A 24-year-old gunman opened fire on a pair of military installations in Chattanooga on Thursday killing four Marines in what was being investigated as a possible act of domestic terrorism.
The shooter was also dead although officials late Thursday would not provide details of how he’d been killed. Authorities identified him as Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez of Hixson, Tenn., and said he was believed to have been born in Kuwait. A former high school wrestler, he graduated college in Chattanooga with an engineering degree.
Although the shooter’s motives were unclear, law enforcement officials had warned recently of a possible extremist attack on the U.S. military. The FBI was leading the probe.
“We have no idea what his motivation was,” said Ed Reinhold, FBI special agent in charge said at a news conference late Thursday night. He added that there were no known accomplices or links to international terrorism.
According to an account pieced together from police and eyewitnesses, Abdulazeez pulled up in front of a suburban strip mall in a silver Ford Mustang convertible and and unleashed a spray of dozens of bullets from what appeared to be a high-powered rifle. His target: a military recruiting station.
Erica Wright was working at the Foil Salon just two doors down when she heard many “loud pops” outside. The stylist said she peered out the front window of the salon and saw a man firing at a military offices. The man, Wright said, was shooting what looked like an assault rifle. She didn’t remember how many times he fired.
“Fifteen? Twenty or more. I don’t know. I just lost count,” she said. “He just kept shooting. By that time we ran to the back of the salon… Then we called 911.”
The whole episode, she said, lasted maybe 30 seconds.
“It seemed like forever, but it really wasn’t,” she said. “Just thankful to be alive. He could of just easily come two doors down and kept shooting. Thank God he didn’t.”
Abdulazeez then drove about 7 miles away to the Navy Operational Support Center and Marine Corps Reserve Center, where he resumed shooting.
Marilyn Hutcheson, who works at Binswanger Glass across the street, said she heard a barrage of gunfire around 11 a.m.
“I couldn’t even begin to tell you how many,” she said. “It was rapid-fire, like pow-pow-pow-pow-pow, so quickly. The next thing I knew, there were police cars coming from every direction.
The gunfire continued with occasional bursts for what she estimated was 20 minutes. Bomb squads, SWAT teams and other local, state and federal authorities rushed to the scene.
The Marines who died were all at the second scene, located in an industrial area. Their names were not released Thursday.
A fifth Marine was shot on the leg but was not seriously hurt. A police officer was also shot but authorities would not provide his name or details on his condition.
Police had blocked off that area with yellow police tape late Thursday afternoon. Jentry Johnson stood across the street, taking it all in. Her father and 11-year-old son, Connor, had been riding bikes in a wooded park near the site of the shooting earlier Thursday.
“It’s awful,” she said. “All we can do is put out positive vibes.”
Set some 100 miles northwest of Atlanta, Chattanooga is a tourist destination nestled near the mountains of eastern Tennessee. It’s a popular base camp for outdoor activities like whitewater rafting and seems an unlikely place for a violent mass shooting.
Homeland Security and FBI officials recently expressed concerns about a lone wolf, ISIS-inspired attack over the Fourth of July weekend, although they said they had no intelligence pointing to a specific plot. The bulletin did warn specifically about attacks against law enforcement and the military.
U.S. Attorney Bill Killian said Thursday officials were investigating the possibility it was “domestic terrorism.” The FBI’s Reinhold said Abdulazeez had “numerous weapons” but would not give details.
Soon after the attacks, law enforcement officers with guns drawn swarmed what was believed to be Abdulazeez’s house, and two females were led away in handcuffs.
Dean McDaniel said Abdulazeez once lived two doors down from him in Colonial Shores, a suburban Hixson neighborhood of sizable homes with manicured lawns. A nurse, McDaniel said Abdulazeez had visited his home and that his siblings once babysat for his children.
Abdulazeez lived with his parents, appeared to be in his 20’s and was a “quiet kid,” McDaniel said, adding he didn’t notice anything suspicious about him.
“No, nothing,” he said. “Obviously, he is a disturbed kid. Now we know that. Growing up – he wasn’t. He didn’t appear to be that way to me at all. I didn’t see that.”
A man named Youssuf Abdulazeez attended University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, spokesman Chuck Cantrell told the Chattanooga Times Free Press, and graduated in 2012 with a degree in engineering.
Multiple people said they went to Red Bank High School with Abdulazeez, where he was a wrestler. They sent the Chattanooga newspaper photos of what appears to be his senior picture and senior quote in the school’s yearbook.
“My name causes national security alerts,” the quote reads. “What does yours do?”
In Washington, President Obama told reporters that the killings appeared to be the work of a lone gunman.
Obama - who just weeks ago offered a stirring eulogy for the pastor slain in another deadly mass shooting in Charleston, S.C. - described the deaths of the four Marines on Thursday as “heartbreaking.”
“I’d ask all Americans to pray for the families who are grief-stricken at this point,” he said.
That was what J. Anthony Taylor, pastor of Greater Community Church of Chattanooga, did. Taylor said he felt compelled to go to the shopping center and pray for the victims after he saw the news on TV. He stood on the edge of the parking lot, observing the hubbub.
“My heart was just pricked. And I was burdened,” he said. “And I began to pray at home. But then I was also (convinced) to come down here and pray.
“Our city now has been thrust onto a world stage,” he continued “God has allowed this to happen here for some reasons. We don’t know why. But we just trust God that he will bring peace and healing and resolve to all the families and those who were involved.”
Abdulazeez was clearly targeting military targets although his reasons were unclear.
In Georgia, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Defense said there were no plans to increase security at the state’s military and national guard facilities. Phone calls to the state’s three U.S. Army bases - Fort Benning, Fort Gordon and Fort Stewart - were not returned on Thursday.
In an evening news conference, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam grimly declared: “This has obviously been a horrible day for Chattanooga and a tragic day for all of Tennessee.”
Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke added: “Our hearts are breaking for the families of these Marines tonight.”
Like Berke, Chattanooga Police Chief Fred Fletcher praised the local police officers who responded to the shootings.
“Officers of the Chattanooga Police Department saved many lives today,” he said. “I have never been prouder to be a public servant.”
Fletcher said authorities are seeking to prevent any possible backlash against local Islamic groups.
“The Chattanooga Police Department,” he said, “is working with all the local, state and federal agencies to ensure that every single resource is put where it is needed.”