CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) — A maternal uncle who hosted the Chattanooga shooter in Jordan for a few months last year is a businessman with no links to any militant groups, his attorney says.
But a Jordanian official says the uncle is under investigation over the shooter’s time with him there.
Asaad Ibrahim Asaad Haj Ali took in his nephew, the now-deceased Mohamad Youssef Abdulazeez, under a mutual agreement with his parents to help him get away from drugs, alcohol and a group of friends they considered to be a bad influence, according to a person close to his family. The person spoke on condition of anonymity, out of concern it would have business repercussions. Abdulazeez helped Haj Ali in his small cellphone business, according to the uncle’s lawyer, Abed al-Kader Ahmad al-Khateeb.
Haj Ali has been detained since Friday, a day after Abdulazeez killed four Marines and a sailor in attacks on two military sites in Tennessee, al-Khateeb told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
A Jordanian official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters, said Wednesday that authorities are “trying to get as much information as possible” from Haj Ali.
Haj Ali is “being investigated regarding his relative and the period he (the relative) stayed in Jordan,” the official said. He also said the investigation is being conducted in close coordination with U.S. counterparts.
The official said other family members were also being questioned but the uncle was the only one in custody.
Al-Khateeb said he was barred from seeing his client and family members were also prevented from visiting the detainee. Computers and cellphones were taken from the man’s home, but he has not been charged with anything, the attorney said.
“The uncle is a regular person, he has a company, he is a businessman, he has no relation with any militant group or organization,” al-Khateeb said. “He cares about his work and his family, and Muhammad is just his relative, the son of his sister. That’s it.”
The person close to Abdulazeez’s family said relatives turned to Jordan after their health insurer refused to approve an in-patient treatment program for Abdulazeez’s addictions to drug and alcohol.
Jordan is one of the most Westernized countries in the Middle East, with alcohol sold openly. However, the kingdom has also seen the spread of Islamic militant ideas in recent years, especially following the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011.
Last Thursday, Abdulazeez parked a rented Mustang convertible in front of a Chattanooga recruiting center and began shooting from the car. He then drove about 7 miles to a Navy-Marine operations center where he killed four Marines and fatally wounded a sailor before he was shot and killed by police.
According to a U.S. official familiar with the probe in the United States, investigators have found writings from Abdulazeez that reference Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born cleric who encouraged and inspired attacks on the homeland and was killed in a U.S. drone strike in September 2011. The official was not authorized to discuss by name an ongoing investigation and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Investigators have said, however, that they have not found evidence that Abdulazeez was specifically directed by someone to carry out the attacks.
The FBI also has found other writings, from late 2013, not long after Abdulazeez was fired from a power plant job because of a failed drug test, the person close to the family said.
On a few loose sheets of paper found in the family home, Abdulazeez, clearly depressed, wrote that he was a failure and his life was worthless, the person said.
The person said these writings were described to him by the family, and that he hasn’t read them himself. The family was not aware of them before authorities found them, the person added.
Many who knew Abdulazeez have described a clean-cut high school wrestler who graduated from college with an engineering degree and attended a local mosque.
“Everything seemed fine. He was normal. He was telling me work was going great,” said one of the friends, Ahmed Saleen Islam, 26, who knew Abdulazeez through the Islamic Society of Greater Chattanooga and saw him at the mosque two or three nights before the attacks.
But the person close to the family talked about a darker side.
Abdulazeez was first treated by a child psychiatrist for depression when he was 12 or 13 years old.
The family does not know if Abdulazeez ever received a specific mental health diagnosis, the person said. He clearly suffered episodes of depression and sometimes went for days without sleep while he was out partying with friends. But that behavior could have been connected to Abdulazeez’s drug abuse, the person said.
Abdulazeez also was heavily in debt because he could not hold down a steady job and talked with his family about declaring bankruptcy, the person said.
Court records point to a volatile family life. His mother filed for divorce in 2009 and accused her husband of sexually assaulting her and abusing their children. She later agreed to reconcile.
Recently, Abdulazeez had begun working the night shift at a manufacturing plant and was taking medication to help with problems sleeping in the daytime, the person said, and he had a prescription for muscle relaxants because of a back problem.
Abdulazeez was arrested on a charge of driving under the influence April 20. He told a Chattanooga police officer he was with friends who had been smoking marijuana. The report said Abdulazeez, who had white powder on his nose when he was stopped, told the officer he also had sniffed powdered caffeine.
The arrest was “important” because Abdulazeez was deeply embarrassed and seemed to sink further into depression following the episode, the person said. Some close relatives learned of the charge only days before the shooting.
The family believes his personal struggles could be at the heart of last week’s killings, the person close to them said.