CHATTANOOGA, Tennessee — Jordanian security investigators have interviewed the extended family of Mohammad Youssuf Abdulazeez, who last week killed five service members at a Tennessee military center.
Authorities in the U.S. and abroad are working to figure out what might have motivated the 24-year-old to shoot up a recruiting center in a strip mall in Chattanooga and then drive to a Navy operations support center about 7 miles away and stage another attack. He died in a gunfight with law enforcement.
Abdulazeez visited Jordan in 2014, Jordanian government sources told CNN on Sunday. Since Thursday’s shooting, his relatives have been asked where he went and with whom he spoke. The sources did not share details with CNN on what was gleaned from those interviews.
Abdulazeez was born in Kuwait and became a naturalized American citizen.
Jordanian sources said he was able to freely travel to and from Jordan and had no known record of criminality or anything in his background that would suggest he was radicalized in his Islamic faith.
He was devout Muslim, those who knew him say. His family issued a statement Saturday saying he suffered from depression.
“It grieves us beyond belief to know that his pain found its expression in this heinous act of violence,” the statement read.
“We extend our deepest sympathies and condolences to the families of the honorable servicemembers and police officers who were victims of the shooting our son committed on Thursday in Chattanooga, Tennessee — our community, and one we have loved for over twenty-five years.”
But CNN law enforcement analyst Tom Fuentes said depression doesn’t necessarily make anyone more likely to kill.
“I think mental health professionals would be not happy with what the parents are assessing, in saying, ‘Well, he was depressed, and therefore that’s why he became a killer like this,'” Fuentes said. “People with depression do not turn, necessarily, into psychopathic killers — as he did.”
At the recruiting center where Abdulazeez began his rampage, several Marines inside went into combat mode and helped everyone escape through the back door, a senior Defense Department official said.
Abdulazeez then drove to a Navy operational support center and opened fire, killing U.S. Navy Petty Officer Randall Smith as well as four Marines: Thomas Sullivan, Squire “Skip” Wells, David Wyatt, and Carson Holmquist.
A Marine recruiter who was shot in the leg and a Chattanooga police officer identified as Dennis Pedigo, who was shot in the ankle, survived.
Abdulazeez kept police at bay before he was eventually shot, authorities said.
“All indications are he was killed by fire from the Chattanooga police officers,” said Ed Reinhold, special agent in charge of the regional FBI office. “We have no evidence he was killed by self-inflicted wounds.”
Looking for a motive
Abdulazeez has been described as an accomplished student, a well-liked peer and a mixed martial arts fighter by those who knew him.
Before the attacks, Abdulazeez texted with a friend whom authorities have spoken with, law enforcement sources told CNN on Sunday.
In response to a message that the friend sent Abdulazeez — which is not known — Abdulazeez responded with a text that said, “Whoever shows enmity to a friend of Mine, then I have declared war against him,” law enforcement officials told CNN.
Sources said there is nothing that conclusively indicates that message was any kind of foreshadowing to the shootings.
It is being looked at as one piece in a puzzle, they said.
Reuters first reported the existence of the text, and said that the message was part of a link that was texted that contained the line.
The New York Times also reported that the FBI is looking into the text message.
Investigators have talked to several of Abdulazeez’s friends since the shooting and none of them saw any behavior that would indicate he would launch an attack. One of the sources said some family and friends have told authorities they detected some changes in Abdulazeez’s behavior since he returned to the U.S. from a trip to Jordan last year. Separately, a friend of his told CNN he also detected some changes since he returned.
Investigators were told Abdulazeez visited Prentice Cooper Gun Range, but it is a public range so there are no records to indicate when someone has visited a law enforcement official told CNN. One of the sources said authorities don’t know whether Abdulazeez visited the gun range for recreational purposes or to prepare for the attack.
U.S. Attorney Bill Killian said the shootings are being investigated as an “act of domestic terrorism,” but he noted the incident has not yet been classified as terrorism.
Reinhold said there is nothing to connect the attacker to ISIS or other international terror groups. Abdulazeez was not on any U.S. databases of suspected terrorists.
While he was a devout Muslim, he didn’t appear to be radical, according to some who knew him.
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.
A longtime friend told CNN that Abdulazeez changed after spending time in the Middle East and “distanced himself” for the first few months after returning to Tennessee.
“Something happened over there,” Abdulrazzak Brizada said. “He never became close to me like he was before he went overseas. … I’m sure he had something that happened to him overseas.”
Abdulazeez’s family said it has been cooperating with investigators “and will continue to do so, as we understand there are many legitimate questions that need to be answered.”
“Having said this, now is the time to reflect on the victims and their families, and we feel it would be inappropriate to say anything more other than that we are truly sorry for their loss,” the family said.
How he got the weapons
Authorities have seized four guns connected with Abdulazeez, a law enforcement official said.
The assailant had a handgun and two long guns when police killed him at the Navy Operational Support Center; another rifle was seized when police searched his home, the official said.
Abdulazeez obtained at least one of his firearms from a seller via the Internet, law enforcement sources told CNN, and at least two other firearms were bought from licensed firearms dealers.
The handgun was registered in his name, the source said. Officials believe the shotgun and AK-47-style gun were legally obtained, the source said.
Beefing up security
In response to the shootings, some governors have taken steps to increase security of National Guard recruiters and military facilities in their states.
States control their National Guard units, so governors can make decisions about Guard actions, whereas the president is commander in chief of the nation’s military branches.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott has ordered National Guard members at six state recruitment centers to be relocated to armories until security is improved. In addition, qualified Guard members will be adequately armed.
“We’re going to do everything we can to make sure all of our guardsmen are safe,” Scott told CNN. “We’ve got to understand that we have people in our country that want to harm our military.”
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s order will arm National Guard personnel at military facilities throughout the state.
Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin authorized the arming of certain full-time personnel in military installations throughout the state.
“It is painful enough when we lose members of our armed forces when they are sent in harm’s way,” she said in a statement “But it is unfathomable that they should be vulnerable for attack in our own communities.”