President Obama called the murder of four Marines in Tennessee Thursday “heartbreaking” and pleaded for Americans not to jump to conclusions, but Republicans were already blaming him for what investigators termed domestic terrorism, as the shooting quickly became part of the 2016 presidential campaign.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who is seeking the GOP nomination, said the killing appeared to be terrorism, and said Mr. Obama needs confront the dangers posed by the “evil” of jihadists.
“This shooting underscores the grave reality of the threat posed to us by radical Islamic terrorism every single day,” the governor said. “It’s time for the White House to wake up and tell the truth and the truth is that radical Islam is at war with us, and we must start by being honest about that.”
With the Islamic State holding ground in Iraq and Syria, questions still swirling about the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, and lone-wolf incidents seemingly on the rise at home, terrorism is shaping up to be a major part of the presidential debate, and Mr. Obama’s policies will be at the root of that.
The shooting also reignited the debate over guns at military facilities, after officials acknowledged troops at the Naval Reserve center where the murders took place were prohibited from being armed. One advocacy group said the killings should force a change in that policy.
The president kept politics out of his own brief remarks Thursday evening.
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“I speak for the American people in expressing our deepest condolences,” Mr. Obama said.
He also asked Americans to wait for more facts about the shooting, and did not use the word “terror” to describe the attack.
“We take all shootings very seriously,” he said in the Oval Office, soon after returning from a visit to a federal prison in Oklahoma. “Obviously, when you have an attack on a U.S. military facility, then we have to make sure that we have all the information necessary to make an assessment in terms of how this attack took place, and what further precautions we can take in the future. And as we have more information, we’ll let the public know.”
The FBI identified the gunman as 24-year-old Mohammad Youssuf Abdulazeez, a 2012 graduate of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and said he shot at a military recruiting center in Chattanooga before heading to a Navy operations support center seven miles away, where he shot and killed the four Marines before being killed himself.
Early news reports said Abdulazeez was born in Kuwait but was a naturalized U.S. citizen.
“While it would be premature to speculate on the motives of the shooter at this time, we will conduct a thorough investigation of this tragedy and provide updates as they are available,” the FBI said.
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But U.S. Attorney Bill Killian told reporters that authorities were treating the shooting as an “act of domestic terrorism.”
Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, said he’d been briefed and it was too early to say whether the gunman had ties to al Qaeda or the Islamic State.
“We will, of course, be investigating whether these acts were the result of online propaganda or other extremist influence,” he said.
Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said the attacks are a reminder “that there are people right here in America who are intent on striking from within.”
“We must remain vigilant in our efforts to counter the evil and twisted ideology that drives vulnerable minds into unconscionable acts of violence and hate,” he said.
The threat from the Islamic State is growing. Federal authorities have charged 62 people with planning attacks on the homeland on behalf of the Islamic State or trying to provide material support to the terror group. Authorities filed charges against 13 people in 2014 and 49 in 2015, according to data compiled by The Washington Times.
Of the 49 charged this year, 28 were young men between the ages of 17 and 25, according to the data. About 30 percent were foreign-born individuals who either had permanent residency or had become naturalized citizens.
Six of the foreign-born supporters hailed from Bosnia, four of them came from Uzbekistan, one came from Kazakhstan, one was born in Syria and another was born in Iraq.
An internal congressional document shows that federal authorities have uncovered more U.S.-based terror plots or attacks in the first half of 2015 than in any year since terrorist drove planes into the New York City World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.
Thursday’s shooting bore a resemblance to other gun attacks from earlier in Mr. Obama’s tenure. In 2009, a man did a drive-by shooting of an Army recruiting office in Little Rock, Ark., killing one soldier and wounding another. The shooter was a convert to Islam.
Also in 2009, an Army major who’d been in contact with Anwar al-Awlaki, a wanted terrorist suspect, killed 13 people and wounded dozens more in a shooting at Fort Hood in Texas. The Obama administration officially labeled that killing workplace violence.
Mr. Jindal on Thursday said that designation is part of the problem.
“This is grotesque. You cannot defeat evil until you admit that it exists,” he said.
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers were already engaged in a debate over how the federal government confronts violent extremists.
Democrats say white supremacists and anti-government extremists have posed more of a danger than radicalized Muslims, and questioned whether the government was putting its efforts in the right place.