Federal agents flew Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez’s computer, cellphone and other electronics to Washington, D.C., for forensic analysis of his communications in a search for his motive.
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — Federal investigators Friday dug into the background and travels of the 24-year-old gunman who they say killed four Marines in an attack on two Chattanooga military sites, focusing on a seven-month trip he made last year to Jordan and scouring his electronic trail in search of a motive for the killings.
The crucial, unanswered question was whether Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez, a naturalized U.S. citizen who was born in Kuwait, came into contact with, or was inspired by, any extremist groups, intelligence officials said.
Federal agents flew Abdulazeez’s computer, cellphone and other electronics to Washington for forensic analysis of his communications. They also asked intelligence services in Jordan and Kuwait about his movements there.
Abdulazeez, who was killed in a gunbattle with the police during Thursday’s attack, was the son of Palestinians from Jordan, and he made several trips to Jordan and Kuwait, where he had relatives, officials said, but he spent most of his life in southeastern Tennessee, and graduated from college here with a degree in engineering.
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“We are exploring all travel he has done,” said Ed Reinhold, agent in charge of the Knoxville office of the FBI, which is leading the investigation. “It would be premature to speculate on exactly why the shooter did what he did.”
Officials said there was no indication of any links to terrorist groups, leaving them to wonder how a man with no known history of violence or radicalism turned up Thursday with several weapons, spraying bullets at Americans in uniform.
Days before the attacks Thursday, Abdulazeez began a blog where he posted about Islam, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks international terrorist groups. He at one point compared life to a prison and in another post called life “short and bitter.”
New details emerged of the bloody day, with officials describing a furious firefight between Abdulazeez — armed, some federal officials said, with an AK-47 assault rifle — and Chattanooga police officers as they battled at the naval-reserve center where the four Marines were killed.
Reinhold of the FBI said the gunman “did have at least two long guns,” meaning rifles or shotguns, “and he did have one handgun that we’re aware of.” He said some of the guns were legal and some may not have been. Abdulazeez, he said, did not have body armor, but wore a vest with multiple ammunition magazines.
The gunman fired first on an armed-services recruiting center in a strip mall, and then, pursued by Chattanooga police officers, raced in a Ford Mustang convertible to the Navy-Marine reserve facility, a fenced-in campus with buildings and a tree-lined parking lot, and opened fire. “All indications are that he was killed by fire from the Chattanooga police officers,” Reinhold said.
William Killian, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Tennessee, said: “We will continue to investigate it as an act of terrorism until the proof shows us otherwise.”
A day after the shootings, the city mourned. About 600 people attended a memorial service at Olivet Baptist Church for the slain Marines and wounded naval officer. The speakers, including Gov. Bill Haslam, said the attack would not drive a wedge between members of this diverse city, which has a sizable Muslim population. “The sense of violation that we all feel today cannot be healed individually,” Mayor Andy Berke said. “The pain can only be healed as a community.”
Travel to Jordan
Before his stay in Jordan last year, Abdulazeez, who made the trip on a U.S. passport, had traveled at least four other times to the country, for two weeks to two months at a time, said federal law-enforcement officials, who were not authorized to speak about the investigation. They said he was in Jordan in the last weeks of 2005, in summer 2008, summer 2010 and spring 2013, when he also spent some time in Canada, returning to the United States in May.
Authorities in Jordan said Abdulazeez traveled there last year to visit a maternal uncle, and the tiny, arid country is not considered a training ground for terrorism groups.
Born in Kuwait in 1990, Abdulazeez became a U.S. citizen in 2003 through the naturalization of his mother, federal officials said; his father was also naturalized. Because he was a minor, he did not have to apply separately for citizenship. A divorce complaint filed by his mother in 2009 and then withdrawn, said the parents were from “the state of Palestine.”
Counterterrorism officials had not been investigating Abdulazeez before Thursday’s shooting. His father had been investigated about seven years ago, officials said, for possibly giving money to a group affiliated with Hamas, the Islamic militant group in Gaza that the United States and other Western nations consider a terrorist organization.
The investigation was closed and no charges were filed. But the father was placed on a watchlist for a time. A similar investigation was conducted in the 1990s and it, too, was closed without charges.
Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said the watchlist for a time had prevented the elder Abdulazeez from flying. But father and son were able to travel together to Jordan in recent years, a law-enforcement official said. It was not clear whether the younger Abdulazeez went to Jordan alone last year.
Abdulazeez’s family had faced difficulties in recent years. His father filed for bankruptcy protection in 2002, and his mother, Rasmia Abdulazeez, filed for divorce seven years later, court records show.
In the divorce complaint, which was withdrawn within a month, a lawyer for Rasmia Abdulazeez said her husband, Youssuf Abdulazeez, had “repeatedly beaten” her and had “on occasion” abused the children by “striking and berating them without provocation or justification.”
The complaint also accused Youssuf Abdulazeez of sexual and verbal abuse, and of declaring his intentions “to take a second wife, as permitted under certain circumstances under Islamic law.”
Muhammad Abdulazeez, who lived with family in Hixon, graduated from Red Bank High School in Chattanooga, where he was on the wrestling team. A fellow Red Bank High graduate, Hussnain Javid, said Abdulazeez was “very outgoing,” adding: “Everyone knew of him.”
“Obviously something has happened since then,” said Sam Plank, who graduated two years before Abdulazeez but hadn’t crossed paths with him since 2006. “He was as Americanized as anyone else. At least that’s what it seemed like to me.”
Abdulazeez graduated in 2012 from the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga, with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. In college, he worked as an intern for the Tennessee Valley Authority.
In 2013, he worked briefly at a nuclear-power plant near Cleveland, where he was dismissed after just 10 days. FirstEnergy said Abdulazeez had been “conditionally employed” at its Perry Nuclear Power Plant, near Lake Erie, in May 2013 before officials “determined that he did not meet minimum requirements for ongoing employment.”
The company said Abdulazeez had “never entered the secured area of the plant” and that he had had access only to an administrative building.
Late Friday, a federal official who had been briefed said Abdulazeez was dismissed because he failed a drug test. The official spoke on condition of anonymity.
For the past three months, Abdulazeez had worked at Superior Essex, which makes wire and cable products.
The only run-in Abdulazeez had with the law in the Chattanooga area appears to have been an April 20 arrest on a charge of driving while intoxicated; he posted a $2,000 bond.
According to a police affidavit, officers saw him weaving through downtown Chattanooga after 2 a.m., in a gray 2001 Toyota Camry, and when they pulled him over, they smelled alcohol and marijuana, and he failed a sobriety test. They said his eyes were bloodshot, his speech was slurred, he was “unsteady on his feet,” and he had “irritated nostrils” and white powder under his nose, which Abdulazeez claimed came from snorting crushed caffeine pills. He was due to appear in court July 30.