‘Vegan Bodybuilder’: How YouTube Attacker, Nasim Aghdam, Went Viral in Iran
TEHRAN — In Iran, she was known as Green Nasim, a social media star with followings on YouTube, on Instagram and elsewhere.
In the United States, the star cast a very different profile, a proponent of vegan diets and home exercise who had increasingly become agitated by one of the tech companies that helped give her a platform.
On Tuesday afternoon, Nasim Najafi Aghdam sneaked into YouTube’s headquarters in San Bruno, Calif., and opened fire, shooting three people before taking her own life. The police said she had appeared to target the company over its policies, which she had claimed were being used to censor her.
“People like me are not good for big business, like for animal business, medicine business and for many other businesses. That’s why they are discriminating and censoring us,” she said in a video posted online last year criticizing YouTube. “This is what they are doing to vegan activists and many other people who try to promote healthy, humane and smart living.”
Ms. Aghdam was in her late 30s, and was recently living in Southern California. In several of her videos, she stated that she was born in Iran, in the city of Urmia, where most people also speak Turkish, as she does in some of her videos. Ms. Aghdam had YouTube pages in Persian, Turkish and English. She explained that she and her family were members of the Baha’i faith, which faces persecution in Iran, a country with a Muslim majority.
It was perhaps her inability to easily fit a stereotype — her website, which said it was quoting Western news outlets, identified her as “the first Persian female vegan bodybuilder” — that drew so many to her here in Iran, where she had tens of thousands of followers.
“Now the media will be faced with a new type of Iranian female which does not fit within any of their usual categorizations,” a Twitter user named Katayoon said Wednesday.
“This was shocking and saddening,” one Iranian, Bahare, wrote on Twitter of Ms. Aghdam. “We laughed so much but now it turns out all those videos were so serious for herself.”
Several of Mrs. Aghdam’s colorful and at-times bizarre videos have gone viral in Iran. She became especially famous for one clip in which she wears a revealing purple dress, showing cleavage, and begins to slowly strip off her clothes to reveal a pair of fake plastic breasts. “Don’t trust your eyes,” read a caption in English on the clip.
Ms. Aghdam dedicated several of her videos to promoting animal rights, vegan diets and healthy living. In one video, she sat in front of a screen with a rabbit, as she tried to explain in Persian the differences between vegetarianism and veganism. In another, she presented her viewers with a papaya, extolling the benefits of the fruit. “Eat it when it turns yellow,” she said, sporting dark sunglasses and a zebra-striped cowboy hat.
But Ms. Aghdam’s activism belied a dark streak.
Life in the United States had not been good, she said in one video from March 30. “There they kill you by ax,” she said of Iran. “Here they kill you with cotton,” referring to an Iranian expression meaning dying by something that you do not know is dangerous.
In another video, she responded to viewers who had begun to wonder if she was mentally ill: “I don’t have any special mental or physical disease, but I live on a planet filled with disease, disorders, perversions and injustices.”
The American dream appeared to be tarnished for her after she began to face hurdles in the United States.
“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,” she said in one video in Persian. “But if you enter the system, you will see that it is worse than Iran,” she said. “Those who want to inform people against the system and big companies get censored.”
About 11 hours before the shooting, Ms. Aghdam was startled awake in the parking lot in Mountain View, a suburb 30 miles south of YouTube’s campus. It’s the city where YouTube’s parent company, Google, has its headquarters.
Ms. Aghdam had been sleeping in her car when police officers came across it. A missing-persons report had been filed for her, and the officers began to question her. She told them that she had been having issues with her family, and that she had come to Northern California to find a job. She didn’t appear to the police to be a danger, to herself or others, so she was soon let go.
The police then spoke to Ms. Aghdam’s father and brother, and at one point, her father said YouTube had recently done something to her videos that had caused her to become upset. “She was angry,” her father, Ismail Aghdam, told the Bay Area News Group.
Later on Tuesday, Ms. Aghdam went to a nearby shooting range. Then, just after noon, she parked her car at a business near YouTube’s offices. She walked into one of YouTube’s parking garages, and then emerged into an outdoor courtyard where employees were eating lunch.
Emergency officials arrived at YouTube’s offices two minutes after the police first received 911 calls about shots being fired. When they arrived, they found Ms. Aghdam dead. A 9-millimeter semiautomatic handgun, registered in her name, was found at the scene.
By Tuesday night, YouTube, as well as Instagram and Facebook, had taken down her pages and videos. Ed Barberini, the chief of the San Bruno Police Department, said Wednesday that investigators were aware of Ms. Aghdam’s criticism of YouTube and Google.
“We are learning that Ms. Aghdam had a problem with the policies or practices that YouTube had employed,” Chief Barberini said in an interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” “Obviously, she was upset.”
On her channel on Telegram, a social media network extremely popular in Iran, her last post is a childhood picture of herself standing among flowers. It has no caption.
Thomas Erdbrink reported from Tehran, and Matthew Haag from New York.