Chattanooga - Confirming their probe of Thursday’s mass shooting is a terrorism investigation, grim-faced federal authorities disclosed the 24-year-old suspect had two “long guns,” a sidearm and a vest for carrying extra ammunition when he killed four Marines in a hail of bullets here.
An FBI official said some of Mohammod Youssuf Abdulazeez’s weapons were purchased legally while others may not have been. He added authorities are investigating his foreign travel and online writings. Abdulazeez has reportedly traveled to Jordan and has written a blog about his Islamic faith. In a pair of blog entries posted three days before the killings, the Kuwaiti-born U.S. citizen mentioned jihad and said life is “short and bitter.”
The investigators have so far not identified a motive for the killings, but the Republican leader of the House’s Homeland Security Committee told reporters Friday the violence appeared motivated by Islamic extremism. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, cited the Islamic State as the inspiration for the shootings.
Investigators also said it appears Abdulazeez didn’t die by his own hand but that Chattanooga police officers shot him dead during a fierce firefight outside the Navy Operational Support Center and Marine Corps Reserve Center. An autopsy, however, had not been completed.
“It was clear that this gunman had every intent to encounter and to murder police officers, if he needed to,” Chattanooga Police Chief Fred Fletcher told reporters at a heavily attended news conference Friday.
Moments before Fletcher spoke, Bill Killian, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Tennessee, told reporters the probe is being treated as a “terrorism investigation” and is being led by the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Forces.
“And we will continue to investigate it as an act of terrorism until proof shows us otherwise,” he said. “We will let the facts and the evidence lead us where they may.”
Asked about the possibility that the Islamic State inspired the attack, Edward Reinhold, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Knoxville division, said investigators are still trying to determine whether Abdulazeez acted alone.
“At this time we have no indication that he was inspired by or directed by anyone other than himself,” he said.
Reinhold declined to specify the weapons Abdulazeez carried Thursday.
“He did have at least two long guns, which would be considered rifles or shotguns,” Reinhold said. “And he did have one handgun that we are aware of.”
Further, authorities have looked into about 70 leads so far, Reinhold said, “and as our team continues to develop additional information you may see or hear about FBI activity in other areas of the state and nation.”
‘No idea who that person was’
Meanwhile, a detailed portrait of Abdulazeez and his troubled childhood began to emerge Friday. His mother filed for divorce in 2009, alleging Abdulazeez’s father beat and verbally abused her, sexually assaulted her and beat his children, the Chattanooga Times Free Press reported, citing court records. The lawsuit was dismissed after her husband agreed to sign a postnuptial agreement and attend counseling with his wife.
Abdulazeez attended Red Bank High School, home of the Lions. He was on the wrestling team there. His former coach, Kevin Emily, said he was a “model student” and devout Muslim who sometimes missed practices so he could pray.
“The Mohammod I knew was a good kid,” Emily said. “This Mohammod who did these horrible things yesterday – I have no idea who that person was.”
Abdulazeez was a humble and coachable wrestler who qualified in his senior year to compete in the annual state tournament by placing in the top four in his region, Emily said.
“He fit right in with the rest of the guys and what we were trying to accomplish in our goals toward being a better team and developing into young men,” Emily said. “He bought into the program.”
Abdulazeez graduated from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with an electrical engineering degree in 2012, according to his online resume.
It also shows he interned for the Tennessee Valley Authority, an electric utility, and Mohawk Industries — the North Georgia-based flooring manufacturer. He did that before landing a sales engineering internship at a company called Global Trade Express.
Abdulazeez traveled to Jordan for about seven months last year, The New York Times reported, quoting a senior intelligence official. He previously traveled at least four other times to the country and once to Canada.
Abdulazeez’s parents worshipped at the Islamic Society of Greater Chattanooga, a sand-colored mosque complete with a minaret and blue carpeted floors where members pray barefoot. About 300 Muslims from around the world attend services there. Abdulazeez started a blog about his faith, writing three days before the killings that Muslims “fought Jihad for the sake of Allah.”
“This life is short and bitter and the opportunity to submit to Allah may pass you by,” he wrote in a separate post the same day. “Take his word as your light and code and do not let other prisoners, whether they are so-called ‘scholars’ or even your family members, divert you from the truth. If you make the intention to follow Allah’s way 100 percent and put your desires to the side, Allah will guide you to what is right.”
On Thursday, the head of the local mosque said Abdulazeez’s father called him, apologized for his son’s actions and told him he was “shocked” by what had happened.
“He was in the dark on what his son has done,” Bassam Issa said. “He is very devastated and he actually apologized for what his son did to the community at large and to the Muslim community. And I told him that we all feel distraught — we all feel shocked — and to basically pray to God that we all as one community come together.”