'Suspect in fatal Tennessee shooting was upset over Gaza war'

Friend of alleged gunman who killed 5 US servicemen says he received a text message from the suspect with a link to a long Islamic verse hours before attack.

By REUTERS
July 19, 2015 01:28
4 minute read.
A mugshot of Muhammod Youssuf Abdulazeez from a DUI charge in April

A mugshot of Muhammod Youssuf Abdulazeez from a DUI charge in April. (photo credit: REUTERS)

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. - Hours before the Tennessee shooting that killed five US servicemen, the suspected gunman texted his close friend a link to a long Islamic verse that included the line: "Whosoever shows enmity to a friend of Mine, then I have declared war against him."

His friend thought nothing of it at the time, but now wonders if it was a clue to Thursday's rampage in Chattanooga, which has re-ignited concerns about the radicalization of young Muslim men.

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"I didn't see it as a hint at the time, but it may have been his way of telling me something," the friend told Reuters on Saturday. He requested anonymity for fear of a backlash.

The suspect, Mohammod Youssuf Abdulazeez, a 24-year-old Kuwaiti-born naturalized US citizen, was killed in a gunfight with police. The FBI is investigating the attack as an act of terrorism, but said it was premature to speculate on the gunman's motive.

While a firm connection between the suspect and radical Islam has not been established, the shooting follows a series of attacks or thwarted attacks in the United States and other countries by Muslims claiming to be inspired by Islamic State or other militant groups.

Abdulazeez's friends said he had returned from a trip to Jordan in 2014 concerned about conflicts in the Middle East and the reluctance of the United States and other countries to intervene.

He later purchased three assault rifles on an online marketplace and used them for target practice, the friends said.

"That trip was eye-opening for him. He learned a lot about the traditions and culture of the Middle East," said the close friend who received the text message.

Abdulazeez was upset about the Israeli airstrike campaign in Gaza during last summer's war with Hamas and the civil war in Syria, he said. "He felt Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia were not doing enough to help, and that they were heavily influenced by the United States."

Another friend said, "He had always talked about it, but I'd say his level of understanding and awareness really rose after he came back."

US authorities said Abdulazeez sprayed gunfire at a joint military recruiting center in a strip mall in Chattanooga, then drove to a Naval Reserve Center about 6 miles (10 km) away, where he killed four Marines before he himself was shot dead.

Three other people were injured, including a US Navy petty officer who died from his wounds on Saturday.

The Navy did not give the name of the sailor, but his step-grandmother identified him as Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Randall Smith of Paulding, Ohio, who left behind a wife and three young daughters.

"He was an awesome young man," Darlene Proxmire told Reuters. "He loved his wife and children. He loved the Navy."

JORDAN TRIP WAS "EYE-OPENING"

Abdulazeez, an engineer, went to the Middle East in 2010 and visited several countries, according to his close friend. He then went to Jordan in 2014 to work for his uncle, and lived with his uncle and his grandparents there, he said.

After Abdulazeez returned, he seemed more mellow, less interested in partying. "That is part of what drew us closer. He was a guy who wanted to settle down and get his life going. That connected us," he said.

The night before the attack, just after 10 p.m., the close friend received a text from Abdulazeez with a link to a Hadith, or Islamic teaching.

The friend said he had been asking Abdulazeez for job advice, and continued to text him that evening and into Thursday but did not get a reply.

The friend said he was interviewed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The FBI declined to comment on Saturday.

For jihadists and ultraconservative Salafist Sunni Muslims, the Hadith "is usually understood within the context of al-wala wa-l-bara (or) love for Islam and hatred for its enemies," said David Cook, an associate professor who specializes in Islam in the department of religion at Rice University in Texas.

According to Abdulazeez's friends, he had purchased three guns on armslist.com after returning from Jordan, including an AK-74, an AR-15, and a Saiga 12. They said he also owned a 9mm and a .22 caliber hand guns.

Armslist.com is an online listing site on which individuals can buy and sell firearms through private transactions. Critics say it enables people to obtain weapons without background checks, though the site has a disclaimer that it requires users to agree to follow all state and federal firearms laws.

Emails seeking comment from Armlist.com and Armslist Legal Defense Fund, created to defend Armslist against lawsuits, were not immediately answered.

"He seemed totally normal. We made plans to hang out on the weekend," he said.

He said Abdulazeez had a good paying job and many plans for his life, including possibly starting a computer sales business in Chattanooga. "He wanted to buy a car. He wanted a video console, to make a man cave - every guy's dream."

He said it was difficult to understand how his friend became the suspect in the rampage.

"The signs just weren't there," he said. "The only thing I can think of is that it was a combination of things - what is happening overseas, his family problems, maybe some of the issues with the less educated people here. I don't know."


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