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Chattanooga gunman's past reveals few signs of rancor

Three days before authorities say he opened fire on a military recruiting center, killing four Marines, a young Muslim man equated his life in a comfortable Tennessee suburb to being imprisoned in a shallow, delusional world, and he appeared to praise jihad.

"Every one of them fought Jihad for the sake of Allah," Mohammod Youssuf Abdulazeez wrote of the prophet Muhammad's most devoted disciples, who he said used the power of the gun as well as politics to establish Islam as a major force. "All of them towards the end of the lives were either a mayor of a town, governor of a state, or leader of an army at the frontlines," the 24-year-old wrote.

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The short-lived blog, posted online Monday, is one of the few traces left for investigators as they try to determine how Abdulazeez morphed from a popular, law-abiding high school wrestler to a killer, and who or what inspired his rampage.

At a news conference Friday, Bill Killian, U.S. attorney for Tennessee's Eastern District, reiterated that officials were investigating the shootings as "an act of terrorism." Law enforcement officials provided some new information on Thursday's shooting, including that Abdulazeez used a handgun and two long guns — either rifles or shotguns. FBI Special Agent Ed Reinhold said some of the weapons were legally purchased and some were not, but he gave no details.

The preliminary evidence shows that police killed Abdulazeez and that he did not kill himself, Reinhold said.

The victims of the shootings in Chattanooga were remembered as Marines who had served in wars overseas, won medals for battlefield valor, and who died in what should have been the haven of their home country.

The youngest, Lance Cpl. Squire K. Wells, known to friends as Skip, was 21. Wells, who was from Cobb, Ga., enlisted in the reserves in February 2014. Gunnery Sgt. Thomas J. Sullivan, 40, of Springfield, Mass., was an 18-year veteran who served two Iraq tours and won two Purple Hearts.

Also killed were Staff Sgt. David A. Wyatt, 35, who grew up in Ozark, Ark., and whose 11 years in the Marines included three overseas deployments; and Sgt. Carson A. Holmquist, 25, of Polk, Wis. A military statement said Holmquist joined the Marine Corps in 2009 and had been deployed twice overseas since September 2013.

In addition, three people were wounded during the attack, which targeted two sites: a recruiting office and a joint Navy and Marine Corps reserve training center a few miles away. All of the casualties occurred at the training center. Abdulazeez died in a gunfight with police.

Now, law enforcement officials are embarking on a task that has become familiar with each U.S. mass shooting: studying the background, the movements and the online meanderings of the killer to find a motive.

Abdulazeez did not appear to frequent extremist websites or to hold a grudge against any group or institution. He did not fit the profile of many past shooters, who were loners, social misfits and failures at school. He did not appear to have social media accounts laden with angry messages about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But cracks in Abdulazeez's seemingly happy life have come into focus. He lost a job in 2013. He was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving. He spent months in Jordan last year, on a trip that has piqued investigators' interest. And court records suggest his father, Youssuf Saed Abdulazeez, was an abusive man who beat his wife and their five children.

In February 2009, the gunman's mother, Rasmia Ibrahim Abdulazeez, filed for divorce, saying in court documents that her husband assaulted her and the children and threatened to take a second wife, "as permitted under certain circumstances under Islamic Law."

According to Hamilton County court records filed in Chattanooga, Rasmia said at one point she was hurt "so severely that she fled the marital home and went to a Crisis Center." She said that when she returned home, he beat her and "sexually assaulted" her in front of the children, and beat the children as well.

The husband was issued a summons to appear but never did. Three weeks later, the couple signed an agreement to drop the matter.

Mohammod Abdulazeez would have been in his late teens at the time, but classmates at Red Bank High School, which he attended while growing up in the Chattanooga neighborhood of Hixson, said there were no signs Abdulazeez was tormented by problems at home.

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"He was very sociable, he had a really easy-to-get-along-with-personality," said Terry Jones, one of Abdulazeez's closest high school friends. Jones, 25, an electrical engineer living in Knoxville, said in a phone interview that the two took art classes together. "I just remember every art assignment, he would put a funny or humorous spin on it."

Abdulazeez was also deeply religious, praying five times a day and fasting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Jones said he never knew his classmate to drink, do drugs or smoke cigarettes.

Sometime in recent years, that changed.

In April, Abdulazeez was arrested on suspicion of driving while intoxicated in Chattanooga. His mug shot showed a bearded, bushy-browed young man with a sheepish look on his face.

On Friday, investigators said they were digging into Abdulazeez's travel history, which included the Jordan trip. It would have coincided with the rise of Islamic State in the Middle East and the group's increased efforts to recruit men in the U.S.

Abdulazeez graduated from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in 2012 with an electrical engineering degree. About three months ago, he began working at the Franklin, Tenn., plant of Superior Essex, which makes wire and cable products. In a memo to employees, the Atlanta-based company's chief executive, Brian Kim, said the company "had no indication this individual was capable of inflicting harm."

Abdulazeez also worked briefly at the FirstEnergy power company in Ohio, but it let him go in May 2013 after 10 days. An email from the company said Abdulazeez was "conditionally employed" at the company's Perry Nuclear Power Plant but never had access to the secure area.

He was let go after it was determined that he "did not meet minimum requirements for ongoing employment," the company said.

WKYC-TV in Cleveland said that Abdulazeez also was evicted from an apartment in Ohio in 2013.

In Chattanooga, Muslims who had expected to be celebrating the end of Ramadan on Friday night instead were in mourning.

The Islamic Society of Greater Chattanooga canceled all celebrations.

Imam Abdul Baasit, like everyone else, struggled to understand why the young man had chosen his violent path.

"He prayed. He fasted," he said. "Where did he end up? He ended up in hellfire."

richard.serrano@latimes.com

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christine.mai-duc@latimes.com

tina.susman@latimes.com

Serrano reported from Washington, Mai-Duc from Los Angeles and Susman from New York. Special correspondent Jenny Jarvie in Chattanooga and Times staff writers W.J. Hennigan in Washington and Michael Muskal and Natalie Schachar in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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