By Michael S. Schmidt and Jodi Rudoren
JULY 21, 2015
Counterterrorism investigators have uncovered evidence the gunman who killed five service members last week in Chattanooga, Tenn., searched the Internet in the days leading up to the attack for Islamic materials about whether martyrdom would lead to forgiveness for his sins, like drunkenness and financial debt, according to law enforcement officials.
The searches are one part of a nuanced portrait of the 24-year-old gunman, Mohammod Abdulazeez that investigators have patched together based on examinations of his electronic and online communications and interviews with his family and friends. The F.B.I., which is leading the investigation, has become increasingly convinced that Mr. Abdulazeez, who died in a shootout with police, turned to radical ideology as he struggled with severe mental health and financial issues, the officials said.
Investigators believe that one of the crucial factors in his radicalization may have been an uncle who lives in Jordan. The uncle, who is an American citizen and hosted Mr. Abdulazeez during a trip lasting several months to Jordan last year, has been detained there since Friday and interrogated by Jordanian intelligence officers. F.B.I. agents have been dispatched to Jordan to question him while other investigators in the United States are seeking to interview his associates.
Although counterterrorism officials have been warning of attacks from Americans radicalized online by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, investigators increasingly believe that Mr. Abdulazeez does not fit that model. The authorities have found no evidence that he was given orders to attack by any group overseas or was in touch with ISIS.
“In the ISIS model it’s all about social media and them interacting with people in the United States and quickly trying to get them to launch attacks,” said one of the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to jeopardize his access to sensitive information. “This case appears to be much more like the old model, where he was interested in radical Islam and sought to learn more about it online by looking at videos and readings.
“It’s slower moving,” the official added. “It’s less social media and more seeking out things online and getting radicalized.”
Since the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, those types of plotters became known in the Justice Department as self-radicalized and self-directed. Writings obtained by the F.B.I. showed that Mr. Abdulazeez wrote about suicide and martyrdom as long ago as 2013. The bureau has also found evidence that he viewed videos of Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical American-born cleric who was killed in Yemen by an American drone strike in 2011, the officials said.
Mr. Abdulazeez stayed at the home of his uncle, his mother’s brother, in East Amman, Jordan, for several months last summer, said the uncle’s lawyer, Abed al-Kader Ahmad al-Khateeb. Mr. Abdulazeez went to Jordan to work with the uncle, As’ad Ibrahim As’ad Haj Ali, at his mobile-phone company, the lawyer said. The uncle, the lawyer continued, was not involved with Islamic extremists known as Salafis.
“I want to tell you, Mohammed is not religious, and is not belonging to any group,” Mr. Khateeb said in an interview in his Amman office Tuesday night. “I specialize in salafi movements, and this guy has no record with the Salafis, not him or his uncle.”
The lawyer said Jordanian intelligence officials contacted the uncle Thursday, shortly after the deadly attack at a Naval Reserve centre, and asked him to come to their headquarters. He was released that day, called back the next morning, was released again and then was arrested later Friday at his home, Mr. Khateeb said. He added that Jordanian officers had “confiscated all the mobiles and all the laptops.”
Mr. Khateeb said he had not yet been able to speak with Mr. Ali, and had been told that he will not be able to until Sunday. Mr. Ali’s father — the gunman’s grandfather — went to the security office where his son was being detained on Friday and was told to come back on Tuesday, the lawyer said. But when he did, he was still barred from seeing him.
“They told me that the investigation and interrogation is high security, very secret, and no one is allowed,” the lawyer said. “They forbade me to visit, although it’s my legal right as a lawyer. My information is it’s an American investigation here. But if he was in America, they wouldn’t have arrested him.”
Mr. Khateeb said he had spoken to Mr. Abdulazeez’s grandfather and one of his maternal aunts here, but had scant information about the young man’s background or how he passed his time in Jordan. He was unaware, for example, that Mr. Abdulazeez had received a diagnosis of mental illness when he was a teenager, as a family spokesman in Tennessee has said.
“They told me he used to go to the market and to the malls,” Mr. Khateeb said. “What they told me is he’s very affectionate and kind-hearted. He didn’t have a bad temper. They’re still in a state of disbelief. They can’t believe he could kill.”
He said that Mr. Ali, the uncle, is in his 40s with young children and that there were no men around Mr. Abdulazeez’s age in the home where he stayed. He said Mr. Ali used to teach at a local university — he did not know which one or what subject — but now only worked with mobile phones. Both the gunman and his uncle attended mosque on Fridays, not daily, and the aunt wears an Islamic head scarf, Mr. Khateeb said — common practice in Jordan, a largely conservative, religious country.
Mr. Khateeb, whose small sixth-floor office is in a modest building near a courthouse, said he was the head of the Freedom Party, a human-rights faction of the Islamic Action Fund, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood. But he said that he was not a member of the brotherhood, and that his faction fights to protect Islamists, leftists and Christians alike.
“I am the lawyer of all the political detainees,” he explained, adding that he visits people like Mr. Ali at the intelligence headquarters weekly.
A family representative in Tennessee, who spoke on the condition that he not be named, said Mr. Abdulazeez went to Jordan last year because “folks in his family wanted to get him out of being around bad influences in Chattanooga,” including drugs. The uncle and grandfather “were going to give him some work to do and watch him and see if they could get him back on the right track.”
Though the visit has been widely reported to have lasted seven months, the family representative and the lawyer said it was more like four or five; the representative said one family member had told him that the “uncle was exhausted for supervising him.” Both men said it was uneventful.
“He would sit at home and watch TV,” the family representative said. “I think sometimes he was so desperate to get outside of the house, he would go jogging to find an excuse to get out of the house for 30 minutes.”
In suburban Atlanta on Tuesday night, mourners filled Sprayberry High School’s football stadium for a memorial service honoring one of the five dead service members, Lance Cpl. Squire K. Wells. Before he joined the Marine Corps last year, Lance Corporal Wells participated in the school’s Navy Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps program.
“Skip was our hero while he was at Sprayberry, but now we share him with our country and with the world,” said Andy Esserwein, a band teacher who taught Lance Corporal Wells for four years. “Skip is our hero.”
Michael S. Schmidt reported from Washington, and Jodi Rudoren from Amman, Jordan. Ranya Kadri contributed reporting from Amman; Timothy Williams from Chattanooga, Tenn.; and Alan Blinder from Atlanta. Jack Begg contributed research.