Chattanooga killings spark fury, demands for government action
Greg Jaffe and Thomas Gibbons-Neff
The Washington Post News Service
July 19, 2015 Copyright 2015 WP Bloomberg.
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — Paula Proxmire was surrounded by screaming street preachers, angry protesters and unsettled mourners who had just arrived from Sunday church.
Her son, Petty Officer 2nd Class Randall Smith, 26, had died on Saturday from wounds suffered in a shooting rampage here. The attacker was an aimless, depressed 24-year-old Muslim man whose online postings suggest he may have been motivated by radical Islamist movements.
Proxmire stood across from the bullet-riddled Armed Forces Recruiting Center, one of two military sites attacked by the gunman last week. She brushed back a strand of sweat-soaked hair and sobbed. Her son had been dead for barely one day. Around her people were screaming.
"I can't believe these people even come here to this country!" one woman yelled. "Why do they come here?"
"Because they want to kill us," another man answered.
The television cameras edged closer to get a tight shot of Proxmire's tears. The agitated crowd, many of them carrying holstered pistols, wanted to know why the Obama administration and the military weren't doing more to kill Islamist extremists in Iraq, in Syria or wherever they might be. They were furious at a U.S. military policy, enacted during the Clinton administration, that prevents recruiters from carrying firearms while on duty.
"How many more mothers have to go through this before we finally do something about it?" yelled Darrell Gibbs, 55, pastor at Highways and Hedges Ministries. "How many mothers have to suffer like this, having cameras shoved down their throats?"
The attack in Chattanooga, and the raw anger it has provoked here, illustrates the increasingly daunting odds that U.S. counterterrorism agencies face in an era marked by surging Islamist propaganda and a proliferation of disparate, self-radicalized, one-off threats.
The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security have launched sweeping initiatives aimed at shoring up their ties to Muslim communities across the country, with special pilot programs underway in major cities such as Boston, Minneapolis and Los Angeles.
But in many ways the bureau is working against itself. Arrests of suspects accused of planning travel to Syria, sting operations and expanded surveillance have at times alienated the Muslim communities that security agencies depend on for cooperation.
FBI Director James Comey announced this month that the bureau had made at least 10 arrests over the past six weeks, part of a preemptive crackdown by authorities concerned about the prospect for a spike in attacks during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Chattanooga is not among the cities involved in the FBI's pilot program. But with a Muslim population in the low thousands, it serves as an example of dozens of midsize cities where the FBI and other agencies will need to devote considerable resources if they are to be held to the increasingly impossible-seeming standard of disrupting every domestic plot.
Tennessee is home to three FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces, in Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville. Even though there's no task force office in Chattanooga, law enforcement officials here have maintained close ties to the Muslim community.
When the Islamic Society of Greater Chattanooga held a ribbon-cutting for its school and mosque complex in 2012, William Killian, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Tennessee, was a featured speaker along with the mayor and chief of police.
"Bill Killian introduced us to the FBI," said Bassam Issa, the president of the society. "It's a very close relationship that we have with all law enforcement." FBI officials and local law enforcement have come to the mosque's open houses.
But the close relationship wasn't enough to stop Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez, who had attended the mosque irregularly and struggled with depression and drug use after college, according to friends and family.
There are more than 100 FBI agents on the ground in Chattanooga, primarily from the FBI Knoxville Field Office, trying to piece together Abdulazeez's path to radicalization and violence. "That's going to take time," one official said. "We may never know, but we are working toward that."
Abdulazeez did not have an extensive social-media profile, officials said. U.S. officials are also looking for clues in his trips to Jordan, where he visited family.
One possibility is that Abdulazeez was just a troubled young man who responded to the torrent of hate-filled Internet messages from groups such as the Islamic State that are designed to inspire a single, troubled, lone gunman.
Such attacks are incredibly difficult to detect and stop, officials said. The growing signs that Abdulazeez had self-radicalized and acted alone were of little solace to many in Chattanooga who were convinced the government was not doing enough to protect them.
At Carl Poston's family-owned gun shop, a few miles from Abdulazeez's home, demand for concealed-carry classes doubled in the days after the shooting. Shooter's Depot, a gun store on the other side of town, said it had seen a fivefold increase, with as many as 100 people a day requesting spots in the gun classes.
Even the Marines, who have grown grimly accustomed to combat casualties over the course of nearly 14 years of continuous war, viewed these deaths as somehow different and more unsettling.
"When you're in a combat environment . . . and someone gets killed by an IED or a direct-fire engagement, as horrible as that is, its easier to accept," said Maj. Mike Abrams, who lost four of his Marines in the attack. "When they are stateside in Chattanooga, in the heartland of America, and they kiss their wife and kids and say goodbye and go to work and they get shot . . . the shock of that is much harder to accept and much harder to find meaning in."
Abrams said the Marines killed in the attack were being considered for Purple Hearts, an award traditionally reserved for troops killed or wounded in war zones.
Throughout Chattanooga, people were coming up with their own ways to mourn the losses. The Islamic Society in Chattanooga had planned a big celebration Saturday for Eid, the Muslim holiday closest to Christmas, with inflatable moon bounces and tables full of sweets, but canceled it. "This is not a time for us to celebrate anything," said Issa, the society's president.
Many people left church services on Sunday, changed out of their formal clothes and headed out to the two sites where Abdulazeez opened fire. Some huddled in small groups and prayed. Carl Ball, 70, planted an American flag in the ground in front of the building where the four Marines and the sailor had been shot. "How do you stop someone who wants you to kill them so they can go to heaven?" Ball asked. "How do you deter that?"
A few miles away at the Armed Forces Recruiting Center, the other shooting site, the crowd was larger and angrier. "We need to be stronger," said Tim Litt, a Gulf War veteran who came to the rally with a holstered Ruger pistol. "We need a stronger White House. We need to do more."
There were boisterous chants of "U.S.A.," roaring motorcycles and television anchors doing live stand-ups. Proxmire, who had traveled from Delphos, Kansas, was still trying to make sense of what had happened to her son, who was in surgery when she arrived in Chattanooga. "He was my hero," she said. "He was my world."
Behind her, people were waving American flags and protest signs.
A stranger pulled Proxmire out of the scrum, guided her toward a quiet spot near the road and hugged her. "I'm so sorry for your loss," Alaina Fitzner, an Air Force wife, whispered to her. "We're all behind you. You're part of our military family and we love you."
Washington Post staff writers Greg Miller and Adam Goldman in Washington contributed to this report.