CHATTANOOGA, Tenn./WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The suspect in the fatal shootings of four U.S. Marines travelled to Jordan and possibly other Middle Eastern countries last year, authorities said on Friday, as the investigation focused on any signs of a connection to Islamist militants.
Mohammod Youssuf Abdulazeez, a Kuwaiti-born naturalized U.S. citizen, died on Thursday in a firefight with police after a rampage at two military facilities in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
The 24-year-old engineer travelled to Jordan, possibly between April and November, U.S. government sources and friends of Abdulazeez in Chattanooga told Reuters. One childhood friend, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said he went there for a job opportunity.
Investigators will try to establish if he was part of an organization or the latest “lone wolf” militant, radicalised U.S. Muslims acting on their own who President Barack Obama has said pose a greater risk to the country than a large-scale operation.
Friends were shocked by the actions of Abdulazeez, who they said lived about 150 miles (241 km) away in Franklin, Tennessee, but had returned to his hometown to visit family for the holy fasting month of Ramadan, which ended Thursday.
“He was a friend of mine, a good Muslim. But there were no red flags, nothing unusual. It is shocking,” said another childhood friend, who prayed with him at the Islamic Center of Greater Chattanooga over the past month.
A little more than 24 hours after the shooting, the FBI said it continued to investigate it as an act of terrorism and that it was “premature” to speculate on the motive.
“We are exploring all travel that he has done and we have asked our intelligence partners throughout the world to provide us with any information they may have,” Ed Reinhold, FBI special agent in charge, said during a news conference.
Born to Palestinian parents and raised in a Chattanooga suburb, Abdulazeez may have family in Jordan and may have made several stops, said a government source, adding that a visit to Yemen has not been ruled out.
A trip to Yemen, long viewed as a training ground for Islamic militants, would raise special concern.
Law enforcement officials have said they are investigating whether Abdulazeez, was inspired by Islamic State or similar militant groups. Islamic State had threatened to step up violence during Ramadan.
But the FBI said Friday it had “no indication” so far that the attack was linked to that group.
Abdulazeez sprayed gunfire at a joint military recruiting centre in a strip mall, riddling the glass facade with bullet holes, then drove to a Naval Reserve Center about 6 miles (10 km) away, where he killed the Marines before he himself was shot dead. Three other people were injured.
He wore a vest that law enforcement officials said may have been used to hold extra ammunition and had two long guns and a handgun.
The Marine Corps identified the four slain Marines as Gunnery Sergeant Thomas Sullivan of Hampden, Massachusetts; Staff Sergeant David Wyatt of Burke, North Carolina; Sergeant Carson Holmquist of Polk, Wisconsin; and reservist Lance Corporal Squire Wells of Cobb, Georgia.
The SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks extremist groups, said Abdulazeez blogged on Monday “life is short and bitter” and that Muslims should not miss an opportunity to “submit to Allah.” Reuters could not independently verify the postings.
Investigators believe family or psychological issues may have contributed, according to a government source, who was not authorized to speak on the record.
Years ago, his father, Youssuf Abdulazeez, who attended Texas A&M University, came under investigation by a Joint Terrorism Task Force for possible connections to a militant group, one source said, but he was cleared of any association with terrorism or wrongdoing.
The father worked since at least 2005 as a soil engineering specialist for Chattanooga city’s public works department, according to public records, and his son appeared to be following in his professional footsteps.
He attended high school in a Chattanooga suburb and graduated from the University of Tennessee in 2012 with an engineering degree. His work experience includes an internship with a carpet manufacturer and the Tennessee Valley Authority, a regional power utility.
While friends and the family’s neighbours said there were no signs that warned of his rampage, not all was going well for the young man. In April, he was arrested and charged with driving under the influence.
The family also appears to have undergone upheaval in 2009, when the mother, Rasmia Abdulazeez, petitioned for divorce and alleged abuse, according to court documents. The suit was dismissed and the couple signed a post-nuptial agreement.
One of the childhood friends said Mohammod’s family life was good and called it “a happy home.”
But at least one of his four siblings complained of the difficulty they faced being Muslims at their high school, saying they were harassed by fellow students.
“There’s this misconception that Islam is a violent religion. Muslims are actually peaceful,” a 17-year-old Yasmeen Abdulazeez told the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 2010.
The Islamic Society where Mohammod worshipped cancelled activities to celebrate Eid, marking the end of Ramadan, but called all Muslims in the area to attend an event Friday night in solidarity with the victims.
Reporting by Suzannah Gonzales in Chicago, Lena Masri and Katie Reiley in New York, Mark Hosenball, Emily Stephenson, Julia Edwards, Lindsay Dunsmuir, Doina Chiacu and David Alexander in Washington; Writing by Frank McGurty and Mary Milliken; Editing by James Dalgleish and Lisa Shumaker