A photo of Mohammod Youssuf Abdulazeez at his college graduation in 2012 from his mother’s Facebook page.

Cultural, familial conflicts marked shooter’s life

He seemed so normal.

He was a popular teenager who competed on his high school wrestling team. He got good grades, and friends considered him smart. He earned a college degree and, after a few false starts, found a job he seemed to like.

Even his lone brush with the law — a drunken-driving charge after a late-night party — barely registered in his corner of middle-class suburbia.

Mohammod Youssuf Abdulazeez appeared to be nothing if not ordinary — “as Americanized,” a friend said, “as anyone else.”

But since Thursday, when he died in a shootout with police after opening fire on two military facilities in Chattanooga, Abdulazeez, 24, has become the focus of a multinational terrorism investigation, as well as a cautionary tale about a growing threat from insidious extremism.

Four U.S. Marines — one from metro Atlanta — died Thursday in the attacks. A fifth victim, a Navy petty officer from Rossville, Georgia, who was among the three other people wounded, died Saturday.

In part because of his seemingly pedestrian existence in Chattanooga, Abdulazeez remains an enigma. Authorities don’t know whether he had direct links to extremist movements such as the self-proclaimed Islamic State, was inspired by the anti-Western rhetoric of ISIS and others, or had some other reason for the attack. They are examining all three possible motives.

Whatever the motivation, Abdulazeez’s abbreviated life was marked by cultural and familial conflicts, some obvious and others hidden from friends and neighbors, an examination by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found.

Like many young people, Abdulazeez drank alcohol and reportedly used drugs. But he professed a strong devotion to Islam, which prohibits such activity.

His family seemed happy and secure, the picture of suburban serenity. But an aborted divorce case suggests a darker environment behind closed doors.

And Abdulazeez, a naturalized American citizen known to friends as “Mo,” was so assimilated that many didn’t think of him as Muslim. But he came of age in post-9/11 America — specifically, the American South, where deeply held anti-Islamic prejudices re-emerged last week almost as soon as the shooting stopped in Chattanooga.

Terrorism experts cautioned against jumping to conclusions about Abdulazeez simply because he was born in the Middle East and was a practicing Muslim.

“It’s very difficult to determine a person’s motivation, especially when that person is deceased,” said David Schanzer, a Duke University professor and the director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security. At the same time, he said Abdulazeez committed “an inherently political act.”

“It’s a political statement to attack a military station and kill four Marines,” Schanzer said Friday, before the fifth victim died, “especially when ISIS is out there calling for this type of thing to be done.”

Abdulazeez spent seven months in Jordan last year — his fifth trip to the country since 2005. Jordan is generally viewed as friendly to the United States and the West. But federal investigators want to know whether he met with extremists there or traveled from Jordan to other countries that harbor terrorists.

For years, such trips were a key part of the radicalization process through which extremist groups recruited members, said Seth Jones, director of the RAND Corp.’s International Security and Defense Policy Center. More recently, though, ISIS and others have used social media — Twitter, Facebook, YouTube — to seek followers, Jones said.

The messages seem to appeal especially to converts to Islam or young Muslims from dysfunctional families.

“It’s a desire to attach to something bigger than themselves,” Schanzer said. “There is a lot of uncertainty and lack of confidence about their identity: Who are they and where do they belong? It makes you more vulnerable to this ideology.”

They also are hard to identify and monitor, Jones said.

“There is a tremendous amount of information that law enforcement and intelligence agencies in the U.S. have to sift through to try to find the needle in the haystack,” he said. “It doesn’t happen in all cases.”

Whether or not it was coordinated with foreign terrorist groups, Abdulazeez’s attack has elicited strong responses. Among the people who gathered outside the military recruiting center where the rampage began was Bill Lehmkuhl of Rossville.

“This is Islamic,” said Lehmkuhl, a 65-year-old Air Force veteran. “I don’t trust the Muslims. Passages in the Koran, that’s what leads to things like this.”

“You kill one of my brothers — it’s war,” he added. “It’s not an incident. This is war. You have come on our land and killed our military.”

Bilal Sheikh, who knew Abdulazeez through their mosque in Chattanooga, said he, too, was disturbed by the killing. He also was anxious about the reaction.

“He has put the whole community in jeopardy,” Sheikh, 25, said of Abdulazeez.

Sheikh added, “I am afraid for my life.”

Colonial Shores

Abdulazeez was born in 1990 in Kuwait, his mother’s homeland. His father, an engineer, was a Jordanian of Palestinian descent. They moved to the United States around 1991.

The family lived briefly in West Virginia before settling in Chattanooga. In 2001, seven months before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, they moved to the suburb of Hixson, into a tan two-story clapboard house in a subdivision called Colonial Shores.

It’s a neighborhood of expansive homes, well-tended lawns, and a community clubhouse with a pool and tennis courts. Abdulazeez and his family were not the only Muslims in Colonial Shores, and even as the Sept. 11 attacks stirred animosities toward Islam, their ethnicity seems not to have been an issue.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been discriminated against, at least not to my face,” said Ebrahim Alipour, 68, a native of Iran who lives in Colonial Shores but does not know the Abdulazeez family.

As a boy, Abdulazeez played Wiffle Ball in the street and was often seen dribbling a soccer ball or using a BB gun for target practice in the woods behind his house. He grew into a strapping, muscular young man: 6-foot-2, 200 pounds. Neighbors said he didn’t call attention to his Middle Eastern heritage.

“He’s Americanized,” said Ilene Malone, 70, a neighbor. “We looked on him as American.”

At Red Bank High School, though, Abdulazeez seemed to ponder others’ perception of him as a Muslim. In his senior-class yearbook, he posted a quotation: “My name causes national security alerts. What does yours do?”

The thought was not original; Abdulazeez was quoting a T-shirt sold online to promote harmony between Muslims and people of other faiths.

A classmate said he never heard Abdulazeez express anti-American sentiments or complain of being mistreated because of his religion.

“I just wonder what happened to him,” said Jake Ledbetter, 25. “It’s hard to believe that is the same kid we went to school with.”

Family turmoil

By his late teens, Abdulazeez’s family life had begun to fray.

He was 18 in 2009 when his mother, Rasmia, filed for divorce from his father, Youssuf. Rasmia alleged Youssuf had physically and sexually assaulted her and had on occasion beaten their children. She also said he planned to take a second wife, “as permitted under Islamic law.”

Just 22 days later, though, she rescinded the divorce action.

Rasmia and Youssuf remain married and still live in Colonial Shores, where their house stands out for its peeling paint and other disrepair. Neighbors said they rarely see Rasmia outside. Youssuf, who works for Chattanooga’s public works department, sometimes takes his prayer mat out to the deck behind the house.

The year after the divorce filing, one of Abdulazeez’s sisters, Yasmeen, then 17 and a college freshman, went public with her frustrations over the treatment of Muslims.

In a story in the Chattanooga Times Free Press about challenges facing Muslim teenagers, she said she had been harassed at times because she wore hijab, the traditional head covering, and was barred from playing in a high school volleyball tournament because of a referee’s objections.

She said she tried to use such incidents to tell people about her religion.

“I’m not afraid to go straight toward them and ask them, ‘Do you really know what Islam is?’” she told the newspaper. “There’s this misconception that Islam is a violent religion. Muslims are actually peaceful.”

‘He was normal’

After graduating from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in 2012, an engineering degree in hand, Abdulazeez completed internships and other work. He took a job in 2013 at a nuclear power plant in Ohio — only to lose the job after 10 days.

News reports indicated he may have failed a drug test.

Todd Schneider, a spokesman for FirstEnergy Corp., the plant’s owner, declined to say why Abdulazeez was let go. He said Abdulazeez worked in an administrative building and had no access to reactors.

About three months ago, Abdulazeez took a job at a cable and wiring plant in Franklin, Tennessee, that belongs to Atlanta-based Superior Essex Inc. All last week, he apparently called in sick.

Friends recalled seeing him at his family’s mosque in Chattanooga a few days ago. But he apparently gave off no hints about his plans.

“Everything seemed fine,” Ahmed Saleen Islam, 26, told The Associated Press. “He was normal. He was telling me work was going great.”

As a court date for his drunken-driving charge approached at the end of this month, Abdulazeez appeared to become more devout in his faith. Last Monday, he posted two religious parables on his blog, “MyAbdulazeez.”

In one, he lamented that many Muslims “don’t have appreciation for other points of view and accept the fact that we may be missing some important parts of the religion.”

In the other, he urged other Muslims to avoid indulgences for which they would feel remorse.

“This life we are living is nothing more than a test of our faith and patience,” he wrote. “It was designed to separate the inhabitants of Paradise from the inhabitants of Hellfire, and to rank amongst them the best of the best and the worst of the worst. Don’t let the society we live in deviate you from the task at hand.”

“Brothers and sisters,” he added, “don’t be fooled by your desires. This life is short and bitter and the opportunity to submit to Allah may pass you by.”

Abdulazeez ended with a prayer for Allah to reward him with Janna — paradise — and refuge from “the punishment of fire.”

Three days later, in a burst of violence, he would seek an answer to his prayer.

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Jeremy Redmon contributed to this story.