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US investigates Tennessee shooter’s travels abroad

Jason Davis/Getty Images/AFP | Ed Reinhold , FBI special agent in charge, speaks during a press conference on July 17, 2015 in Chattanooga, Tennessee

A fifth marine died Saturday of injuries sustained in an attack Thursday on two military bases in Chattanooga, the US Navy said, as investigators were examining the shooter's travel abroad to try to determine a motive.

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Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez sprayed dozens of bullets at a military recruiting center at a strip mall in Chattanooga, then drove to a Navy-Marine training center a few miles away and shot up the installation. The bullets smashed through windows and sent service members scrambling for cover before Abdulazeez was fatally shot by police.

The FBI said Friday that Abdulazeez had at least two long guns and one handgun. Some of the gun purchases were legal and some were not, FBI agent Ed Reinhold said at a news conference.

Reinhold said investigators were also looking into his overseas travel.

The official Kuwait News Agency on Friday quoted the interior ministry as saying that while Abdulazeez was born in Kuwait, he was of Jordanian origin. The report also said he traveled to Kuwait and Jordan in the spring of 2010.

A close friend of his told Reuters on Saturday that he returned from another trip to Jordan in 2014 angry about the conflicts in the Middle East and the reluctance of regional governments and the United States to intervene.

Hours before the attack, Abdulazeez sent a text message to the friend, seen by Reuters, which links to a Koranic verse that includes the text, “Whosoever shows enmity to a friend of Mine, then I have declared war against him.”

Abdulazeez did not appear to have been on the radar of federal authorities before the attack at a Marine-Navy reserve facility, officials said.

A relative of Abdulazeez said his parents are both from the West Bank and described him as a “nice, educated guy”. Abdulazeez met the relative for the first time during his visit to Jordan last year and the two spoke for about an hour.

The relative said the family are mainstream Muslims, and not fundamentalists. “They fast, they pray, and that is it."

The FBI, which is leading the investigation, said Abdulazeez was wearing a load-bearing vest during the attack that allowed him to move about while carrying additional ammunition. Now counterterrorism investigators are taking a closer look at his online activities as well as his foreign travel, searching for further clues as to his political views or influences.

The US Attorney in eastern Tennessee Bill Killian said Thursday that the attacks were being treated as a terrorism investigation and that investigators will “let the facts and the evidence lead us where it may”.

Residents in the quiet neighbourhood in Hixson, Tennessee, where Abdulazeez lived in a two-story home, said they would see him walking along the wide streets or doing yard work. One neighbour recalled Abdulazeez giving him a ride home when he became stranded in a snowstorm.

“It’s kind of a general consensus from people that interacted with him that he was just your average citizen there in the neighbourhood. There was no reason to suspect anything otherwise,” said Ken Smith, a city councilman who met with neighbours the night of the attacks.

Arrested for drunk driving

Abdulazeez’s mother, Rasmia Ibrahim Abdulazeez, filed a divorce complaint in 2009 accusing her husband, Youssuf Saed Abdulazeez, of beating her repeatedly in front of their children and of sexually assaulting her. She also accused him of “striking and berating” the children without provocation.

Weeks later, the couple agreed to reconcile, with the father consenting to go to counseling.

Abdulazeez graduated from Red Bank High School in Chattanooga, where he was on the wrestling team. He subsequently earned an engineering degree from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in 2012 and worked as an intern a few years ago at the Tennessee Valley Authority, the federally owned utility that operates power plants and dams across the South.

He was conditionally hired as an engineer at the Perry nuclear power plant near Cleveland and spent 10 days there before he was let go in May 2013 because he failed a background check, said Todd Schneider, a FirstEnergy Corp. spokesman. Schneider would not say why he failed the screening.

Later on Friday, a federal official who had been briefed on the matter told The Associated Press that Abdulazeez was dismissed because he failed a drug test. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation.

For the last three months, Abdulazeez had been working at Superior Essex Inc., which designs and makes wire and cable products.

In April he was arrested on a drunk driving charge, and a mugshot showed him with a bushy beard.

'As Americanised as anyone else'

Karen Jones, who lived next to the family for 14 years, said she was somewhat surprised by his appearance last weekend when she saw him walking with another man in woods behind the house, where he liked to shoot pellet guns at a red target suspended in a tree.

“He had this big beard, which was not how he used to be,” Jones said. She said he was typically clean-shaven.

The women of the family always wore head coverings in accordance with their Muslim faith, Jones said, and the father works for the city of Chattanooga. Two women led away from the home after the shootings Thursday were also in headscarves.

Sam Plank graduated from Red Bank High two years before Abdulazeez but hadn’t crossed paths with him since 2006. “Obviously something has happened since then,” he said. “He was as Americanised as anyone else. At least that’s what it seemed like to me.”

Another Red Bank High graduate who knew him, Hussnain Javid, said Abdulazeez was “very outgoing”, adding: “Everyone knew of him.”

Javid, a 21-year-old student at the University of Tennessee, said he occasionally saw Abdulazeez at the Islamic Society of Greater Chattanooga, but the last time was roughly a year ago.

Fears of lone-wolf attacks

For months, US counterterrorism authorities have been warning of the danger of attacks by individuals inspired but not necessarily directed by the Islamic State group. Officials have said they have disrupted several such lone-wolf plots.

A federal law enforcement official said authorities were searching Abdulazeez’s computer but had not found an extensive online presence and had not uncovered any evidence he was directly influenced by the Islamic State group. The official was not authorised to discuss the case publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The dead were identified Friday by the Marines as Gunnery Sergeant Thomas J. Sullivan of Hampden, Massachusetts; Staff Sergeant David A. Wyatt of Burke, North Carolina; Sergeant Carson A. Holmquist of Polk, Wisconsin; and Lance Corporal Squire K. “Skip” Wells of Cobb County, Georgia. Sullivan, Wyatt and Holmquist had served in Iraq, Afghanistan or both.

General Ray Odierno, the US Army’s top officer, said that security at military recruiting and reserve centres will be reviewed, but that it is too early to say whether they should have security guards or other increased protection.

Odierno said there are legal issues involved in allowing recruiters to carry guns. And he said the centres need to be open and accessible to the public.

(FRANCE 24 with AP and REUTERS)

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