Investigators Search For Terrorist Link In Chattanooga, Tenn., Shootings

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The gunman who killed five people in Chattanooga last week suffered from depression, and drug and alcohol abuse. But investigators have not found strong ties to terrorist groups.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Investigators are still fanning out across Tennessee to gather clues about what led to last week's attack on two military centers in Chattanooga. They're trying to figure out what motivated a 24-year-old engineer to open fire on servicemen. Today, President Obama ordered flags to be lowered to half-staff for the four Marines and one sailor who were killed.

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BARACK OBAMA: We don't yet know all the details behind the attack in Chattanooga, but we do know that al-Qaida and ISIL have encouraged attacks on American soil.

SIEGEL: And that's what the FBI is trying to find out - whether a terrorist group is behind these shootings. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston is with us now. And Dina, what's the latest you're hearing from the investigation?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Well, everyone is asking about a terrorism link. But so far, the only hint of it comes in two episodes that are years apart. Mohammod Abdulazeez's parents found some handwritten notes in his room that appear to have been written in 2013, right after he lost a job. Among other things, the notes say he'd rather be a martyr. He'd rather be dead than living the life he was living. And then he mentions the name Anwar al-Awlaki and how Awlaki says in his sermons that one can cleanse their sins in life by martyring themselves. Now, just to remind you, Awlaki is the American-born radical cleric who was a leader for al-Qaida's arm in Yemen, and he was killed in a drone strike in 2011.

SIEGEL: Well, does that amount to an al-Qaida link? Have investigators found any more recent contacts than something he wrote two years ago?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, the FBI did a forensic search of his cellphone, and they say he'd been watching Awlaki videos in the days before the attack. But what they haven't found is any talk of specific attacks or planning or any direct link to al-Qaida or the self-proclaimed Islamic State for that matter. The way to think about the Awlaki connection right now is that he has, like, a cameo role in this, and they're looking for more.

SIEGEL: Which suggests that this might not have been a carefully crafted plot from overseas.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, the other thing to remember when looking at this case is that while he was looking at extremist propaganda online, he was abusing drugs and alcohol, and he was having a lot of personal problems. Both the family representative and investigators say that Abdulazeez was depressive. He was put on medication for depression when he was 12 or 13, and he had bouts of depression that plagued him all his life. The FBI is getting his medical records, but a family representative said Abdulazeez was on painkillers for a back problem in addition to the recreational drugs and alcohol he was drinking. An early toxicology report said that there were drugs and alcohol in his system the day of the attack.

Now, his family was really upset about his substance abuse. And a family representative says Abdulazeez was ashamed of it. So if you know that, and then you see that he was researching martyrdom, it looks less like your run-of-the-mill terrorist attack.

SIEGEL: Abdulazeez was in Jordan for seven months last year and FBI agents are on the ground there now. What are they finding out?

TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, he has an uncle and a grandfather in Jordan. And after his family had taken a number of steps to try to get him to stop using drugs, they sent him to Jordan to get him away from the crowd he'd fallen in with here in Tennessee. A family representative told us that Abdulazeez wouldn't go to rehab but he did agree to go to Jordan. And his uncle and his grandfather allegedly kept watch on him 24-7 because they were concerned that he'd begin using drugs again. In fact, they were watching him so closely that he started to take up jogging just so he'd have 45 minutes a day to himself. We know the Jordanian police have taken his...

SIEGEL: Yeah.

TEMPLE-RASTON: ...Uncle into custody, but it's unclear if they found anything that links him to terrorism.

SIEGEL: NPR's Dina Temple-Raston, thanks.

TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.