing’ her YouTube videos. This is likely something very real to her but would not be as significant to most people.”
There is often a triggering event that leads such a person to shift from preparation to action. Aghdam may have left information behind that attempts to explain or justify her actions, but Veivia does not expect some more complicated motive to be revealed.
“That's not to say that it wasn't a complex issue in her mind, but, the reality will likely be that she developed a simple grievance and it became more to her then it would for others,” he said.
In his research, Lankford has identified three psychological traits that mass shooting suspects often have, and it appears Aghdam displayed all three.
“These offenders are typically suicidal or life-indifferent…,” he said. “They often perceive themselves to have been victimized…. A significant subset seems to have desires for attention or fame.”
Lankford noted that Aghdam’s effort to profit off of YouTube videos was essentially trying to make a living by attracting attention online.
“There is an irony that she will get far more attention for killing than she did for her videos,” he added.
As more details are revealed about Aghdam’s words and behavior leading up to the shooting, experts say it is important for the public to recognize the red flags that are emerging and understand what to do if they see similar behavior in others.
“People need to know that, as so often is the case, there were warning signs…,” Langman said. “When there are warning signs of violence, take them seriously and report them.”