- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 21, 2015

U.S. officials confirmed Tuesday that the uncle of the man who killed four U.S. Marines and a sailor in a shooting spree in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on Thursday has been held for questioning by Jordanian officials, amid growing signs that investigators were seeking links between the killer and radical terrorist elements.

Officials told The Washington Times that American investigators led by the FBI were scrambling to piece together what contacts Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez — a 24-year-old Kuwait-born American citizen who was killed in a shootout with police — may have made during various visits to the Middle East in recent years.

The FBI said it was investigating the attacks as terrorism, but officials said they had not found a definite connection between the gunman and specific terrorist groups such as the Islamic State.

One key link may have surfaced Tuesday. Multiple news reports said investigators had found writings from Abdulazeez that referenced Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born Yemeni cleric who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in September 2011 and who was an active recruiter for al Qaeda.

Authorities are also considering the role substance abuse may have played in motivating Abdulazeez, but a core focus of the investigation now centers on his trips to the Middle East — including one to Qatar and a monthslong visit to Jordan last year.

A lawyer in Jordan told The Associated Press on Tuesday that Abdulazeez’s maternal uncle, Asaad Ibrahim Asaad Haj Ali — with whom the gunman is believed to have stayed during his time in the nation — has been in custody since the day after the Chattanooga attacks.

The lawyer, Abed al-Kader Ahmad al-Khateeb, claimed he has been barred from seeing his client and that family members also have been prevented from visiting the detainee. He also said computers and cellphones were taken from the man’s home, although Jordanian authorities have not filed official charges.

Reports also said Mr. Abdulazeez’s father was placed briefly on Western terrorist watch lists during the early 2000s, apparently because of a connection to Palestinian militants. U.S. officials, speaking anonymously, have said the gunman’s father ultimately was cleared from the lists.

Also Tuesday, President Obama ordered American flags to be flown at half-staff in honor of the five service members who were killed in the Chattanooga attacks. During a speech at the annual Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Pittsburgh, he said, “God bless these American heroes. As a grateful nation, we must stand up for them and honor them now and forever.”

The president spoke about each of the slain servicemen: Marine Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Sullivan of Massachusetts, Marine Sgt. Carson Holmquist of Wisconsin, Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Randall Smith of Ohio, Marine Lance Cpl. Squire K. Wells of Georgia and Marine Staff Sgt. David A. Wyatt of Arkansas.

Congressional leaders earlier ordered flags to be flown at half-staff in honor of the victims.

Lone-wolf danger

The assault in Chattanooga followed a series of attacks and foiled plots in the U.S. and other nations by Muslims claiming to be inspired by the Islamic State or other jihadi groups.

Mr. Obama and other top American officials have said that such “lone wolf” attacks pose greater threats to the U.S. homeland than the prospect of a large-scale, 9/11-style terrorist operation.

Abdulazeez was shot dead after he sprayed gunfire at a military recruiting center from his car, then pumped bullets into a nearby naval reserve center.

One of Abdulazeez’s American friends said he was not an extremist. James Petty, a friend of the Kuwaiti-American, told CNN on Monday that Abdulazeez once said the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, was “doing wrong” and “it was a stupid group and it was completely against Islam.”

To some, the gunman was a clean-cut high school wrestler who graduated from college with an engineering degree and attended a mosque.

“Everything seemed fine. He was normal. He was telling me work was going great,” said one friend, Ahmed Saleen Islam, 26, who knew Abdulazeez through the Islamic Society of Greater Chattanooga and saw him at the mosque two or three nights before the attacks.

But another person close to the family told the news wire that Abdulazeez had a darker side and was treated by a child psychiatrist for depression when he was 12 or 13. Several years ago, relatives tried to have him admitted to an inpatient program for drug and alcohol abuse, but a health insurer refused to approve the expense.

Abdulazeez lost a job at a nuclear power plant in Ohio in May 2013 because of what one federal official described as a failed drug test. More recently, he worked the night shift at a manufacturing plant and was taking medication to help with problems sleeping in the daytime. He also reportedly had a prescription for muscle relaxants for back pain.

Records show Abdulazeez was arrested April 20 on a charge of driving under the influence.

One official who spoke with The Times said authorities are being “very careful” not to jump to conclusions about the shooter’s motives or possible radicalization.

However, officials said Abdulazeez’s Middle East visits were being examined closely. Reuters reported that he was in Qatar at least once last year and that the reasons for the stopover on the Middle East trip were unknown.

On a seven-month trip to visit family in Jordan, it is uncertain how long he may have spent in the Qatari capital, a political crossroads in the region. Qatar is home to jihadi supporters as well as a U.S. air base.

A Jordanian government official said Tuesday that some of Abdulazeez’s relatives in Jordan were being questioned as part of an investigation into his stay in the nation, one of the most Westernized countries in the Middle East.

Abdulazeez spent several months in Jordan last year under a mutual agreement with his parents to help him get away from drugs, alcohol and a group of friends his relatives considered a bad influence, according to a person close to his family.

Dave Boyer contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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