CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (July 17, 2015) — One woman was waiting tables. The other was cutting hair.
Both were near the front lines when a gunman opened fire on a military recruiting center in a Chattanooga, Tennessee, strip mall.
Gina Mule heard a “Pow, pow, pow!” Looking out the window, she saw a man — later identified as Mohammad Youssuf Abdulazeez — in a silver convertible Mustang firing at the recruiting offices late Thursday morning.
“He never got out of the car,” she said. “He had a big, huge, high-powered rifle, and he was unloading shots right into the recruiters.”
“There had to be 20 to 30 shots,” Mule said.
At a nearby hair salon, April Grimmett watched the scene unfold from a different angle.
A man was ducking in between cars.
“Shortly after that, we heard the (shots). It was very loud and very fast,” she said. “It was insane.”
The shooting at the strip mall left one Marine recruiter wounded. He was treated and released at a local hospital.
But Abdulazeez wasn’t done.
Over the next half hour, the 24-year-old with an engineering degree from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga piloted his rental car to a Navy Operational Support Center seven miles miles away, a law enforcement official said.
There, at some point during a shootout with authorities, he rammed into the gate surrounding the center and was eventually killed by police, a U.S. official said.
According to a source briefed by law enforcement, Abdulazeez kept police at bay for some time. He was armed with an AK-47-style weapon and carrying 30-round magazines, two law enforcement officials said.
When the shooting was over, four Marines at the support center were dead and a sailor was in “pretty serious” condition, following surgery, a Pentagon official said.
Also, a police officer was shot in the ankle. A law enforcement course close to the investigation identified him as Officer Dennis Pedigo. He was one of the first responders on the scene.
Was it terrorism?
A terrorism task force is investigating, a law enforcement source said, with the FBI taking the lead.
Authorities “have not determined whether it was an act of terrorism or whether it was a criminal act,” Ed Reinhold, FBI special agent in charge, told reporters. “We are looking at every possible avenue, whether it was terrorism — whether it was domestic, international — or whether it was a simple, criminal act.”
“We have no idea what his motivation was behind this shooting,” Reinhold said. “There’s no indication at this point that anyone else was involved.”
U.S. Attorney Bill Killian earlier told reporters that authorities were treating the shooting as an “act of domestic terrorism.”
“It’s an ongoing, extensive and expansive investigation,” he said.
Who was the suspect?
Authorities have released few details about the alleged gunman, but some details have begun to emerge about his past.
Abdulazeez was arrested in April for allegedly driving under the influence. He had been scheduled to appear in court later this month.
Abdulazeez was not in any U.S. databases of suspected terrorists, a U.S. official said. He was born in Kuwait and had Jordanian citizenship, two law enforcement officials said. He was a naturalized U.S. citizen, one official said.
And he may have traveled back to the Middle East in recent years.
Almir Dizdarevic, who was Abdulazeez’s mixed martial arts coach when he was a teenager, said his former student’s father told him about two years ago that his son had left the country to “move back home.” Since then, Dizdarevic said when he ran into Abdulazeez at a Tennessee mosque several times, his former student told him he was teaching wrestling and doing well.
Neighbor Dean McDaniel said he’d known the family for most of his 17 years living in the Chattanooga suburb of Hixson, Tennessee. He first crossed paths with Mohammad Abdulazeez when he was an elementary school student and later would see him from time to time when he visited his sisters while they were babysitting McDaniel’s children.
“He was a good kid. … They’re good people,” he said. “I’ve never had any kind of conflict with them.”
Kevin Emily, his former high school wrestling coach, described him as “a great student” who sometimes missed practice to pray.
“He always contributed, always did what I asked him to do. I never had any problems out of Mohammad,” Emily told CNN’s “Erin Burnett: Outfront.” “He was very humble when he was in high school. He’d always listen to me, looked me in the eye. He was just — in high school he was a great kid.”
A quote appeared beside his photos in his high school yearbook: “My name causes national security alerts. What does yours do?”
For years, Samantha Barnette sat next to him in class, but now she said she feels like she never really knew him.
“He was also incredibly intelligent, which really makes me wonder about his true motives for doing this,” said Barnette, who posted a photo of the yearbook page on Facebook. “He was always getting recognized for his high grades and getting awards all throughout school. It’s upsetting to see him waste it all.”
What was the security situation?
The shooting left the city reeling and raised questions about the security at the military centers.
“Today was a nightmare for the city of Chattanooga,” Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke said. “We had someone viciously attack, at two different locations, people who proudly serve our country.”
Authorities haven’t released details yet about where at the centers the victims were shot or how the gunman gained access.
U.S. President Barack Obama said the FBI director had briefed him on the shootings.
“We take all shootings very seriously. 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,” he said, vowing that the investigation would be “thorough and prompt.”
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said authorities were stepping up security at “certain federal facilities, out of an abundance of caution” after the shootings.