Tenn. shooter strug­gled with clash of faith, drugs

Self-de­scribed ‘Ara­bian red­neck’ didn’t ap­pear to be a de­vout Mus­lim

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY GREG JAFFE, CARI WADE GERVIN AND THOMAS GIB­BONS- NEFF

CHAT­TANOOGA, TENN. — A few months be­fore he killed five U.S. ser­vice mem­bers in a shoot­ing rampage here, the 24-year-old gun­man, who of­ten joked that he was just an “Ara­bian red­neck,” was smok­ing mar­i­juana with friends.

It was get­ting late and Mo­ham­mad Youssef Ab­du­lazeez had work the next morn­ing at his new job some two hours away in Franklin, said a close friend who was with him that night and spent sev­eral hours with him in the days lead­ing up to the shoot­ing.

Ab­du­lazeez dropped off a cou­ple of his friends at their homes on the night in April, snorted some crushed caf­feine pills and started to drive.

A lit­tle af­ter 2 a.m., Ab­du­lazeez was ar­rested for driv­ing un­der the in­flu­ence, ac­cord­ing to court pa­pers, an in­ci­dent sharply at odds with blog posts in which he por­trayed him­self as a de­vout Mus­lim and his ex­is­tence in this world a “prison of monotony and rou­tine.”

The por­trait emerg­ing of Ab­du­lazeez isn’t one of a com­mit­ted Mus­lim or venge­ful ji­hadist, but rather an aim­less young man who came from a trou­bled home and strug­gled to hold down a job af­ter col­lege, said friends and law en­force­ment of­fi­cials. He never dated, the friend said. In a state­ment, his fam­ily said Ab­du­lazeez’s men­tal ill­ness had con­trib­uted to the crime. “For many years, our son suf­fered from de­pres­sion. It grieves us be­yond belief to know that his pain found its ex­pres­sion in this heinous act of vi­o­lence,” the state­ment said.

Ab­du­lazeez had been in and out of treat­ment for his de­pres­sion and fre­quently stopped tak­ing his med­i­ca­tion, de­spite his par­ents’ pleas for him to con­tinue, said a per­son close to the fam­ily.

Ab­du­lazeez smoked pot oc­ca­sion­ally and then would feel guilty for vi­o­lat­ing his faith and beat him­self up for it, said the close friend who has known Ab­du­lazeez for 15 years and was re­cently ques­tioned by the FBI. The friend, also a Mus­lim, spoke to The Washington Post on the con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause he is con­cerned for his fam­ily’s pri­vacy.

The friend said Ab­du­lazeez was es­pe­cially ashamed of his DUI ar­rest, which led to his mugshot be­ing posted online and in Just Busted, a news­pa­per sold at lo­cal gas sta­tions.

“He was pretty up­set about it,” said the friend, who spoke with Ab­du­lazeez al­most daily in the weeks and days lead­ing up to the shoot­ing. “It was kind of de­grad­ing to him.”

Ab­du­lazeez’s friends said he liked to shoot guns, drive four-wheel­ers through the mud and hike in the moun­tains. Within the past year, he bought two as­sault ri­fles — an AK-74 and an AR-15— and a Saiga 12 pis­tol grip shot­gun from an online weapons site. Ab­du­lazeez and his friends would drive out to the Pren­tice Cooper State For­est, where they would blast away at the state park’s gun range. None of his friends thought twice about his de­ci­sion to pur­chase mil­i­tarystyle as­sault weapons.

“Take any typ­i­cal Chat­tanoogan— Chris­tian or Mus­lim— and he’s go­ing to like to shoot guns, ride trucks and climb moun­tains,” the friend said.

Ab­du­lazeez’s fa­ther was an­gry when he spot­ted one of the as­sault ri­fles in their home, and Ab­du­lazeez hid other guns from him. “His dad was al­ways against him hav­ing guns and said they weren’t safe to have around the house,” the friend said. Ab­du­lazeez in­sisted that he was old enough to han­dle them re­spon­si­bly.

The friend and Ab­du­lazeez — along with two other young Mus­lim men — spent hun­dreds of hours to­gether over the past four years, in­clud­ing the weeks and months lead­ing up to the vi­o­lent at­tack. Some­times they talked about the Mid­dle East’s bloody wars, such as the bat­tles be­tween Is­rael and Ha­mas in Gaza and the chaos in Syria.

Ab­du­lazeez blamed some of the blood­shed on U.S. for­eign pol­icy.

“All of us are up­set right now the fight­ing. It wasn’t any­thing that would throw up red flags,” said the friend. “We never would have seen this com­ing at all, but es­pe­cially from him. No­body sus­pected a thing. If we had, we would have done some­thing to pre­vent this from hap­pen­ing.”

In­deed, the most strik­ing thing about the last days that Ab­du­lazeez spent with friends is how nor­mal they ap­pear to have been. Two days be­fore the shoot­ing, he texted his friend to ask if he wanted to go hot-rod­ding out­side Chat­tanooga.

“You wanna go to look­out?” he asked, re­fer­ring to the moun­tain on the city’s out­skirts.

“IDK,” the friend replied. “I might have to run a few more er­rands.”

“I hear ya,” Ab­du­lazeez texted back. “Let me know.”

The two men met up later that night around 11 p.m. and took off in a Ford Mus­tang Ab­du­lazeez had rented— the same car that he used in the at­tacks. They drove for hours around the curv­ing moun­tain roads sur­round­ing Chat­tanooga. “We talked and had a lot of ‘oh [ex­ple­tive]’ mo­ments,” said the friend who re­calls re­turn­ing home around 3 a.m. Wed­nes­day.

On Wed­nes­day night, the friends ex­changed texts for the last time. The friend was strug­gling with how to bal­ance his Mus­lim faith with the more sec­u­lar de­mands of his work, which in­cluded serv­ing ba­con to cus­tomers.

Ab­du­lazeez re­sponded a quote from the prophet Muham­mad — that speaks to the ten­sions in the world be­tween be­liev­ers and non­be­liev­ers. “Whoso­ever shows en­mity to a wali [friend] of Mine, then I have de­clared war against him,” it be­gins. It ends by en­cour­ag­ing de­vout Mus­lims to keep the faith and draw closer to God.

Although the ex­change sug­gests Ab­du­lazeez was de­vout, he of­ten seemed to strug­gle with his faith. Ab­du­lazeez was fast­ing for the Ramadan hol­i­day, which re­quires Mus­lims not to eat or drink dur­ing day­light hours. But he doesn’t ap­pear to have regularly at­tended his par­ents’ mosque in the months lead­ing up to the shoot­ing, ac­cord­ing to mem­bers of the Is­lamic So­ci­ety of Greater Chat­tanooga.

“The fa­ther came regularly. The mother did oc­ca­sion­ally,” said Bas­sam Issa, the pres­i­dent of the so­ci­ety, which in­cludes the mosque. “We re­ally didn’t know much about the boy. He wasn’t around.”

Ab­du­lazeez also strug­gled to find work af­ter he grad­u­ated from the Univer­sity of Ten­nessee at Chat­tanooga with an en­gi­neer­ing de­gree. He briefly landed a job at a nu­clear power plant in Ohio but was dis­missed when he failed a back­ground check. He told friends he had failed the com­pany’s drug test af­ter smok­ing mar­i­juana.

He re­mained in Ohio, where he lived with rel­a­tives and worked for a mov­ing com­pany.

Back home, his fam­ily also ap­peared to be strug­gling. His mother had filed for di­vorce in 2009, al­leg­ing phys­i­cal and sex­ual abuse, but later pulled the pe­ti­tion. In re­cent years, their house, in a mid­dle-class sub­urb of neatly tended lawns and tow­er­ing oaks, be­gan to fall into dis­re­pair. The home’s wooden clap about are warped, and the gray paint is peel­ing. The lawn is badly over­grown.

Issa said that im­me­di­ately af­ter the shoot­ing, Ab­du­lazeez’s fa­ther apol­o­gized for the dam­age his son had done. “He was dis­traught,” Issa said. “His voice was bro­ken, and he said he was very sorry for what his son caused to the com­mu­nity of Chat­tanooga and the Is­lamic com­mu­nity here.”

Issa won­dered if Ab­du­lazeez had been rad­i­cal­ized dur­ing his sev­eral trips to Jor­dan, the last in 2014 when he was in the re­gion for seven months.

“It has to be the over­seas trip that caused this,” he said. “That’s the only thing I can fig­ure out.”

Oth­ers who knew Ab­du­lazeez when he was a mixed-mar­tialarts fighter re­flected on his time in the ring, search­ing their mem­ory for signs of po­ten­tial vi­o­lence.

Chet Blalock, owner of Blalock’s In­ter­na­tional Mixed Mar­tial Arts Gym in Fort Oglethorpe, Ga., de­scribed Ab­du­lazeez as “very re­spect­ful” but stub­bornly de­ter­mined.

“My stu­dents would get him in a choke­hold, and he wouldn’t tap out,” Blalock said, de­scrib­ing an in­ci­dent in 2012. “He would just go to sleep.” “It was a lit­tle crazy,” he added. Less than two hours af­ter the vi­o­lent rampage, Ab­du­lazeez’s friend texted him to check when they’d be able to meet up for the Mus­lim hol­i­day of Eid. He’d seen the news alerts about the shoot­ing in Chat­tanooga and wanted to talk about it with Ab­du­lazeez, who he as­sumed was still at his new job out­side Nashville.

By that point, Ab­du­lazeez was al­ready dead.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Mo­ham­mad Youssef Ab­du­lazeez in April.

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