Dual portraits of Chattanooga shooter: cheerful 'Arab redneck,' troubled youth

The man who killed five service members in Chattanooga, Tenn., struggled with depression and substance abuse, but was remembered by friends as 'cheerful.'

Dan Henry/Chattanooga Times Free Press/AP
Bryan Thaboua kneels with his 8-month-old son Cooper on Monday, in front of the Lee Highway memorial for last Thursday's Chattanooga, Tenn., shooting victims. Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez attacked two military facilities on Thursday in a shooting rampage that killed four Marines and a Navy sailor.

Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez would have appeared in court next week for a three-month-old charge of driving under the influence, but instead his life is being dissected as a result of a more recent, more serious crime – the murder of four marines and a Navy sailor in an attack on two military facilities in Chattanooga, Tenn. Mr. Abdulazeez was ultimately killed by the police during the attack.

Officials are still unsure of Abdulazeez’s motive; they have found no connection between him and the Islamic State or any other foreign terrorist group. His family is pointing to his personal struggles as most likely having led to the act of violence.

"They do not know of anything else to explain it," according to a person close to the family.

Friends of Abdulazeez have said they were also blindsided by the attack, remembering him as a former high school wrestler with an engineering degree who attended mosque. The attack, they say, seemed to come out of nowhere.

He owned guns, his friends and family say, but his interest in them seemed to be merely as a hobby – He used them to shoot squirrels and targets behind his house. One acquaintance recalled that he had referred to himself as an "Arab redneck."

Bilal Sheikh said he had seen Abdulazeez at their mosque two weekends ago. "I'm in total shock, like everyone else," Mr. Sheikh said. "He was always the most cheerful guy. If you were having a bad day, he would brighten your day."

Ahmed Saleen Islam knew Abdulazeez via the Islamic Society of Greater Chattanooga and had seen him at the mosque only a couple of nights before the Thursday attack. They had talked about Abdulazeez’s new job at a company that develops wire and cable products.

"Everything seemed fine. He was normal. He was telling me work was going great," he told The Associated Press.

But a look back further shows a more troubled side of Abdulazeez. Court records show his family life may have been difficult; his mother filed for divorce in 2009, saying his father had sexually assaulted her and abused their children.

A person close to the family said Abdulazeez first entered therapy for depression at 12 or 13, and that in the last several years he had struggled with substance abuse.

His family tried to check him into an inpatient program for a drug problem a few years ago, the source said, but were prevented from doing so by their insurance.

In 2013, he reportedly lost a job for failing a drug test, and last year Abdulazeez spent several months in Jordan, where his relatives hoped he would be removed from the environment of drugs and friends who they said were bad influences.

Then, there was the April 20 DUI arrest, which the source called “important” since Abdulazeez was embarrassed by it and seemed to sink deeper into his depression.

His drug history seems to point toward mental and emotional struggles, and away from Islamist militancy, experts say, since “personal use of alcohol and drugs is inconsistent with the message of Islamic extremists.”

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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