The 2015 Chattanooga Shootings

The Armed Forces Career Center through a bullet-riddled door after a gunman opened fire on the building Thursday, July 16, 2015, in Chattanooga, Tenn.
The Armed Forces Career Center through a bullet-riddled door after a gunman opened fire on the building Thursday, July 16, 2015, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

On July 16, 2015, Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez opened fire on two military installations in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He first committed a drive-by shooting at a recruiting center, then traveled to a U.S. Navy Reserve center and continued firing, where he was killed by police in a gunfight. Four Marines died on the spot. A Navy sailor, a Marine recruiter, and a police officer were wounded; the sailor died from his injuries two days later.

On December 16, following an investigation, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director James B. Comey said that the shootings were “motivated by foreign terrorist organization propaganda.”

Shootings

The shootings began shortly after 10:30 a.m. at the Armed Forces Career Center in a strip mall located on Lee Highway. The Center recruited personnel for branches of the United States military, including the U.S. Army, the U.S. Air Force, and the Tennessee National Guard. There, Abdulazeez fired 30 to 45 shots into the office from inside a silver rental Ford Mustang convertible, wounding a U.S. Marine. He then escaped and led members of the Chattanooga Police Department on a six miles (9.7 km) pursuit. At the time of the first shooting, only seven people, including the wounded Marine, were inside the recruiting center.

Abdulazeez drove seven miles (11 km) to a U.S. Navy Reserve center on Amnicola Highway in Chattanooga, where he rammed his vehicle through a security gate. He drove to one of the center’s buildings, where the Inspector-Instructor staff of Mike Battery, 3rd Battalion, 14th Marines and Sailors were working.

Abdulazeez first fired at it, then charged inside and continued firing, fatally wounding a U.S. Navy sailor. Abdulazeez then exited the building through the back and entered a fenced motor pool area, where he shot several Marines. Three to five minutes after the second shooting began, he reentered the building, where he fired upon responding police officers and was fatally shot by them.

– Aftermath

The entire incident lasted over thirty minutes, and an approximate total of 100 rounds were fired by Abdulazeez. Lock-downs were put into place at locations near the sites of the shootings.

Following the shootings, officials stated that Abdulazeez was carrying an AK-47-style semi-automatic rifle and a 9mm handgun. A Saiga-12 shotgun was also recovered from his vehicle. He was also wearing a vest that could hold extra ammunition. A second semi-automatic rifle was seized at Abdulazeez’s home by police.

In addition to the aforementioned weapons, investigators discovered a 9mm Glock handgun that may have been privately owned by one of the slain Marines and are determining if it was used against Abdulazeez during the shootings. It was also determined that the reserve center’s commanding officer used a personal firearm against Abdulazeez.

Victims

Five people, excluding the gunman, died in the shootings. They included four U.S. Marines who died at the scene and one U.S. Navy sailor who died at a hospital two days later. All of them were shot at the U.S. Navy Reserve center, one inside a building and the other four at a nearby motor pool area. The victims all attempted to distract the gunmen, returned fire, and assisted people in climbing a fence to safety. Some of the victims died while returning fire at Abdulazeez, providing cover for a larger group of potential victims who were escaping over a fence. They were identified as:

Name Age Hometown Branch Rank
Carson A. Holmquist 25 Grantsburg, Wisconsin Marine Corps Sergeant
Randall Smith 26 Paulding, Ohio Navy Logistics Specialist Second Class
Thomas J. Sullivan 40 Springfield, Massachusetts Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant
Squire K. “Skip” Wells 21 Marietta, Georgia Marine Corps Lance Corporal
David A. Wyatt 37 Russellville, Arkansas Marine Corps Staff Sergeant

In addition, two other people were wounded. They were Sergeant DeMonte Cheeley, a Marine recruiter who was shot in the leg, treated, and released; and Dennis Pedigo, Jr., a police sergeant who was shot in the ankle.

Perpetrator

Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez (September 5, 1990 – July 16, 2015), a resident of Hixson, Tennessee, was identified as the gunman.

– Personal Life

Background

Abdulazeez, a naturalized American citizen, was born in Kuwait on September 5, 1990, to Palestinian-Jordanian parents. Abdulazeez held a temporary Jordanian passport as a travel document (commonly issued to Palestinians by the Jordanian government); Jordanian authorities emphasized that Abdulazeez was not a Jordanian citizen.

Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez
Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez

Abdulazeez migrated to the U.S. with his family in 1996 and became a U.S. citizen in 2003. During the Second Intifada, Abdulazeez, then fifteen, traveled with his father to Jamma’in, the village in Samaria where the father was born, with the goal of acquiring a Palestinian ID.

Abdulazeez graduated from Red Bank High School. He earned an electrical engineering degree from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in 2012 and learned to manage electrical power systems as an intern with the Tennessee Valley Authority. On May 20, 2013, he began working as an engineer at the Perry Nuclear Generating Station in North Perry, Ohio, but was let go ten days later after failing a drug test. According to a spokesperson for FirstEnergy, which runs the station, Abdulazeez only worked and received general training at an administrative office building, and did not have access to sensitive information. In the three months prior to the shootings, Abdulazeez was employed with Superior Essex as a supervisor for its Franklin office.

According to The Washington Post, both of Abdulazeez’s parents were self-described in their divorce proceedings “as natives of ‘the State of Palestine'” and they “maintained a strict, conservative Muslim lifestyle.” Abdulazeez frequented a gun range with his co-workers.

According to a law enforcement official, Abdulazeez’s father had been placed on a terrorist watchlist and investigated many years ago before the shootings for giving money to an organization with possible terrorist connections. The father was questioned while on a trip abroad but was eventually removed from the watchlist. He was ultimately not charged with any crime, and the information revealed no information on Abdulazeez himself.

Mental stability and substance abuse

Abdulazeez experienced drug and alcohol problems, and his family tried to place him in a rehabilitation program. The New York Times reported that at one point, limits on the family’s health insurance coverage “thwarted their plan to have him go into rehab.” The investigation after the shooting revealed that Abdulazeez “had serious psychological problems.”

According to a family representative, Abdulazeez was abusing sleeping pills, opioids, painkillers, and marijuana along with alcohol. He had also been in thousands of dollars of debt and was planning to file for bankruptcy. At one point, in 2012 or 2013, Abdulazeez began receiving therapy for his drug and alcohol abuse. He had also received treatment for depression and often stopped taking his medication. Following the shootings, Abdulazeez’s parents claimed that their son had been suffering from depression. According to a source that was provided by CNN, Abdulazeez was suffering from bipolar disorder.

– Abdulazeez’s travel and actions preceding the shooting

Abdulazeez did not attract the attention of the FBI in the period leading up to the shootings. Abdulazeez traveled to Jordan a total of five times, making the earliest trip in 2003 and the last trip between April and November 2014, when Abdulazeez made a visit to a maternal uncle. This last visit was arranged by Abdulazeez’s family, who wanted him to get away from friends they believed were bad influences on him. Abdulazeez also traveled to Kuwait in 2008.

Accounts on the length of Abdulazeez’s stay with his uncle vary, ranging from two to seven months. Abdulazeez reportedly led a solitary life in Jordan.

Abdulazeez’s sole known previous contact with law enforcement was an April 20, 2015 arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI). A family spokesman said that the arrest triggered a severe increase in his depression.

Following his 2014 visit to Jordan, Abdulazeez told friends that Jordan, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia ought to have sent more help to Hamas during the 2014 Israel–Gaza conflict. They also noted a change in his behavior and that he made critical statements against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

In the months preceding the shooting, Abdulazeez regularly attended Friday prayers at a mosque. and was thought to have written a blog post in which he urges study of the Quran as a meaning to life. According to his family, Abdulazeez had made searches online about martyrdom, and had been wondering whether becoming a martyr would absolve him of his sins. On July 20, several writings belonging to Abdulazeez, dating as far back as 2013, were discovered. In them, he wrote about having suicidal thoughts after losing his job due to his drug use and his desire to “become a martyr”. Authorities searching his computer found that he owned CDs and had downloaded videos by al-Qaeda recruiter Anwar al-Awlaki. An FBI spokesman stated that “there are some pretty radicalized thoughts” in the writings.

None of the writings laid out plans for an attack or spelled out a motive, however. The motivation is surmised from the fact that on July 11, Abdulazeez bought ammunition at a Wal-Mart store. On July 13, he wrote long diary entries, describing life as a kind of prison and warning, “Don’t be fooled by your desires, this life is short and bitter and the opportunity to submit to Allah may pass you by.” He also wrote that people mistakenly thought that the Sahaba (companions of the Prophet) were priests “living in monasteries.” This, he wrote, is untrue, and that “everyone one of them fought jihad for the sake of Allah. Everyone one of them had to make sacrifices in their lives.” Hours before the shooting, he texted an Islamic verse to a friend that read, “Whosoever shows enmity to a friend of mine, then I have declared war against him.”

Criminal investigation

An official participating in the investigation told The New York Times there was no evidence that Abdulazeez was in contact with any social media recruiters working for ISIL, explaining, “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.”

The shooting was investigated by the FBI as a terrorism case from the outset. The Naval Criminal Investigative Service was also involved in the investigation. On July 23, 2015, in the immediate aftermath of the attack, FBI special agent Ed Reinhold stated that the attack was being treated as the work of “a homegrown violent extremist” and that the FBI is exploring the idea that Abdulazeez was self-radicalized. The following month, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said that investigators might never be able to determine “what combination of disturbed mind, violent extremism and hateful ideology was at work.” In November 2015, FBI Director James B. Comey said, “We’re still trying to make sure we understand Abdulazeez, his motivations and associations, in a really good way.”

On December 16, 2015, Comey said that the FBI investigation had concluded that “there is no doubt that Abdulazeez was inspired, motivated by foreign terrorist organization propaganda.” Comey added that it was difficult to determine which specific terrorist group or groups inspired Abdulazeez. On the same day, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus announced that the Purple Heart would be conferred upon the victims of the shootings.

According to professor Charles Kurzman, the shootings were part of a “shift away from large-scale elaborate attempts to use weapons of mass destruction or other high-profile plots — the hallmark of al-Qaida and its affiliates — toward a lower tech do-it-yourself strategy” propagated by ISIL and other groups. President Barack Obama expressed similar thoughts in a December 2015 speech, saying:

“The terrorist threat has evolved into a new phase. As we’ve become better at preventing complex, multifaceted attacks like 9/11, terrorists turned to less-complicated acts of violence like the mass shootings that are all too common in our society. It is this type of attack that we saw at Fort Hood in 2009, in Chattanooga earlier this year and now in San Bernardino.

Reactions

– Leaders

  • President Barack Obama called the event “heartbreaking” and expressed his condolences to the families of the victims. On July 21, he ordered all flags at the White House, federal buildings and U.S. embassies overseas to be flown at half-staff.
  • Vice President Joe Biden, speaking at a memorial for the victims, expressed his condolences to their families and called the gunman a “perverted jihadist.”
  • Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus called the shootings “devastating and senseless” and offered his condolences to the families of the victims. He promised an investigation into future vulnerabilities.
  • Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam said, “I join all Tennesseans in being both sickened and saddened by this.”
  • Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke called the shootings “a nightmare for the City of Chattanooga.”
  • Battery Commander Major Michael Abrams, speaking at the memorial service, expressed that he was “deeply proud” of how the marines and sailors responded to the shootings, saying, “In the chaos of that moment, they were selfless in their efforts to take care of one another, and they acted with unquestionable courage.”

– Muslim organizations

Muslim and mosque leaders across Tennessee condemned the shootings. Paul Galloway, representing the American Muslim Advisory Council, said that Muslims in Tennessee “express our deepest condolences to the victims and their families. Terrorists seek to divide our society, and we pray that all Americans will stand together united against their wanton violence and hatred.”

The National Executive Director of Council on American–Islamic Relations, Nihad Awad, said, “Such inexcusable acts of violence must be repudiated by Americans of all faiths and backgrounds.” The National Vice-President of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA stated, “While we do not yet know what motivated this man, we urge calm, defer to authorities to justly resolve this, and pray for the departed U.S. Marines.”

– Security measures

In the wake of the shootings, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson called for increased security measures at federal facilities out of caution. On July 29, Carter released a two-page memorandum directing military commanders and civilian leaders to develop new security plans and measures, including “the option of additional armed personnel”. He put an emphasis of added security at small, unguarded facilities such as the two military installations attacked by Abdulazeez.

On August 15, during a speech at a memorial for the victims, he called for a review of domestic security procedures for military installations across the country. On August 29, the Navy launched an official investigation looking into possible security changes, communications with law enforcement and emergency responders, and on-site personnel response. The investigation is headed by a twenty-person team, which submitted a 41-page report on September 26. Though the Marine Corps ruled out arming recruiters as a security measure since most of their job is to interact with the public, officials have begun developing other options.

Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) announced his intention to introduce a bill that would end the ban on firearms being carried in military installations. The Navy made plans to station armed guards at all 70 reserve centers not located on military bases and is also considering providing armed protection for recruiting centers.

On July 18, two days after the shootings, the governors of Florida, Texas, and Indiana ordered the arming of National Guardsmen at military offices and other facilities, along with the installation of bulletproof glass and more efficient video surveillance equipment. Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Arkansas followed suit the next day. Utah Governor Gary Herbert also announced that the state would “explore additional ways to protect our men and women serving in the Armed Forces”. In 2014, Utah had passed legislation allowing soldiers at National Guard facilities to carry weapons.

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