Photo: Chattanooga Police
In the immediate aftermath of Mohammod Youssuf Abdulazeez’s killing of four Marines and wounding of at least three other people, there was a noticeable effort to portray the jihadist as an all-American boy from small-town Tennessee. With just a bit of digging, however, a different picture is emerging. The New York Times reported Friday morning that Abdulazeez had spent about seven months in Jordan last year.
As is their wont in cases where Muslims kill Americans, investigators hastened to point out that overseas stays in a region rife with Islamic radicalism are not necessarily suggestive of terror ties . . . even if the traveler, on his stateside return, promptly shoots up military installations while the Islamic State and al-Qaeda urge Muslims to shoot up military installations.
Abdulazeez was technically a Jordanian national when his parents brought him to the United States from Kuwait as an infant in 1990. Sometime during his childhood, he became a naturalized American citizen. Yet the family appears to self-identify as Palestinian, a conclusion I’ll explain in due course.
Extensive and mostly flattering information already abounds about Abdulazeez’s upbringing in Colonial Shores, a subdivision of Hixon, a small town across the Tennessee River from Chattanooga. “He seemed to have been an all-American boy,” reports the Times, “handsome, polite, normally in a T-shirt and jeans.”
The 24-year-old jihadist was finally killed in a shootout with Chattanooga police Thursday morning. He had first opened fire on a military recruiting office, shooting out the windows. He then drove to a U.S. Naval Reserve Center about six miles away, where he murdered the four Marines. Also wounded in the spree were a Marine recruiting officer, a police officer, and Navy sailor who, as this is written, is still fighting for her life after a night of surgery.
Abdulazeez’s family — father, mother, and at least two sisters — is described by the media as “devout” and “conservative” Muslim. Abdulazeez is said to have had a mostly normal American childhood, playing ball in the street with the local kids; his sisters, to have been everyday American girls who happened to wear headscarves. Neighbors appear to have thought the children polite and well behaved.
Yet, there is plainly more to the story. According to one Israeli press outlet, the shooter’s father, Youssef Abdulazeez, is a Palestinian, notwithstanding his holding of a Jordanian passport. About 4.5 million Palestinians live in Jordan, about three-quarters of them holding Jordanian citizenship. Whatever his ties to Jordan, Youssef resided in Samaria — i.e., in the virulently anti-Israeli and anti-Western territory of the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank — before relocating to Kuwait. The Israeli press outlet relates:
The Palestinian connection was demonstrated by pictures posted on Facebook recently by [an unidentified family member] who put up an image featuring a fist grasping a loudspeaker in the colors of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) flag with the words: “speak for Palestine!”
Indicators of the Palestinian roots of the Abdulazeez family are corroborated by the Instagram account of one of Youssef’s daughters, Yasmeen. In it, she describes herself as a “Palestinian Muslim living in good old Tennessee.”
After moving to Kuwait, Youssef married his wife, Rasmia. Mohammod was born in 1990. They left for America after the outbreak of the Persian Gulf War — the war in which President George H. W. Bush liberated Kuwaiti Muslims from the occupying Iraqi army of Saddam Hussein . . . although Kuwait remains a hotbed of radical Islam and a major source of anti-American jihadist funding.
Youssef was on a Federal Bureau of Investigation terrorist watch list for some unspecified period of time, on suspicion of donating money to an organization suspected of being a terrorist front. He was even reportedly questioned by or at the behest of American law enforcement during a trip outside the U.S. But he was eventually removed from the list. Now he is not only employed by the Chattanooga City Department of Public Works; he also was appointed an unarmed “special policeman” in 2005 by the Chattanooga City Council.
In the hours right after the shooting, local federal officials stated the obvious: the jihadist killing of our Marines was an act of “terrorism.” By nighttime, the government was walking that back.
The Abdulazeez children attended Red Bank High School. The Washington Post reports that, in her years at there, as well as at University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (where Mohammod also attended), Yasmeen drew attention for her forward and at times confrontational expression of Islam — wearing her headscarf even on the volleyball court, and chiding fellow students, “Do you really know what Islam is? . . . There’s this misconception that Islam is a violent religion. Muslims are actually peaceful.”
Another sister, Dalia, eventually became a well-regarded young elementary-school teacher. Quite abruptly, however, she left the school and the United States. A former teaching colleague indicates that the move was made in order to be with a man who was leaving the country. Her strict Islamic parents wanted to choose her husband, and they disapproved of the beau she’d chosen for herself.
Mohammod, meanwhile, is said to have been a popular, smart, witty high-school student and athlete — a formidable wrestler who grew into a muscular six-footer and later took up mixed martial arts for a time. He interrupted wrestling practices for prayer breaks. He was also eerily quoted as follows in his senior-yearbook entry: “My name causes national security alerts. What does yours do?”
Of course it is still early in the investigation, but little seems to be known so far about Mohammod’s college years at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. The UT system has active chapters of the Muslim Students Association. As I’ve previously recounted, the MSA is the primary building block of the Muslim Brotherhood’s American infrastructure, and several of its leaders have gone on to become prominent Islamist activists and even violent jihadists. Thus far, though, I’ve seen no reporting about whether Abdulazeez was a member of, or in any way active in, the MSA.
It is clear that he had recently become a regular attendee of the Islamic Society of Greater Chattanooga, where his family prayed at the mosque. Mohammod had not been seen there in a while before he began attending again two to three months ago — information that is consistent with lengthy travel overseas. The Islamic Society describes itself as moderate and, out of respect for the Marines killed by Abdulazeez, it canceled an end-of-Ramadan celebration that was scheduled for Friday evening. A founding board member of the Society told the Times that Abdulazeez had shown no signs of “extremism.”
So for now, we do not know much about Abdulazeez’s activities and influences during his college years — the time when Islamic supremacism grips many young Muslim men. We know that he earned a degree in electrical engineering in 2012. (Interestingly, many terrorists and Islamist activists have studied engineering at American universities). We know that he eventually interned at the Tennessee Valley Authority (the federally owned utility that provides electricity and flood control for millions of Americans in the South). And we know, finally, that the clean-cut Abdulazeez — the high-school senior with close-cropped hair — somehow became the bearded zealot who created an Islamic website on the eve of his jihad.
The American press has naturally focused on a recent drunk-driving arrest; obviously, it could cut against the picture of a committed Muslim extremist and thus suggest that some other motive — any other motive — explains the attack. But the arrest could equally suggest a person in the throes of an inner conflict between the life he knew and the beliefs he harbored. Better than reading tea leaves would be reading his own words. On the website, whose only two entries were posted on Monday, three days before the shooting spree, he warned fellow Muslims that “life is short and bitter and the opportunity to submit to allah [sic] may pass you by.”
The other entry, on “Understanding Islam,” refers to the example of the prophet Mohammed’s companions: the notion that “almost every one of them was a political leader or an army general[.] Every one of them fought jihad for the sake of Allah.” Abdulazeez concluded:
We ask Allah to make us follow their path. To give us a complete understanding of the message of Islam, and the strength the [sic] live by this knowledge, and to know what role we need to play to establish Islam in the world.
In the hours right after the shooting, local federal officials stated the obvious: the jihadist killing of our Marines was an act of “terrorism.” By nighttime, the government was walking that back. President Obama described the “assault” as a “heartbreaking circumstance.” Attorney General Loretta Lynch prefers “national-security investigation” to the word “terrorism.”
After all, who knows what the motive could have been?
— Andrew C. McCarthy is a policy fellow at the National Review Institute. His latest book is Faithless Execution: Building the Political Case for Obama’s Impeachment.