Nothing in a profile of 24-year-old Mohammad Youssuf Abdulazeez would have suggested that he was about to open fire on two military facilities in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and kill four U.S. Marines and three other people on Thursday. By close of business Friday, federal and local law enforcement officials were still scrambling to learn more about the Kuwaiti-born American citizen of Palestinian-Jordanian descent and why he would stage such a shooting spree.
“He was clearly a guy in turmoil,” said Mitchell D. Silber, the former head of intelligence for the New York Police Department, who was among those still uncertain about whether Abdulazeez’s attack was politically and/or religiously motivated, a purely criminal act, or rather, the act of a lone lunatic. All that seems clear—and almost as troubling as the massacre itself—is that Abdulazeez wasn’t on anyone’s radar. According to Silber and another current official, the NYPD’s counter-terrorism unit, widely regarded as the nation’s best, would have had insufficient grounds even to have opened an investigation of Abdulazeez based on what is currently known about him. “So it’s hard to see how he could have been detected beforehand and his attack prevented,” Silber said.
The mystery surrounding Abdulazeez highlights the difficulty law enforcement officials increasingly face in preempting attacks by lone wolves—especially by young militants who may be quickly radicalized not in a mosque, or even by friends at home or abroad, but alone on the Internet. The gunman’s neighborhood was a pristine upscale suburb of brick homes and sloping lawns. Neighbors uniformly expressed shock that the quiet, polite young man who kept to himself and didn’t mingle with others could have carried out such a heinous strike. A 2012 graduate of the University of Tennessee, Abdulazeez had a degree in electrical engineering but apparently no steady job. A member of his school’s wrestling team, he had scribbled what friends had described as a joke in his senior year book: “My name causes national security alerts.”
Recently, however, there were signs of potential radicalization. SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors terrorist activity, said that he had posted at least two Islamic-focused entries on his blog. One, describing life as “short and bitter,” was posted Monday. Another urged believers to “submit to Allah,” a not uncommon expression, particularly during Ramadan, the month of dawn-to-dusk fasting. Silber and other analysts said that these musings alone were not unusual and would not have triggered undue alarm.
On Friday afternoon, investigators were focusing on at least four trips that he had made within the past few years to Jordan—the most recent coming in 2014 and lasting for several months. U.S. counterterrorism officials have asked their Jordanian counterparts for information about whether Abdulazeez had contact with extremist Muslim groups before, during, or after those visits. His own criminal record is fairly clean, investigators say, showing only a recent stop for drunk driving, a common enough offense among teenagers and young men of all religions and ethnic origins, but odd given Islam’s prohibition on drinking alcohol. Several newspapers have reported that his father had twice been investigated for alleged support of terrorist groups but was reported to have been exonerated and was not on any terrorist watch list at the time of his son’s attack.
What police combing thru Abdulazeez’s computer apparently haven’t found, at least as of Friday afternoon, are the usual tell-tale signs of radicalization—photos of Isis fighters on horseback, the beheading of civilians, or messages or postings from Isis-related websites or those of other radical Islamic groups. “He was apparently careful about what he posted, which, if he were radicalized, would suggest good ‘operational security,’” Silber said.
Two other indicators of a religiously militant motive for the attack are its target and its timing. The attack on a Navy recruitment center on the last day of Ramadan follows a call by Isis for observant Muslims to strike Americans and other infidels during the Muslim holy month. Because Islamic militants see themselves as “soldiers of Allah,” U.S. military installations, recruitment, and training centers are considered legitimate targets.
In recent testimony on Capitol Hill, FBI director James Comey expressed concern that such appeals would trigger attacks by Americans who have been radicalized by exposure to Internet postings. The Bureau had investigations of such individuals open in all 50 states, he said. The growing frequency at home and abroad of such lone-wolf attacks by those who are not card-carrying Isis members increasingly preoccupies U.S. and foreign law enforcement officials. Silber has called this phenomenon the “crowdsourcing” of terror—a reference to the business practice of outsourcing work to individuals who don’t work directly for companies employing them.
In June’s “Country Reports on Terrorism,” the State Department warned that it was often “difficult to assess whether attacks were directed or inspired by ISIL or by al-Qa’ida and its affiliates.” The report warned that such attacks may “presage a new era in which centralized leadership of a terrorist organization matters less,” and in which “violent extremist narratives focus on a wider range of alleged grievances and enemies with which lone actors may identify and seek to carry out self-directed attacks.”
Whether Abdulazeez’s attack was an example of this phenomenon is yet to be determined. But there is little doubt that the haystacks in which counterterrorism officials must search for needles are growing ever larger and more numerous.