Probing into the Mind of the Chattanooga Attacker for Clues on his path to Violent Extremism

Abdulazeez

Just as Ramadan is ending—a time when ISIS had called for an increase in terror attacks—one has occurred in Chattanooga. Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez, a naturalized citizen of the U.S., born in Kuwait and also carrying Jordanian citizenship carried out what appears to be an ISIS inspired, active shooter attack at two military recruiting centers on July 16, 2015. Abdulazeez who had won awards for high grades in high school, was a 2012 electrical engineering graduate from the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga and well liked in his community appeared an unlikely candidate for terrorism.

Abdulazeez, however fired from what a witness called a high-powered rifle out of a silver Mustang into a military recruiting center in a Chattanooga strip shopping mall. He then carried on to another military facility operated by the U.S. Navy where he shot and killed four Marines and injured at least two others. The actual weapon was according to law enforcement officers an AK-47 style rifle and Abdulazeez was also carrying thirty-round magazines when he opened fire. The silver Mustang turned out to be rented.

An ISIS affiliated account tweeted about the shooting around the same time as the shooting was occurring. The tweet read “O Americans Dogs soon YOU Will see wonders #Cahttanooga #USA #ISIS”. This follows a similar pattern to the tweet sent out moments before the ISIS-inspired attacks on the “Draw Muhammad” event in Garland, Texas last May. The time stamp on the Chattanooga tweet is under dispute, but it looks as though there may have been some foreknowledge of his attack.

Abdulazeez was like many recent “stay and act in place” lone wolf attackers a “clean skin”—meaning he was not previously known to law enforcement as a potential violent extremist. He may or may not have been directed by ISIS, and simply self-radicalized online, like many ISIS followers now do. All of the ingredients of the lethal cocktail of terrorism that I identified in my book, Talking to Terrorists, based upon interviews with over four hundred terrorists and their family members and close associates are all present 24/7 nowadays over the Internet—the group, its ideology and social support are all there readily available to hook in a vulnerable person to move him along the terrorist trajectory, while no one suspects a thing.

What were Abdulazeez’s possible vulnerabilities to radicalization and resonating to a hateful ideology such as ISIS propagates? Well first off, it appears Abdulazeez grew up under the influence of, and witnessing, violence.

According to the Chattanoogan, Abdulazeez’s father, Youssuf Saed Abdulazeez was a violent abuser. Court papers document that he repeatedly beat his wife, Rasmia in front of their five children. Her complaint states that Youssuf, who is a city of Chattanooga public works employee, repeatedly beat her, once so badly that she went to a crisis center. It also claimed sexual assault while the children were present in the home and that Youssuf planned to take a second wife back in their native home of Palestine. Rasmia sued her husband for divorce in February of 2009 but like many victims of domestic abuse, later withdrew her request.

The complaint also said that Youssuf beat his children as well “striking and beating them without provocation or justification” and that he was verbally abusive to his wife in front of the children and to them as well. It also documented that Youssuf, like many domestic abusers, controlled all the money and property in the family. The abuse was bad enough that Rasmia’s brothers flew in from Kuwait and Washington, D.C., but they apparently could not stop his abuse, as the complaint documented their visits only made Youssuf more abusive and that he sexually abused Rasmia again after her brother from Washington, D.C. visited.

Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez, twenty-four-years old at the time of the attack would have been eighteen in 2009 when his mother’s request for divorce was withdrawn. So he was a minor during the times written about in the complaint and clearly grew up witnessing what appears to be horrific scenes of family violence. Psychologists know that as young sons grow up powerlessly witnessing the abuse of their mother at the hands of their father an inner rage boils and often it boils over in late adolescence—often when the son stands up to his father and threatens violence if he doesn’t stop. Likely, Abdulazeez was wrestling with shame, humiliation and anger over seeing his mother beaten and humiliated by his father and the children also being included in the abuse—according to the complaint.

Perhaps he turned to alcohol or drugs to numb out that pain. Clearly he was showing troubles with mind-altering substances as Abdulazeez was arrested April 21, 2015 in Hamilton, Tennessee for driving under the influence. He was scheduled to appear in court later this month on that charge. That would lead to more shame as Muslims are not supposed to drink, and during Ramadan he would likely be atoning for that and trying to clean up his act. Abdulazeez admitted to the police officer of having being around friends who were drinking and smoking weed and he accounted for crushed white powder under his nose as crushed caffeine pills that he claimed having snorted. He refused blood testing. Abdulazeez was interestingly living back at home at the time of his attacks.

On July 18, the Abdualzeez family released a statement saying that Muhammad struggled for years with depression. As with all active shooter attacks, he likely also expected to be killed—and was thus aiming for suicide (by cop) if not “martyrdom” in his action.

Abdulazeez was, according to the divorce filing document, of Palestinian origins and it appears his family had gone through what many Palestinians have—moving from place to place and living without a homeland. Nidal Hassan the military psychiatrist who became an active shooter attacking his base in Texas in protest of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq was also of Palestinian origin. Palestinians often feel affinity with the collective struggle to establish a Palestinian state and we still don’t know if Abdulazeez was exposed to relatives, friends and rhetoric supportive of terrorism—but it would be more likely given his heritage.

Abdulazeez would have been in his teens during the Second Intifada and may have, like many of Palestinian origins, believed that suicide terrorism was the only choice for standing up to the might of the Israeli Defense Forces. That would have made him vulnerable to at a later date buying into the al Qaeda and ISIS narrative that Muslims, their land and even Islam itself is under attack. And those feelings might have intensified when the U.S. invaded Iraq and Afghanistan and now when ISIS declared their caliphate while receiving military air strikes from the U.S. and other Western powers. He certainly would have been aware of the recent Israeli poundings in Gaza. His father was also briefly on terrorist watch list for giving charity to a terrorist related organization affiliated with Palestinians in Nablus and the West Bank. His case was subsequently closed.  Palestinian groups have for the most part resisted infiltration from al Qaeda and ISIS, but these groups constantly try to gain a foothold among Palestinians and often use their case as an example to further their violent narrative and call for all Muslims to join jihad.

Abdulazeez appears sensitive about his Muslim identity and unsure about belonging to his new country. In high school he put the following quote next to his photo in the yearbook: “My name causes national security alerts. What does yours do?” Abdulazeez’s sister, Yasmeen recalls being harassed for taking Muslim holidays off and wearing a headscarf, once being refused the right to take part in a volleyball match by a referee who objected to her headscarf.

According to the SITE Intelligence Group, Abdulazeez kept a blog where he posted on July 13th that “life is short and bitter” and that Muslims should not let “the opportunity to submit to Allah … pass you by.” The New York Times notes that Abdualzeez also only recently grew his beard and that he started regular Friday worship at the Islamic Society of Greater Chattanooga only in the last two to three months.

Abdulazeez visited Jordan in 2014 and Kuwait and Jordan in 2010, both times when he may have crossed paths with violent extremists and have had the plight of Palestinians, Iraqis, and others brought more into focus and in a way sympathetic to groups like ISIS.

Abdulazeez had guns according to a friend and would shoot as a hobby, although friends and neighbors remember him as a “good kid” and not as an angry or threatening persona. One friend claims Abdulazeez changed dramatically after his travels to the Middle East.

It is still uncertain how and when Abdulazeez began radicalizing and decided to carry out an attack and if he was inspired by ISIS, but it is looking that way. Chillingly, Abdulazeez is reported to have worked at the Perry Nuclear Power Plant in Ohio for ten days in 2013, as an electrical engineer right outside the reactor. FirstPower said he left because he did not have the minimum requirements to remain employed. With that in mind we may have to be thankful that Abdulazeez didn’t do far more damage than kill four innocent Marines, which in itself is a horrible tragedy.

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the School of Medicine and of Security Studies in the School of Foreign Service. She is author of Talking to Terrorists and  Bride of ISIS and coauthor of Undercover Jihadi and Warrior Princess: A U.S. Navy SEAL’s Journey to Coming out Transgender.  She had interviewed in the field and in prisons over four hundred terrorists, their close associates, family members and hostages. Website: www.AnneSpeckhard.com

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