Red flags in shooter’s past may only be clear in retrospect, experts say

A police officer ducks under tape near a memorial in front of an Armed Forces Career Center on Thursday, July 16, 2015, in Chattanooga, Tenn. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

The investigation of the motive behind the killings of four Marines and a Navy sailor at two military facilities in Chattanooga, Tennessee is still in its early stages, but experts say there are certain characteristics common in mass killers and lone wolf terrorists that the shooter may have displayed.

U.S. officials and terrorism experts have warned the public recently of the threat posed by “lone wolf” terrorists either operating with little communication with ISIS or simply inspired by the group’s jihadist propaganda online. Whether last Thursday’s attacks in Chattanooga fit that description remains to be seen, but a complicated portrait is quickly emerging of the suspect.

Authorities have found no indication so far that Mohammad Abdulazeez was influenced or inspired by ISIS—a friend told CNN Monday that he had said the terrorist group was “stupid” and “doing wrong”—but ABC News reported that he had written about suicidal thoughts and “becoming a martyr.”

A family representative has told reporters that Abdulazeez suffered from depression for years and had a history of abusing drugs and alcohol. He spent seven months in Jordan last year because his family was trying to get him away from bad influences in the U.S.

Abdulazeez, a 24-year-old who had been using guns since childhood and reportedly referred to himself as a “Muslim redneck,” was arrested for alleged drunk driving in April and was facing serious financial problems.

Last Tuesday, he took a friend for a joyride in a rented Mustang until 3 a.m., a family representative told ABC News. The FBI is still trying to piece together his other activities in the days before the shootings.

The family representative told ABC Abdulazeez was affected by news reports of children being killed in Syria and he had difficulties balancing his life with his duties as a devout Muslim.

According to CNN, sources say he sent a friend an ominous text message before the attack, including an Islamic verse that said, “Whoever shows enmity to a friend of mine, then I have declared war against him.”

A history of depression and drug use and some suicidal writings alone do not explain Thursday’s shooting spree, though. Experts say it can be difficult to determine what drives a killer from writing or thinking about violence to actually taking action.

“How do you get from zero to 60?” asked Joe Navarro, former FBI agent and co-author of Dangerous Personalities, who says he has identified certain patterns in killers and terrorists he has studied. He suggested the path to violence is a gradual one.

“Everybody has a different recipe, but there are certain ingredients that must be there,” he said.

Navarro identifies three specific “ingredients” he has seen in all of the killers he studied, and he expects investigators will eventually see in Abdulazeez as well.

Perpetrators of these kinds of acts are typically “wound collectors,” according to Navarro, people who look for and obsess over social and historical injustices against themselves or others.

They also generally have a powerful ideology of some sort, often communicated through their conversations with others and their writings.

“What’s important to them may not be of any interest to us,” he said, which sometimes makes it difficult to recognize and understand their concerns.

Third, they will conclude that violence is somehow the solution to their problems.

“That’s just magical thinking…There’s an illogical aspect to these individuals that somehow violence will change things,” he said.

There is also often some degree of paranoid ideation present, “an irrational fear of something that is ominous.”

The challenge, Navarro said, is recognizing all of these characteristics in someone before they take violent action against others.

If Abdulazeez’s actions were driven by some sort of ideology, Navarro said it has likely been festering and developing within him for a long time and there will be evidence of it in the things he said, wrote, and did.

It can be difficult to say whether there is a specific triggering event or if he may have fallen under the influence of somebody who convinced him violence was the answer, but Navarro expects investigators will find something that led Abdulazeez to believe his actions were justified.

He said Abdulazeez’s family will probably play an important role in helping authorities understand his motivations, and that process can also prove therapeutic for them if they are blaming themselves for missing possible warning signs.

“It’s helpful to dissect it for them and say, look, this is something he developed on his own” that may have been masked by his depression or his substance abuse.

Clark McCauley, co-director of the Solomon Asch Center for the Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict at Bryn Mawr College, emphasized that too many details are still unknown to reach any definite conclusions about Abdulazeez, but what is known so far does seem to fit a certain profile.

McCauley said one of the common characteristics of lone wolf killers that he has studied is that many have weapons experience and are socially disconnected and stressed with a psychological disorder, what he terms a “disconnected/disordered profile.”

“People who are already feeling tendencies toward depression, it just feels like the whole world is caving in on you and there’s nothing to lose,” he said.

This profile is particularly common among school shooters, but he said some people who are deemed terrorists because they say something political before their crimes are also driven by this psychology.

Like Navarro, McCauley said one of the difficulties is separating the people who fit this general profile and are capable of committing mass violence from others who are just depressed and disconnected.

“It seems like there’s a profile when you look backwards…” he cautioned. “What we don’t know is how many people fit the profile and don’t do anything violent.”

Some of the details revealed about Abdulazeez could portray him as an unlikely suspect. People who knew him in school and at his mosque thought he seemed normal, he managed to complete college with an engineering degree, and he showed some discipline as a mixed martial artist.

Still, the depression, the reported abuse of prescription and non-prescription drugs, and the recent stresses in Abdulazeez’s life could have pushed him further into disconnection from society, McCauley said.

“You’ve got a kind of gathering storm of his life going bad on him that can make it seem sort of reasonable to do something…You have nothing to lose anymore and you’re grasping for something to make sense of your life,” and this type of violence can be the result.

While McCauley said it is too soon to tell if Abdulazeez truly does fit a specific psychological profile, the government is doing everything in its power to find out what motivated him and whether he had any links to overseas terrorists.

“We don’t know enough yet to make sense of this,” McCauley said, but he is confident we eventually will.

What we do know:

  • Depression: Abdulazeez’s family has said he suffered from depression for years and had problems with drug and alcohol abuse. A family representative told ABC News he had recently been taking sleeping pills during the day because he was working an overnight shift. He reportedly had a history of abusing prescription and non-prescription drugs. According to the Associated Press, he lost a job at a nuclear plant in Ohio in 2013 because he failed a drug test. McCauley said depression and self-medication with drugs and alcohol could fit the “disconnected/disordered” profile of a lone wolf terrorist.
  • Jordan: A family representative has said Abdulazeez’s trip to Jordan for seven months last year was intended to get him away from bad influences in the U.S., but Navarro said investigators will be looking very closely at what he did there, where he went, and who he met with. “All you need is somebody to either stoke the flames or actually plant the seed” to convince someone that violence is the solution to their perceived problems. Friends have reportedly said that Abdulazeez seemed different when he returned, and authorities will be interested in whether he encountered any radicalizing influences over there.
  • Arrest: Abdulazeez was arrested on a DUI charge in April, and an arresting officer reportedly noticed the smell of marijuana in his car. According to the Associated Press, a family spokesman said he was deeply embarrassed by the arrest and became even more depressed afterward. ABC News reported that he was also having financial problems and was considering filing for bankruptcy. “If their everyday lives are going to hell,” McCauley said, someone who is disconnected may conclude they have nothing to lose and take action.
  • Writing: Two entries on a Wordpress blog believed to have belonged to Abdulazeez posted on July 13 talk about following in the path of Muslim prophets who “fought Jihad for the sake of Allah” and describe life in this world as a prison for believers in Islam. According to CNN, some of his other writings indicated anti-U.S. sentiments and suicidal thoughts. It is unclear if any of his family or friends were aware of those writings prior to Thursday’s shooting. Navarro said investigators will be looking at everything Abdulazeez has written, along with subjects he has been reading about and searching for online. “Humans like to communicate,” he said, and Abdulazeez’s communications may reveal that the thinking that led to Thursday’s attacks had been building for a long time.
  • Yearbook: In his high school yearbook, Abdulazeez chose a quote from a Muslim blogger, “My name causes national security alerts. What does yours do?” The joke seems “very morbid” now, a high school friend told the Associated Press. The quote was used widely enough at the time that it turned up on T-shirts, though, so it does not seem particularly suspicious. Also, several people who knew him from high school and from Chattanooga’s Muslim community told the Associated Press he always seemed normal and “as Americanized as anyone else.”
close video ad
Unmutetoggle ad audio on off