CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — Evidence shows Mohammad Youssuf Abdulazeez was killed by Chattanooga, Tennessee, police officers after he attacked a military recruiting office and a Naval reserve station, said Ed Reinhold, FBI special agent in charge of the eastern Tennessee office.
“All indications are he was killed by fire from the Chattanooga police officers,” Reinhold told reporters Friday. “We have no evidence he was killed by self-inflicted wounds.”
Abdulazeez, 24, had two long guns and one handgun, Reinhold said, adding that “some of the weapons were purchased legally and some of them may not have been.”
The area resident was not wearing body armor but was clad in a “load-bearing vest” that allowed him to carry extra ammunition, Reinhold said.
Abdulazeez attacked a military recruiting station in a shopping plaza and a Naval reserve office seven miles away on Thursday, killing four Marines and wounding a Chattanooga police officer, a Marine recruiter and a Navy sailor.
The Pentagon says there are no recruiting or applicant records that exist for Abdulazeez. Maj. Ben Sakrisson says local recruiters in Chattanooga have “no memory of interacting with him.”
U.S. Attorney Bill Killian said the killings are being investigated as an “act of domestic terrorism,” but he noted the incident has not yet been classified as terrorism.
“Investigations of terror are at an intense and higher level than” than a criminal investigation, Killian said.
Reinhold said there is nothing to connect the attacker to ISIS or other international terror groups. He was not on any U.S. databases of suspected terrorists.
Authorities are working to figure out why Abdulazeez — an accomplished student, well-liked peer, mixed martial arts fighter and devout Muslim — became a killer who targeted a pair of military sites in the southeastern Tennessee city.
The father of Abdulazeez was investigated — and cleared, twice — as part of an FBI investigation into terrorism financing, law enforcement officials said.
Officials stressed that Abdulazeez’ father was one of many people investigated for their funding of overseas charities, especially after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Most of them were never charged with a crime.
That was the case in this instance as well. According to one official, the FBI opened and closed rather quickly an inquiry into the father, who allegedly sent money overseas in the 1990s. He became the subject of a full FBI investigation in 2002, when he told authorities the money was meant for charities, not to support a terrorist organization, a source said. That investigation was then closed.
Muslim leader: ‘We are Chattanoogans first’
The killings shook those who knew those victims, as well as the community at large.
“It’s just horrifying to have this happen,” said Mary Clark in Springfield, Massachusetts, who knows the family of one of the victims, Marine Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Sullivan. “(For) people that serve our country, they didn’t (deserve) this.”
Chattanooga’s Muslim community has been deeply shaken, given that Abdulazeez regularly attended mosques there. Bassam Issa, the local Islamic Society’s president, urged Muslims to attend an interfaith gathering Friday night to show solidarity after what he called an act “of cowardice and hate.”
“We don’t see our community center as a ‘Muslim’ community,” Issa said, noting that his group’s leaders are working with law enforcement and local leaders. “We are Chattanoogans first, and we see ourselves as part of the larger community of Tennesseans grieving (this) act.”
Authorities aren’t aware whether Abdulazeez said anything about his religion, or did anything to suggest he belonged to a terrorist group, as he carried out the shooting, a law enforcement official said.
No alarms raised in advance about shooter
He was a devout Muslim but didn’t appear to be radical, according to some who knew him. The Kuwaiti-born Abdulazeez, who officials say had Jordanian citizenship and was a naturalized U.S. citizen, seemed to joke about his background in his high school yearbook, with a quote alongside his picture that read: “My name causes national security alerts. What does yours do?”
His former mixed martial arts coach Almir Dizdarevic said Abdulazeez’s father told him that his son had left the United States to “move back home.” And yet Dizdarevic said that Abdulazeez told him he was teaching wrestling and doing well.
“He was a good kid. … They’re good people,” neighbor Dean McDaniel said of Abdulazeez and his family.
A longtime friend said Abdulazeez changed after spending time in the Middle East and “distanced himself” for the first few months after returning to Tennessee.
Jordanian sources said Abdulazeez had been in Jordan as recently as 2014 visiting an uncle. He had also visited Kuwait and Jordan in 2010, Kuwait’s Interior Ministry said.
“Something happened over there,” Abdulrazzak Brizada told CNN, saying, “he never became close to me like he was before he went overseas… I’m sure he had something that happened to him overseas.”
Brizada said Abdulazeez had guns, and would go shooting as a hobby.
Abdulazeez had a DUI arrest in April, with Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston saying an affidavit related to that incident indicated there was a marijuana smell and he had white powder under his nose. He said he’d crushed caffeine pills and snorted them, according to the police report.
Still, he was never convicted of anything. And there was no immediate indication that Abdulazeez was in any way intoxicated Thursday. Chattanooga authorities knew of no alarms about him before then.
“We certainly didn’t have any indication that he was a threat or that … something was going to happen,” Mayor Andy Berke said.
Witness: ‘It was insane’
Gina Mule witnessed one of the shootings as she opened up her restaurant Thursday in a small plaza along Chattanooga’s Lee Highway. She said she heard a “pow, pow, pow!”
“He never got out of the car. He had a big, huge, high-powered rifle, and he was unloading shots right into the recruiters,” she said, referring to the offices of an armed forces recruiting center. “There had to be 20 to 30 shots.”
Watching from a nearby hair salon, April Grimmett saw a man ducking between cars.
“Shortly after that, we heard the (shots). It was very loud and very fast,” she said. “It was insane.”
It only got worse.
Over the next half-hour, Abdulazeez, a 24-year-old with an engineering degree from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, drove his rental car to a Navy operational support center 7 miles away, a law enforcement official said.
Chattanooga police Chief Fred Fletcher told CNN that police followed and engaged Abdulazeez somewhere on the road after that, then again at the second site. He said authorities are still trying to determine whether police saw him ram the gates of the center, get into the facility, and shoot and kill the four Marines.
He was armed with an AK-47-style weapon and 30-round magazines, according to two law enforcement officials. He kept police at bay for some time before being killed.
A senior Defense official told CNN several of the Marines in the recruiting center were combat veterans.
When the shooting broke out, they went into combat mode, had everybody drop to the floor, and then “cleared the room” by having everyone go out the back, the official said. All seven people in the center survived, and reports indicate those Marines helped save lives.
Slain Marines identified
Chattanooga police Officer Dennis Pedigo and an unidentified Marine recruiter were shot in the leg during the attack. A Navy sailor was shot in the liver, colon and stomach, his grandmother Linda Wallace told CNN.
The military released the names of the four slain Marines. In addition to Sullivan, they are Squire “Skip” Wells, a native of Marietta, Georgia; David Wyatt, a native of Burke, North Carolina; and Carson Holmquist of Grantsburg, Wisconsin.
What was the security situation?
While no one saw this carnage coming, authorities are painfully aware that such threats do exist. Terrorists around the world have unleashed venom, and sometimes attacks, on U.S. troops, citizens and the government. The United States has responded with force, going after groups such as ISIS and al Qaeda.
Much of that back-and-forth has happened overseas, including attacks on places like Iraq and Afghanistan. But the home front hasn’t been completely safe, in particular military installations.
The bloodiest cases were the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and then-Army psychiatrist Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan’s 2009 massacre at the Fort Hood, Texas, base that left 13 dead and 32 injured.
There have been other attacks on military recruiting centers. A bomb exploded in front a recruiting center in New York’s Time Square in 2008 and, the next year, Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad killed one soldier and wounded another at a military recruiting center in Little Rock, Arkansas. He was sentenced to life in prison in 2011.
While there’s been no indication Abdulazeez was part of a terrorist network, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said authorities are stepping up security at “certain federal facilities, out of an abundance of caution.”