VA Tech mass shooting: Who or what is Ismail Ax? UPDATED

B. Frank says,

The Virginia Tech shooter [Cho Seung-Hui] had the words ""Ismail Ax"" written in red ink on his arm, according to this blog from the Chicago Tribune.

What does that mean? A google search shows nothing. Maybe the readers of Boing Boing could shed some light on this?

My research so far only tells me:

-Ismail is an Islamic prophet.

-AX may also stand for the Alpha Chi Omega women's fraternity, which I found does have a chapter at Virginia Tech.

Any other ideas? I know in the grand scheme of things, it's irrelevant, but for me, trying to shed some light on the psychology of the person responsible for tragedy is a way of dealing.

Previously on BB:

  • VA Tech: guns on campus, TV producers on Facebook
  • VA Tech: questions, copycat odds, and 'net nabs wrong man
  • VA Tech massacre: 33+ dead, largest shooting in US history

    [Editor's note: the reader responses that follow in this post are speculation. By sharing those responses here, I do not intend to imply that any are my own speculation, or that any are fact.]

    Reader comment:

    BB reader William McEwan points to what he believes is a possible link, in Islamic theological history:

    Ibrahim Confronts his People and Rejects their Idols

    He left his father after he lost hope to convert him to the right path, and directed his efforts towards the people of the town, but they rejected his call and threatened him. By Allah, he said, I shall plot a plan to destroy their idols. He knew that a big celebration was coming soon, where everybody would leave town for a big feast on the riverbank. After making sure that nobody was left in town, Ibrahim went towards the temple armed with an ax. Statues of all shapes and sizes were sitting there adorned with decorations. Plates of food were offered to them, but the food was untouched. "Well, why don't you eat? The food is getting cold." He said to the statues, joking; then with his axe he destroyed all the statues except one, the biggest of them. He hung the ax around its neck and left.

    Roba says,

    Ismail is not an "Islamic prophet". Actually, Ismael is Arabic for Ishmael, and here's what wikipedia has to say about Ishmael: Link.

    Brian says,

    He may have been trying to write the name "Ishmael." Wikipedia notes: "The name has come to symbolize orphans, exiles, and social outcasts."

    Michael Spencer adds,

    The conspiracist side of me notes that the semi-legendary Hashshashin (from which we get the word assassin) were Ismailis, a subsect of the Shi'a. Fans of William S. Burroughs and Robert Anton Wilson will be familiar with the assassins of Hasan Sabah. Here's a link to a page about the Ismailis and the Assasins (scroll down). It's probably just a coincidence, but I thought I'd throw it into the mix. Thanks for your excellent reporting.

    Steve says,

    This guy seems to have found a fairly convinving explanation. Especially if it turns out that Seung-Hui was Muslim.

    "For those of you still searching for meaning in this phrase, written in ink on Cho Seung-Hui's arm and also how he signed his infamous note, it starts with the story of Ibrahim's Ax (Ibrahim = Abraham):

    After making sure that nobody was left in town, Ibrahim went towards the temple armed with an ax. Statues of all shapes and sizes were sitting there adorned with decorations. Plates of food were offered to them, but the food was untouched. "Well, why don't you eat? The food is getting cold." He said to the statues, joking; then with his ax he destroyed all the statues except one, the biggest of them. He hung the ax around its neck and left.
    –The Koran

    Ismail was Ibrahim's son. It was Ismail that Ibrahim wanted to sacrifice for Yahweh (with an ax)."

    Doyle says,

    These provocative pieces are very interesting, but let us please remember that this is all very loose speculation right now. People were bound to speculate that the shooter could be Muslim. It is worth noting that the odds of him being Muslim upon arrival to the U.S. are infinitesimal: according to Wikipedia, only perhaps 40,000 Muslims live in Korea, in a population of 47.500,000 (or less than one in 1000.) Keep finding these interesting pieces, but remember that what leads us to them is far, far from certain.

    Hameed Chugtai says,

    I agree with BoingBoing reader Doyle's comments about predicting the religion of the
    shooter. Speculating him as Muslim, based on the finding of wording
    "Ismail AX", leans toward the islamophobic thoughts. The character
    Ismael belongs not only to a single but to various Abrahamic religions
    i.e. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, etc, and most of these religions
    predates Islam. More news is surfacing about the
    shooter's social interactions, which could lead to the fact that he
    was a psychotic, and may not have had much religious
    influence at all. Perhaps he just took the story of Abraham in a mythological way
    (even if it is remotely related). Has anyone thought or come up with a
    non religious explanation of 'Ismail AX'? It is amazing to see how
    people quickly connect anything bad with one religion. It's like they are
    looking for an excuse, not the answers.

    Regarding a photo which may or may not have anything, after further investigation, looks like it most likely has nothing to do with this story, and this person — Gabe says,

    I found this photo dated August 1, 2006 on Flickr. Caption: "He's a South Korean. Ismail is not his real name. He use it because his name is very hard to pronounce, especially for Indonesian people. His real name is Cho Seung Hoo ……. or is it Jo Sung Ho?"

    Chomjangi says,

    Elda Rossell, the user who posted the photo on Flicker has a blog entry at this link regarding Ismail. Can anyone translate?

    Mithras Invicti says,

    I looked at the pics on Elda Rossell's flikr, figured out she's Indonesian, then ran the blog post through an Indonesian-English machine translator and got this (crappy but helpful) output:

    Just sy was finished chatted with one of the guests WH. he South Koreans. His name of Ismail. Yep… you gak wrong read … his name of Ismail.

    Sy surprised also by the name of him, trus sy tny he, is it true that that his name.
    Evidently that his Indonesian name, the name in fact was Jo Sung Ho.

    He and several of his colleagues from KorSel, was studying Indonesian for 2 months in WH. after that he will go to Palembang to teach the computer in the TECHNICAL COLLEGE OF MACHINERY for 2 years.

    Ow, susye true chatted was the same Ismail/Sung Ho … because he was not yet fluent in Indonesian. Bhs England then only a little (sami mawon sm sy).

    But according to sy, he has been moderate could compared to his friends (sy sometimes still liked to laugh in view of the fact that his friend had difficulty really asked Indonesian).
    Trus sy every was the same Ismail, he must often chat with Indonesians yg was in WH.

    By the way the matter of the name, they were asked to choose the Indonesian name personally. Sy asked why Sung Ho chose the Ismail name, he every because he wanted to be friends with the person Islam. Trus he mentioned the veil, then mentioned the name of Ms Siam (one of the employees WH) that wore the veil.

    Sy also asked whether the Indonesian name his friends. Ismail mentioned Indra, the Torment … yep…ka you also were not wrong read … was yg his name the Torment, bayangin then!

    Sy, Mbak Rus and yg other agreed if the name must be replaced.
    Possibly sy tomorrow could speak first with Ismail ttg this because we janjian to chat again tomorrow night.

    Palembang is an Indonesian city. Googling KorSel Indonesia results in a team playing in badminton tournaments there. My interpretation is that this took place in Indonesia. Nothing about the shooter indicates he visited (much less studied or worked) there. So, I guess it's not the guy.

    Laurie BK says,

    Cho Seung-Hui, an English major, may have possibly been alluding to the famous novel of good-evil conflict "Moby-Dick", with its biblically named boat and characters, including a death obsessed narrator opening the first chapter with "Call me Ishmael." Captain Ahab was on an obsessive suicide mission to take down a white whale. Harpooner and cannibal Queequeg enlists in the crew of Ahab's whaling ship, signing his name by copying "down a peculiar mark that's tattooed on his arm" (Wikipedia). Queequeg also smokes socially from his tomahawk pipe. Years after "Moby Dick" was published, author Herman Melville suffered from depression and was viewed as slightly insane, and tragically his son Malcolm committed suicide in 1867.

    This is all novel speculation on a real-life epic tragedy. I'm sorry no answers nor questions will even begin to console the pain of the bereaved.

    Daniel J. Geduld says,

    Not sure if this is a connection or not, but it very possibly
    could be. A search on 'Ishmael's Ax' (I realize the spelling is
    slightly different, but if the killer wrote that, I'm guessing
    spelling was not in his right mind) comes up with a link in the book
    Ishmael by E.D.E.N. Southworth [ aka Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte Southworth ].

    Here is how the novel is described:

    "E.D.E.N. Southworth considers Ishmael to be her very best work, being
    founded on the life of one of the noblest of our countrymen who really
    lived, suffered, toiled, and triumphed in this land. Its inspirations
    of wisdom and goodness were drawn from the examples of heroic warriors
    and statesmen of the Revolution. Ishmael–born in the depths of
    poverty, misery, and humiliation and raised to the summit of fame–was
    good as well as great. His life is proof that there is no depth of
    human misery from which we may not, by virtue, energy, and
    perseverance, rise to earthly honors, and by God's grace, attain
    eternal glory

    Here is the relevant section:


    "Well, Hannah, my dear, I'm thankful as you feel any interest in me at
    all; and I'll tell you everything. Let me see, what was it you was
    wanting to know, now? all about myself; where I was living; how I was
    getting along; and what fotch me back here; all soon told, Hannah, my

    First about myself: You see, Hannah, that day as you slammed the
    door in my face I felt so distressed in my mind as I didn't care what on
    earth became of me; first I thought I'd just 'list for a soldier; then I
    thought I'd ship for a sailor; last I thought I'd go and seek my fortun'
    in Californy; but then the idea of the girls having no protector but
    myself hindered of me; hows'evar, anyways I made up my mind, as come
    what would I'd leave the neighborhood first opportunity; and so, soon
    after, as I heard of a situation as overseer at Judge Merlin's
    plantation up in the forest of Prince George's County, I sets off and
    walks up there, and offers myself for the place; and was so fort'nate as
    to be taken; so I comes back and moves my family, bag and baggage, up

    Now as to the place where I live, it is called Tanglewood, and a
    tangle it is, as gets more and more tangled every year of its life. As
    to how I'm getting on, Hannah, I can't complain; for if I have to do
    very hard work, I get very good wages.

    As to what brought me back to the
    neighborhood, Hannah, it was to do some business for the judge, and to
    buy some stock for the farm. But there, my dear! that boy has slipped
    out, and is cutting the wood; I'll go and do it for him," said Reuben,
    as the sound of Ishmael's ax fell upon his ears.

    Hannah arose and followed Gray to the door, and there before it stood
    Ishmael, chopping away at random, upon the pile of wood, his cheeks
    flushed with fever and his eyes wild with excitement.

    "Hannah, he is ill; he is very ill; he doesn't well know what he is
    about," said Reuben, taking the ax from the boy's hand.

    "Ishmael, Ishmael, my lad, come in; you are not well enough to work,"
    said Hannah anxiously.

    Ishmael yielded up the ax and suffered Reuben to draw him into the

    "It is only that I am so hot and dizzy and weak, Mr. Middleton; but I am
    sure I shall be able to do it presently," said Ishmael apologetically,
    as he put his hand to his head and looked around himself in perplexity.

    "I'll tell you what, the boy is out of his head, Hannah, and it's my
    belief as he's a going to have a bad illness," said Reuben, as he guided
    Ishmael to the bed and laid him on it.

    "Oh, Reuben! what shall we do?" exclaimed Hannah.

    "I don't know, child! wait a bit and see."

    Link downloadable text of "Ishmael by Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte Southworth" at Project Gutenberg.