Social media performer more engaged in self-promotion than in message-focused statement
SAN DIEGO, California––Claiming more than 300,000 people had viewed her 60-odd (and sometimes very odd) YouTube videos on vegan and animal rights themes, Nasim Aghdam on April 3, 2018, two days before what would have been her 38th birthday, abruptly multiplied her audience and further muddled her already often mixed messages by wounding three YouTube employees and then fatally shooting herself at the YouTube headquarters in San Bruno, California, just south of San Francisco.
Reviewing many of the Aghdam videos after the shootings, ANIMALS 24-7 observed that their one consistent emphasis was on herself and her narcissistic performances, more than on her nominal topics. This was to an extent perhaps normal in music videos made to promote individual stars, but abnormal in message-focused presentations.
In that light, even the YouTube shooting appears to have been an attention-grabbing stunt more than a statement.
Two of the shooting victims, two men and a woman, none of whom had prior acquaintance with Agadam, have now been released after brief hospital stays, while the oldest male victim, 36, has been downlisted from critical to serious condition.
YouTube age-restricted & “demonetized” videos
San Bruno police chief Ed Barberini and family members of Aghdam, including her father, Ismael Aghdam, have suggested that the shooter was motivated chiefly by anger that began to kindle after YouTube in 2016 imposed age restrictions on some of her videos, which appear to have been oriented toward teenagers.
YouTube then “demonetized” Aghdam’s four YouTube channels, as of February 20, 2018, because they were no longer reaching enough viewers to earn her a share of YouTube advertising revenue.
Under a “new advertising policy,” explained Kristen Sze and Vic Lee of ABC7 News, YouTube “demonetized channels with less than 1,000 subscribers and 4,000 hours of watch time. Though Aghdam’s main English channel had more than 5,000 subscribers, many of her videos appeared to be demonetized.”
Aghdam, along with several other vegan YouTube channel operators whose videos were “demonetized” at the same time, alleged that they were being censored.
Posted Aghdam to her personal web page, “Be aware! Dictatorship exists in all countries but with different tactics! They [apparently meaning YouTube] only care for personal and short-term profits and do anything to reach their goals even by fooling simple-minded people, hiding the truth, manipulating science, putting public mental and physical health at risk, abusing non-human animals, polluting the environment, destroying family values, promoting materialism and sexual degeneration in the name of freedom and turning people into programmed robots!”
“Social media star”
YouTube almost immediately after the shootings took down the Aghdam videos that the company recognized as hers. Several other social media platforms also deleted her material, but Aghdam broadcast in Farzi and at least one Turkish language as well as English, using many other screen names. Her videos reached viewers throughout the onetime Persian empire, including the modern nations of Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Iran, where The New York Times identified her as a “social media star” whose postings often “went viral.”
Among the screen names Aghdam used were “Nasime Sabz,” reportedly meaning “Green breeze” in Farzi, and “Nasim VeganBreeze.”
Dozens––perhaps all––of the many Aghdam videos remained easily accessible through other links long after the YouTube takedown.
Donald Trump Jr.
Within 24 hours of the YouTube headquarters shootings, more than 358,000 web pages had identified Aghdam as a vegan, 294,000 web pages had identified her as an animal rights activist, and 32,400 had linked Aghdam to PETA.
The count of web pages linking Aghdam to PETA soared to more than 44,000 soon after Donald Trump Jr., son of the U.S. president, posted to Twitter early on April 4, 2018, “You think there’s any chance whatsoever that a mass shooters hateful Instagram and YouTube channels would be pulled immediately if they were NRA members as opposed to liberal Vegan PETA activists? Asking for a few million friends in the @NRA.”
“Animal rights equal human rights”
But the so-called PETA connection was old and tenuous.
San Diego Union-Tribune staff writer Angelica Martinez had on August 12, 2009 mentioned toward the end of an article entitled “PETA event at Camp Pendleton protests Marines’ use of pigs” in wound treatment exercises for medics that, “Nasim Aghdam, a 29-year-old San Diego animal-rights activist, dressed in a wig and jeans painted with large blood drops for the protest.”
Said Aghdam to Martinez, “For me, animal rights equal human rights.”
Long before Trump Jr. Twittered, ANIMALS 24-7 had already confirmed with three different PETA spokespersons that as the first to respond put it, “She appeared at a few demonstrations about nine years ago, but changed her phone number and dropped out of sight.”
“Quiet, shy, gentle”
Other San Diego-area activists recognized Aghdam as an occasional participant in long-ago anti-fur demonstrations and protests against trophy hunting, but few recalled ever having actually met her or spoken with her.
One who was acquainted with her, Barbara Dunsmore of San Diego Animal Advocates, told ANIMALS 24-7, “It’s been years since I’ve seen Nasim, but from what I remember she was a very quiet, shy, gentle activist who came to many of our protests at Sea World and Fur Free Friday,” from circa 2008 until 2011––shortly after Aghdam started the first of her YouTube channels, in 2010.
“Didn’t befriend many of us”
“She was artsy and didn’t befriend many of us, and didn’t hang out with us after protests,” Dunsmore said, “but she and I emailed a few times way back when, about protests no doubt. She almost always came to protests in costume. She was very creative.”
Dunsmore theorized that making and posting YouTube videos “was her way of feeling she was contributing to the cause of veganism and raising awareness about animal rights. So when YouTube took that away from her, she snapped, I’m imagining.”
Though described by Dunsmore as “quiet” and “shy”, Aghdam projected a very different and even brazen image of herself on YouTube, always appearing solo but sometimes in superimposed multiple images. Her videos included singing and dancing to rap and hip-hop beats, often in parody of much better known performers; slapstick comedy; exercise routines; and, recently, straight-ahead angry diatribes directed at YouTube for allegedly censoring her.
Videos were full-time career
Producing YouTube videos, involving considerable investment in costumes, clothing, and artistic effects, was apparently Aghdam’s full-time occupation, albeit that the videos most likely earned her less than $10,000 per year.
The YouTube “demonetization” threatened to end Aghdam’s way of life.
“Aghdam entered the U.S. as a refugee roughly two decades ago,” reported an eight-member Los Angeles Times investigative news team. “In one of her videos, Aghdam said she was born in Urmia, Iran, and that her family had spent a year and a half in Turkey.”
Aghdam arrived in the U.S. in her late teens. She never fully assimilated, continuing to identify herself as “Persian.”
“American dream tarnished”
“The American dream appeared to be tarnished for her after she began to face hurdles in the United States,” wrote Daisuke Wakabayashi, Thomas Erdbrink, and Matthew Haag of The New York Times,
According to The New York Times’ translation from the Farzi original, Aghdam said in one video, “If you are superficial, you will think it is heaven here, that you can go naked outside and have sex left and right like other animals without any morality. But if you enter the system, you will see that it is worse than Iran. Those who want to inform people against the system and big companies get censored.”
Reported Stephanie Gosk, James Rainey, Courtney McGee and Tracy Connor for NBC News, “Public records show that she worked for her father’s electrical company and once had a company of her own called Peace Thunder. Her Facebook page described her simply as an ‘artist.’”
“In 2011,” at about the same time Aghdam dropped out of participation in animal rights demonstrations in the San Diego area, “she started a non-profit company called Peace Thunder,” elaborated Effie Orfanides for Heavy.com. “It is unknown if Aghdam ever got the company off the ground, as it is currently listed as “dissolved” by the California business register. It appears as though Peace Thunder was intended to be an animal rights foundation of sorts. A web archive of the website www.peacethunder.com,” now offline, “is filled with posts about animals and slaughter houses.”
“Killing any sentient being is wrong”
Said Aghdam herself on the Vegan Idea World web site, “I chose ‘Peace Thunder’ because veganism is not just a diet, it’s a belief that affects all stages of life such as relationship with animals, people, nature and daily choices. Abusing and killing any sentient being is wrong,” Aghdam said, “no matter if that sentient being is a human or a dog or a sheep. A vegan lifestyle opposes cruelty to animals and also environmental pollution. The livestock industry produces lots of harmful chemicals and waste that cause serious damage to nature, plants and animals, including humans. Therefore, adopting a vegan diet means adopting a peaceful lifestyle that harms no animals and does not pollute our planet.”
As well as prominently noting that Aghdam was a vegan animal rights activist, more than 470,000 web pages incorrectly identified Aghdam as Islamic, including 23,900 pages specifically contending she was a “jihadi,” or holy warrior in the service of Islam.
Another 111,000 web pages equally incorrectly identified Aghdam as Jewish. The only “evidence” for that contention appears to have been that she used a background of Stars of David in one of her last videos, in which––while denouncing YouTube as alleged propagandists––she quoted Adolph Hitler’s statement “Make the lie big. Make it simple. Keep saying it. And eventually they will believe it.”
Denounced animal sacrifice
Only 11,200 web pages correctly identified Aghdam with the Baha’i religion, established in Iran in the mid-19th century, persecuted as a heresy by the Shi’ite Islamists ruling Iran since 1980.
Aghdam had in truth been especially critical of Islam, denouncing “Muslims [and] even Bahai’s who believe in animal sacrifice and think animal blood will bring joy to their lives.”
“Meat is not food of kindness”
“From a very young age I used to care about the animals and their welfare,” Aghdam posted to the Vegan Idea World web site, “and think about the source of meat and where it came from. I knew that the fried chicken on my dinner plate once was a beautiful yellow chick! I was surprised to learn how people were so indifferent toward humanitarian issues; why harming and killing innocent animals were so normal to them; why they followed the ancient traditions no matter what they were. From that age I started opposing eating meat and wearing animal skin, and what my family and other people said in order to discourage me had no effect on me, because I had faith that meat is not a food of compassion and kindness.”
“Would always take insects outside”
Her uncle, Foruzan Ghodrattolah, confirmed that as the Los Angeles Times reported, “Aghdam had dedicated her life to animals. If she found an insect in her home she would not harm it.”
Said Ghodrattolah, “She would always take the insect outside and free it.”
Though her family are Baha’i, for most of her adult life Aghdam pursued animal advocacy from a secular perspective. Aghdam described herself as a “Persian Azeri [meaning ancestrally from Azerbaijan] female vegan athlete and animal rights activist,” who “produced and launched the first vegan Persian TV commercial and first Persian animal rights music video.”
“Do you dare”
Entitled Do You Dare, the video debuted in 2010 on Andisheh TV, a 24-hour-a-day satellite channel based in Los Angeles, broadcasting since June 2006.
From that start, Aghdam boasted, she became the most “well known and most famous animal rights activist in the Persian/Turkish community.”
Aghdam operated mostly from Southern California, but apparently ventured abroad at least twice.
“Supreme Master Ching Hai”
“At the turn of 2014,” she blogged as Nasime Sabz, “one of our campaigns led us to the Baha’i. Thanks to Supreme Master Ching Hai et al, we were already aware of some Baha’i texts containing guidance on diet and abstinence from animal flesh.”
How Aghdam/Sabz may have been involved with Ching Hai is unknown. But like Aghdam, Ching Hai has often posed in costumes and even with conspicuously dyed blonde hair. Unlike Aghdam, Ching Hai has succeeded in building a lucrative cult of personality around herself.
“A Vietnamese author, entrepreneur, and teacher of the Quan Yin Method of meditation,” according to Wikipedia, Ching Hai “founded the restaurant and fashion company Supreme Master Ching Hai International Association,” headquartered in Los Angeles.
From Ching Hai to Baha’i via Quakers
Ching Hai’s Loving Hut brand “is an international chain of more than 140 restaurants, which has been called the fastest-growing vegan franchise in the world,” summarized Justin Caffier for Vice in 2016.
Whatever relationship Aghdam had with Ching Hai, if any, Aghdam as Sabz on January 8, 2015 attended a discussion meeting with Baha’i leaders, she recounted, “at Leeds Quaker House,” which is in Leeds, England.
Aghdam seems to have been much more impressed with the Baha’i teaching that humans will at some time in the distant future abstain from eating animals than with present and historical Baha’i practice.
Meanwhile back in Iran
Aghdam appears to have returned to Iran at least once, in 2017. Heavily disguised with a wig and thick make-up, she––or someone using her identity––visited the VAFA animal shelter, the only dog shelter in Iran, in Hashtgerd, Alborz Province, about 45 miles from Tehran.
Aghdam left a small donation, ANIMALS 24-7 learned, signed only her last name in the guest book, and made herself conspicuous “for her bad language towards the leaders of Islamic Republic of Iran,” ANIMALS 24-7 was told.
Posed with a pit bull
VAFA animal shelter personnel supplied a photograph said to have been the mysterious visitor.
Digital analysis showed that all of her facial features matched Aghdam, as did the natural color of her hair, visible in several places beneath the wig.
Aghdam appears to have had very little other involvement in hands-on animal rescue, and next to none with dog-and-cat issues. She did at least once demonstrate against dog and cat consumption in South Korea, and posed on one occasion with a pit bull.
Smith & Wesson
What caused Aghdam to evolve from the “very quiet, shy, gentle activist” Dunsmore remembered to the furious woman who bought a Smith & Wesson 9-millimeter handgun, drove more than 500 miles from San Diego to San Bruno, then practiced shooting at a local firing range before invading the YouTube headquarters?
Perhaps Aghdam was never particularly well-balanced to begin with.
“No specific mental illness”
Observed the Los Angeles Times investigative team, “In one video, Nasim Najafi Aghdam refers to herself as a ‘ninja’ before making a series of odd, stunted motions spliced between clips from the reality series America’s Got Talent. In another video, she sports a blond pixie-cut wig while mocking people who choose to eat meat.
“In yet another video, the rail-thin and raven-haired Aghdam says in Farsi that she has no ‘specific physical or mental illness,’ but says she lives “in a planet that is filled with illness, and disorder and perversion and injustice.”
Her video footage, the Los Angeles Times writers assessed, “is a strange pastiche of parody clips, workout videos and vegan recipe suggestions, many of which are flagged by a warning not to steal her content. She sometimes refers to herself as a “vegan athlete” before flexing muscles and launching into a series of pushups. In one video, she can been seen dancing and wearing a sheep mask in front of a picture of a frowning cow, before the words ‘Go Vegan, Go Healthy & Humane’ appear across the screen.”
But while Aghdam’s presentations were quirky, the same could be said of myriad other vegan advocates, and indeed of PETA. No others have attempted a mass shooting.
“Missing person” report
Her father, Ismael Aghdam, and brother, Shahran Aghdam, though aware of Nasim Aghdam’s seething anger at YouTube, appear to have become alarmed only when they were unable to reach her by telephone over the Easter weekend.
They filed a “missing person” report with the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department on Monday, April 2.
Police in Mountain View, California, about an hour south of the YouTube offices in San Bruno, found Aghdam sleeping in her car at about 1:40 a.m. on April 3, about 12 hours before the shooting.
Did not mention YouTube to cops
“Aghdam told police she had left home due to family issues and was living out of her vehicle until she found a job,” a Mountain View police department statement said.
Aghdam did not “mention anything about YouTube, if she was upset with them, or that she had planned to harm herself or others,” the statement said, adding that, “Throughout our entire interaction with her, she was calm and cooperative.”
“Come and get me!”
Mountain View Police contacted Aghdam’s father and brother soon afterward. Both later told media that they had called back to warn that Nasim Aghdam might have been on her way to the YouTube headquarters, but “at no point did her father or brother mention anything about potential acts of violence or a possibility of Aghdam lashing out as a result of her issues with her videos,” according to the police statement.
Despite having just practiced shooting the handgun, Aghdam was not accurate, firing as many as 30-40 shots according to some witnesses.
Her last words before she shot herself, YouTube senior software engineer Zach Voorhies told CNN, were “Come at me,” or “come get me!”