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FBI Probes Motive of Gunman Who Killed Marines


Zach, Zoe and Melissa Cates add to a makeshift memorial near the scene of a shooting at a Armed Forces Career Center/National Guard recruitment office in Chattanooga, Tennessee, July 16, 2015.

Zach, Zoe and Melissa Cates add to a makeshift memorial near the scene of a shooting at a Armed Forces Career Center/National Guard recruitment office in Chattanooga, Tennessee, July 16, 2015.

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation is trying to determine the motive of the gunman who opened fire on two military facilities in Chattanooga, Tennessee Thursday, killing four U.S. Marines.

The FBI's Ed Reinhold said in a late night news conference that there is "nothing now" that ties the shooter, identified as Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez, to international terrorists, but the possibility is being investigated.

Abdulazeez, 24, lived in Hixson, Tennessee, just across the Tennessee River from Chattanooga. He was killed in an exchange of gunfire.

FILE - This April 2015 booking photo released by the Hamilton County, Tenn., sheriff's office shows a man identified as Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez, who had been detained for a driving offense.

FILE - This April 2015 booking photo released by the Hamilton County, Tenn., sheriff's office shows a man identified as Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez, who had been detained for a driving offense.

Authorities say the gunman opened fire in a drive-by shooting at a military recruiting center at a shopping mall where five branches of the military have adjoining offices. The U.S. Defense Department says 25 to 30 shots were fired and one Marine Corps recruiter suffered a leg wound. He was treated at a local hospital and released.

The gunman next drove about 10 kilometers to the Navy Operational Support Center (NOSC) where witnesses say he unleashed a barrage of gunfire. The four Marines were killed at that center, and a sailor was seriously wounded.

The shooter is believed to have been killed by local law enforcement officials, who chased him from the first location. A police officer was reported to have been shot in the ankle.

Shooting started

Witnesses said the shots began about 10:30 a.m. Sgt. 1st Class Robert Dodge, 36, the leader for Army recruiting at the center, said he and his colleagues then got on the ground and barricaded themselves in a safe place.

Dodge said he did not see the shooter or a vehicle.

The Army recruiting office was not damaged, but doors and glass were damaged at the neighboring Air Force, Navy and Marine offices, he said.

Chattanooga, Tennessee, United States

Chattanooga, Tennessee, United States

The gunman next drove about 10 kilometers away to the Navy Operational Support Center (NOSC), where witnesses say he unleashed a barrage of gunfire.

The four Marines were killed at that center, and a sailor was seriously wounded.

The shooter was killed by local law enforcement officials, who chased him from the first location.

The names of the dead Marines were withheld pending notification of relatives.

Tennessee Senator Bob Corker said Thursday this "senseless" act "has shaken our nation."

Suspected shooter

Law enforcement officials said that Abdulazeez was not immediately found on any terrorism databases.

Born in Kuwait, Abdulazeez was a naturalized U.S. citizen. He was a high school wrestler with a degree in engineering from the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga.

The SITE Intelligence group reports that Abdulazeez wrote a blog and on Monday he said that "life is short and bitter."

Mourners places flags at a growing memorial in front of the Armed Forces Career Center in Chattanooga, Tennessee, July 16, 2015.

Mourners places flags at a growing memorial in front of the Armed Forces Career Center in Chattanooga, Tennessee, July 16, 2015.

He added, according to SITE, that Muslims should not miss "the opportunity to submit to Allah."

Last April, local police stopped Abdulazeez for erratic driving and for speeding, according to court documents. He was charged with driving under the influence.

But a woman who attended Red Bank High School with Abdulazeez told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that he was a quiet kid and well-liked.

"He was friendly, funny, kind," Kagan Wagner told the newspaper. "I never would have thought it would be him.

"They were your average Chattanooga family," she added.

The New York Times reported Abdulazeez's father was under investigation several years ago for possible ties to a foreign terrorist organization.

President Barack Obama, right, sits with FBI Director James Comey before speaking to members of the media about the shooting in Chattanooga, Tenn., from the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, July 16, 2015.

President Barack Obama, right, sits with FBI Director James Comey before speaking to members of the media about the shooting in Chattanooga, Tenn., from the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, July 16, 2015.

Area residents 'shocked'

People who live in the Chattanooga area have been expressing concern over the Thursday shootings.

Retired personal chef Jean Schulte, who lives 48 kilometers from the city, told VOA "It was kind of shocking when we heard about it. It not something you expect to hear about. I got goosebumps when I heard it."

"I now try to avoid very large crowds, and think twice about going to crowded events, which I never did before," she added.

Gaining access

Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren told reporters the gunman would have had no trouble gaining access to the military facilities.

"We have our recruiting centers set up in places easily accessible to the public – for example, a strip mall. So security there is not like we would see at a Fort Bragg or at a Norfolk Naval Air Station or at Quantico [Virginia]. So this is something that we have to face," Warren said.

He added, "This is because we have to be in contact with the American public."

The Navy Operational Support Center, which sits in a light-industrial area, is used by Navy and Marine Corps personnel, and is often referred to as a "reserve center." The two entrances to the fenced facility have unmanned gates.

"The NOSC Chattanooga mission is to provide training and readiness support for our reserve component personnel to enable them to support the needs of the Navy and Marine Corps team," a Defense Department statement read.

Increased security

U.S. authorities are increasing security at federal facilities in the wake of the shootings.

Homeland Secretary Secretary Jeh Johnson said his department is closely monitoring the shooting and the FBI investigation, but he cautioned, "there are many unconfirmed and possibly false reports about events."

Police officers enter the Armed Forces Career Center through a bullet-riddled door after a gunman opened fire on the building in Chattanooga, Tennessee, July 16, 2015.

Police officers enter the Armed Forces Career Center through a bullet-riddled door after a gunman opened fire on the building in Chattanooga, Tennessee, July 16, 2015.

Defense officials said that because the gunman did not set foot on federal military property, the investigation of the shootings falls under the authority of local law enforcement and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The FBI, which is taking the lead on the investigation with local law enforcement, said it is investigating the possible motive for the attack. The bureau has promised a thorough review.

But Bill Killian, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Tennessee, was more blunt. "We are treating this as an act of domestic terrorism," he said.

In a background briefing for reporters, a Defense official said chatter from terror cells had increased after the Islamic State group called for attacks during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, but that none of the chatter had mentioned military recruiting centers. Ramadan ends Friday.

"Very publicly ISIL [Islamic State] had called on their fellow jihadis to commit acts of terror," an official said. "In association with that public statement by ISIL, we did see an increase in chatter. None of it was very specific. The FBI has announced that they made some arrests. We monitor to see what force posture to take."

FBI agents work the scene at the Armed Forces Career Center in Chattanooga, Tennessee, July 16, 2015.

FBI agents work the scene at the Armed Forces Career Center in Chattanooga, Tennessee, July 16, 2015.

Message of sympathy

From the Oval Office, President Barack Obama promised a "thorough and prompt" investigation, but said his main message right now is one of sympathy for the slain servicemen and their families.

"It is a heartbreaking circumstance for these individuals who have served our country with great valor to be killed in this fashion," he said.

"Today was a nightmare for the city of Chattanooga," Mayor Andy Berke said. "As a city, we will respond to this with every available resource that we have."

"Lives have been lost from some faithful people who have been serving our country, and I think I join all Tennesseans in being both sickened and saddened by this," Gov. Bill Haslam said.

Located in the southeastern part of Tennessee, Chattanooga is the fourth largest city in the state.

Tucked between the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Tennessee River, it is known as the Scenic City and is considered a travel destination.

VOA's Sharon Behn contributed to this report from Chattanooga. Some information came from Reuters and AP.

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    Carla Babb

    Carla is VOA's Pentagon correspondent covering defense and international security issues. Her datelines include Ukraine, Turkey, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Korea.

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