Chattanooga Attack: The Islamic State Inspires An American Terrorist

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on January 21, 2016

Muhammad Abdulazeez

Muhammad Abdulazeez

In Chattanooga, Tennessee, on 16 July 2015, Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez carried out a drive-by shooting against an Army recruitment centre and then stormed a Naval and Marine reserve centre. Abdulazeez murdered five people before he was killed. Though there was some initial doubt, it is now clear this was an attack inspired by the Islamic State (ISIS).

Timeline

According to a timeline for July 16, 2015, released by the FBI:[1]

10:51: Muhammad Abdulazeez, 24, who was born to Palestinians in Kuwait and moved to the United States in 1996, opened fire from his Mustang convertible on an Army recruitment centre on Lee Highway, Chattanooga, Tennessee. Four people, including Sgt. Robert Dodge, barricaded themselves in a back room.

  • One Marine of five present in the building was injured
  • A few doors down, at a store, computer technician Nicholas Donahue turned off his music (Bastille’s “Bad Blood” album) at what he thought was gunfire; when he confirmed that it was gunfire he went into an office and locked the door
  • The shooting lasted about a minute and Abdulazeez never exited the car

Abdulazeez then headed to Highway 153 and the U.S. Naval and Marine Reserve Center, just over five miles away on Amnicola Highway, driving more than 80 miles-per-hour and being pursued by police.

10:58: A “shots fired” call was received from 4210 Amnicola Highway—the reserve center. Abdulazeez crashed his Mustang through the gates, got out of the car with an assault rifle, a handgun, and a load-bearing vest so he could carry more. Abdulazeez was fired on by a service member in the building; whether Abdulazeez was hit is unclear.

  • Abdulazeez then entered the building, shooting and mortally wounding U.S. Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Randall Smith, 26. (Smith died on July 18 in hospital.)
  • Abdulazeez went through the building shooting anyone he encountered, and then went out back, into a gated motorpool, where he murdered two Marines. Two more Marines trying to provide cover while others escaped over the fence were shot and killed. Abdulazeez then tried to run back into the building, shooting and wounding Chattanooga police officer Dennis Pedigo. But the police killed Abdulazeez in the firefight.
  • The whole incident lasted no more than five minutes.
  • The four Marines killed where: Sgt. Carson Holmquist, 25; Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Sullivan, 40; Lance Cpl. Squire “Skip” Wells, 21; and Staff Sgt. David A. Wyatt, 35.
  • Sullivan was the most senior, had served in Iraq, and received two purple hearts. Wyatt had been deployed in Iraq and two tours of Afghanistan, and stayed on even after he had friends killed.[2]

What Is Known So Far

A search of Abdulazeez’s smartphone and other electronic equipment disclosed internet searches for religious justifications for violence to erase his “sins”: drug and alcohol use, an arrest, and a lost job. Abdulazeez was said to be suicidal, preparing for bankruptcy, and facing an appearance in criminal court related to a drink driving charge (Abdulazeez had been pulled over on April 20, the “4/20” day so dear to marijuana users, and the police reported that his car smelled of marijuana). His family said he was mentally ill, not inspired by ISIS. One friend, James Petty, told ABC News that Abdulazeez actually hated ISIS: “He believed that ISIS was not a group to go towards” and did not think that “ISIS was even Islamic”. Abdulazeez was allegedly struggling with twelve-hour night shifts, for which he was taking sleeping pills. The family representative said on July 19 that the family told the FBI there were no outward signs of radicalization but that Abdulazeez “was susceptible to bad influences” and would be affected by watching news accounts of “children being killed in Syria.” The representative also said that—drug and alcohol use notwithstanding—Abdulazeez had struggled to be a devout Muslim. The seven-month trip Abdulazeez took in 2014 to Jordan was an effort to “get him away from bad influences in the U.S.,” not part of a path to radicalization, the family told the FBI.[3]

Abdulazeez does seem to have had some turbulence in his home life. His mother filed for divorce in 2009 because Abdulazeez’s father repeatedly beat her in front of the children, beat the children unprovoked, and sexually attacked the mother at least twice. Ultimately the mother dropped the proceedings, however. Two of Abdulazeez’s brothers had returned from Kuwait to try to keep the marriage of 28 years together. And the family were marked out from their surroundings by, for example, their overgrown garden and worn home in an area of neatly-trimmed lawns and freshly-painted home exteriors. Nonetheless, Abdulazeez seemed to have risen above this.

Abdulazeez, who also played soccer, was sometimes called “Abdoozy” by his jock friends. His senior yearbook entry featured two photographs of him—clean-shaven with close-cropped hair—alongside a prophetic quotation: “My name causes national security alerts. What does yours do?”

After high school, he briefly fought on the mixed-martial-arts circuit, training at the Chattanooga Fight Factory, a local gym. A video of one cage fight from 2009 shows him pummeling a middleweight from Shelbyville, Tenn., winning in the second round in a technical knockout.

Two martial arts trainers who helped prepare Abdulazeez for his fight said his father was furious afterward, apparently believing that the sport was un-Islamic. “Mohammad said he got in a lot of trouble,” said one trainer, Scott Schrader, a co-owner of the Fight Factory. “After that, I maybe saw him one or two times, and he was gone.”

To his high school friends, Abdulazeez seemed like a success. He earned an engineering degree from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in 2012. He traveled overseas, spending as long as seven months in Jordan during one stretch.

Sometimes, he grew out his beard, in the style of an observant Muslim. At other times, friends would run into him around town when he was clean-shaven. After bouncing from job to job, he had recently taken a position with a technology-manufacturing company in Franklin, Tenn., about two hours from his home.

He’d only been there for about three months as a shift supervisor, and appears to have skipped work there earlier this week. Several of his neighbors on his street noticed him around the house in the days before the shooting.

He was spotted stomping around in the thick, overgrown woods behind his home with an unfamiliar friend. Others saw him playing soccer on Sunday. Earlier this week, one of his neighbors noticed he was in a new rental car, instead of the beat-up vehicle he normally drove.[4]

“In the ISIS model it’s all about social media and them interacting with people in the United States and quickly trying to get them to launch attacks,” a law-enforcement official told The New York Times days after the attack. “This case appears to be much more like the old model, where he was interested in radical Islam and sought to learn more about it online by looking at videos and readings.” While the FBI had not found any material from, say, Anwar al-Awlaki, they did find that Abdulazeez had written of martyrdom and suicide in 2013. The uncle Abdulazeez had stayed with in Amman, As’ad Ibrahim As’ad Haj Ali, who runs a mobile-phone company, was arrested and questioned by Jordanian intelligence as a possible source of radicalization. Ali is allegedly not very religious, though Abdulazeez’s aunt wears the veil—as is usual in Jordan. Ali’s lawyer, however, is head of the Freedom Party, a human-rights faction of the Islamic Action Fund, the political wing of Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood. The lawyer insisted he wasn’t a member of the Brotherhood and represented Islamists, Leftists, and Christians.[5]

Abdulazeez was in Jordan between April and November 2014.[6]

Abdulazeez’s father had been investigated for suspicious donations to charities suspected of being front-groups for Palestinian terrorists in 1994 and 2002, but the father had been taken off the terrorism watch-list a decade ago.[7]

It was soon disclosed that Abdulazeez had followed the work of Anwar al-Awlaki, from as far back as 2013, when Abdulazeez was simultaneously musing in his diary on “becoming a martyr”.[8]

While a U.S. official had said, “I don’t think that there is any evidence it was ISIL-inspired,” in July, by December 16, 2015, FBI Director James Comey said: “There is no doubt that the Chattanooga killer was inspired, motivated by foreign terrorist organization propaganda,” though he could not be certain which organization.[9]

Two blog posts Abdulazeez was found to have written on July 13 showed tropes very familiar with other ISIS foreign fighters.

In a post entitled, “A Prison Called Dunya,” Abdulazeez lamented being trapped on earth, analogizing it to being in prison. While “the living arrangements in this prison really aren’t that bad,” it is nonetheless prison and the need is to escape. “Know that the life of this world is but amusement and diversion,” Abdulazeez wrote. “In the Hereafter is severe punishment and forgiveness from Allah and approval. And what is the worldly life except the enjoyment of delusion.” Abdulazeez added: “Subhnallah, this life we are living is nothing more than a test of our faith and patience. 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 worst of the worst. Don’t let the society we live in deviate you from the task at hand. Take your study guide, the Quran and Sunnah, with strength and faith, and be firm as you live your short life in this prison called Dunya.”[10]

The idea of that unable to get to a theatre of jihad is akin to prison is a common trope among Islamic State operatives. Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan in ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror spoke with a Bahraini ISIS jihadist, Abdelaziz Kuwan, who had at one point returned home and had his passport taken away. “I walk in the streets and I feel imprisoned,” Kuwan said. “I feel tied up. … This world means nothing to me. I want to be free. I want to go back. People are living their lives [by waging jihad]. That’s the honourable life.” Mohammed Emwazi (Abu Muharib al-Muhajir), the infamous “Jihadi John,” wrote in 2010, after the British security services prevented him leaving the country because they knew what he was, “I feel like a prisoner, only not in a cage, in London. A person imprisoned and controlled by security service men, stopping me from living my new life.”

Abdulazeez’s second post dealt with the need to know Islam fully.[11]

***

[1] Shelly Bradbury, “Minute by minute: A timeline of the Chattanooga attack revealed,” Times Free Press, July 23, 2015, http://www.timesfreepress.com/news/local/story/2015/jul/23/minute-minute-timeline-abdulazeezs-attack/316028/

[2] Jon Kamp, Jim Carlton, and Cameron McWhirter, “Marines Slain in Chattanooga Are Remembered,” The Wall Street Journal, July 17, 2015, http://www.wsj.com/articles/marine-slain-in-chattanooga-shooting-identified-1437148108

[3] Brian Ross, Doug Lantz, and James Gordon Meek, “Chattanooga Shooter Researched Religious Justification For Violence: Official,” ABC News, July 20, 2015, abcnews.go.com/US/chattanooga-shooting-fbi-recovers-gunmans-disturbing-diary/story?id=32558310

[4] Greg Jaffe, Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Adam Goldman, “Chattanooga shooter’s real, online lives seem to take divergent paths,” The Washington Post, July 17, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/as-investigators-probe-motive-in-chattanooga-rampage-a-portrait-of-the-shooter-emerges/2015/07/17/4b2ff26a-2c97-11e5-bd33-395c05608059_story.html?postshare=231437220745909

[5] Michael Schmidt and Jodi Rudoren, “Chattanooga Gunman Researched Islamic Martyrdom, Officials Say,” The New York Times, July 21, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/22/us/chattanooga-gunman-mohammod-abdulazeez.html

[6] Richard Valdmanis and Mark Hosenball, “Suspect in slaying of U.S. Marines made 2014 trip to Mideast,” Reuters, July 17, 2015, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-shooting-tennessee-idUSKCN0PQ1WY20150717?utm_source=twitter

[7] Craig Whitlock, Adam Goldman and Greg Miller, “Marines’ killer set off no red flags,” The Washington Post, July 18, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/gunman-in-marine-slayings-described-life-as-prison-days-before-rampage/2015/07/17/86d1f988-2c67-11e5-a250-42bd812efc09_story.html

[8] Brian Ross, Doug Lantz, and James Gordon Meek, “Chattanooga Shooter Mohammod Abdulazeez Followed Al Qaeda Cleric Online in 2013,” ABC News, July 21, 2015, abcnews.go.com/US/chattanooga-shooter-mohammod-abdulazeez-al-qaeda-cleric-online/story?id=32585636

[9] Kristina Sgueglia, “Chattanooga shootings ‘inspired’ by terrorists, FBI chief says,” CNN, December 16, 2015, edition.cnn.com/2015/12/16/us/chattanooga-shooting-terrorist-inspiration/

[10] Muhammad Abdulazeez, “A Prison Called Dunya,” My Abdulazeez Blog, July 13, 2015, https://myabdulazeez.wordpress.com/2015/07/13/a-prison-called-dunya/

[11] “Read Chattanooga Shooter’s Blog,” The Daily Beast, July 16, 2015, http://www.thedailybeast.com/cheats/2015/07/16/read-chattanooga-shooter-s-blog.html

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