The deadly shootings at military sites in Tennessee illustrate the threat that FBI officials have warned about: violence directed against a vulnerable government target by a lone gunman with apparent terrorist aspirations.
The FBI has not detailed a motive, but Thursday’s attacks that killed four Marines and one sailor are under investigation as a potential act of terrorism, with authorities combing through the gunman’s past to look for travel, contacts and online writings.
The rampage unfolded as the federal government has raised alarms about the online spread of terrorist propaganda, including repeated exhortations by groups such as the Islamic State for sympathizers to target police officers and military installations.
It came two months after two men opened fire outside a Prophet Muhammad cartoon contest in Texas before being killed by police, and during a year when several dozen people in the United States have been charged with supporting terrorism, with more than 10 arrested in the month before the July 4 holiday.
“This is the new normal,” said Will McCants, a terrorism expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington. If a terrorist group is looking to influence public opinion and generate fear, he said, “this kind of tactic has a lot going for it.”
One federal law enforcement official said investigators did not immediately find an extensive online presence involving the gunman, 24-year-old Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez, or evidence that he was directly influenced or inspired by the Islamic State. The official was not authorized to discuss an ongoing investigation and spoke on condition of anonymity.
But the line between inspired and directed is blurred in an age of pervasive social media, where anyone with a computer or smartphone can be exposed to what FBI Director James Comey has called “poison” propaganda from terrorist organizations.
Law enforcement officials describe an ongoing challenge in distinguishing those who merely consume and share messages and those actually motivated to commit violence. Authorities say there’s no question that social media platforms, coupled with the small-scale plots being devised, have made terrorist ideology more accessible than a decade ago. It can be easy for those who read messages, but do not post their own thoughts, to avoid law enforcement scrutiny.
“They have now spent a year, maybe a little longer, investing in this strategy,” Comey told reporters last week, in a reference to IS. “And what you’re seeing now is proof that it works. Americans all over the place responding to this constant push and feed and buzz.”
The Kuwait-born gunman, who was killed by police, was not under investigation and was not on the radar of federal law enforcement before the shooting, officials have said. He had visited Jordan last year, a U.S. official said Friday, and investigators will review those overseas travels for potential worrisome contacts with militants.
Abdulazeez received an engineering degree from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in 2012 and worked as an intern a few years ago at the Tennessee Valley Authority. Those who knew him described a typical suburban upbringing, though court documents allege an abusive and sometimes turbulent household.
The president of the Islamic Society of Greater Chattanooga said Saturday that Abdulazeez’s father called and apologized to him and said that he had not seen any recent changes in his son.
Bassam Issa said Youssuf Saed Abdulazeez told him he felt blindsided.
“He told me that he had never seen it coming, and did not see any signs from his son that he would be that way and do something like that,” Issa said.
Republican Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said Friday that officials are looking into whether Abdulazeez was what some at intelligence agencies consider among the “losers to lions,” meaning a young person who is looking “for a cause greater than himself” and commits a terrorist act in the process.
Federal officials have warned over the last year that today’s terrorist sympathizers can be difficult to track and predict, in part because their plans are often spontaneous, poorly formed and lack the sophisticated execution that has defined al-Qaida and its operatives.
Officials also have expressed concern that potential recruits are using encrypted forms of online communication as a way to evade detection from law enforcement, an issue the Justice Department raised before Congress last week.
In turning away from the grandiose bomb plots of al-Qaida, IS has encouraged followers to carry out smaller-scale gun attacks that cause less carnage but require less planning and are harder to detect.
The organization can survive as long as it is able to spread propaganda and find willing recruits, said McCants of the Brookings Institution.
“Inspiring people to do it on their own is almost a greater feat than training an operative,” he said.