US investigators probe shooter's alleged 'war' text message

People pay their respects at a memorial in front of the Armed Forces Career Centre/National Guard Recruitment Office on July 18, 2015 in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
People pay their respects at a memorial in front of the Armed Forces Career Centre/National Guard Recruitment Office on July 18, 2015 in Chattanooga, Tennessee.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (AFP) - Investigators on Sunday were probing the communications of a shooter who killed five US troops in Chattanooga to determine his possible motive, following reports he allegedly sent a text message declaring "war" hours before the rampage.

Four Marines and a sailor were killed in Thursday's attack on two military centers in Tennessee - which authorities are treating as "an act of terrorism" - before the gunman, Mohammad Youssuf Abdulazeez, died in a shootout with police.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has asked foreign intelligence agencies to help trace Abdulazeez's movements and activities abroad, and analysts are monitoring his activity on social media.

A law enforcement official told the New York Times on Saturday that investigators were looking into a text message Abdulazeez allegedly sent to a friend before the shooting to probe possible motives.

The text reportedly included an Islamic verse: "Whosoever shows enmity to a friend of Mine, then I have declared war against him," according to the newspaper.

The Times said a friend of Abdulazeez had been interviewed by the FBI and that investigators were trying to verify the text.

Abdulazeez, 24, was a naturalized US citizen born in Kuwait.

"Every one of our resources are being devoted to this investigation," Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke told CNN.

But the FBI warned against jumping to conclusions, after Michael McCaul, chairman of the House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee, branded the assault "an ISIS-inspired attack," using an alternative acronym for the Islamic State group.

"At this time, we have no indication that he was inspired by or directed by anyone other than himself," FBI special agent Ed Reinhold said, referring to Abdulazeez.

Meanwhile, Abdulazeez's family said he suffered from depression for years, and condemned the "heinous act of violence."

"There are no words to describe our shock, horror and grief," the family said in a statement cited by an NPR public radio journalist.

"The person who committed this horrible crime was not the son we knew and loved," it added.

"For many years, our son suffered from depression. It grieves us beyond belief to know that his pain found its expression in this heinous act of violence."

Expressing its condolences to the families of the victims, the Abdulazeez family also vowed to continue to cooperate with law enforcement.

The shooting has jarred the city of 168,000, where the Islamic Society of Greater Chattanooga condemned the attack and canceled its end-of-Ramadan Eid al-Fitr celebrations out of respect for the victims.

Going into the weekend, more details emerged about Abdulazeez, a University of Tennessee engineering graduate and mixed martial arts enthusiast who grew up in a middle-class neighborhood.

Investigators were looking at Abdulazeez's foreign travel, with a reported trip to Jordan last year of particular interest.

There was evidence that he came from a troubled family. Divorce papers filed by his mother alleged that his father beat his wife and five children.

The father was also reportedly investigated for ties to a terrorist group, but ultimately was cleared.

Abdulazeez's only known brush with the law was in April, when he was arrested for driving under the influence, a term which includes alcohol or drug use.

He briefly worked at a nuclear power plant in Ohio in May 2013, but was fired after failing to meet minimum employment requirements, a spokeswoman for Perry Nuclear Power Plant operator FirstEnergy said.

In Washington, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has asked for recommendations on boosting security for troops and civilians at military installations.

But state governors in Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas signed executive orders that would allow US military personnel to carry firearms at recruiting centers.

Such facilities are often located in shopping malls, with no special security measures and recruiting staff inside unarmed.

"After the recent shooting in Chattanooga, it has become clear that our military personnel must have the ability to defend themselves against these type of attacks on our own soil," Texas Governor Greg Abbott said.

Republican Senator Ron Johnson, who chairs the Senate Homeland Security Committee, said he would introduce a bill ending the ban on troops carrying certain firearms on military installations.

Utah, which last year passed legislation allowing soldiers at National Guard facilities to carry weapons, said it would "explore additional ways to protect our men and women serving in the Armed Forces" in the wake of the attack, according to a statement from Governor Gary Herbert.

The four Marines died Thursday, while the fifth victims, a sailor, succumbed on Saturday to injuries he sustained in the assault.

The Navy named the sailor as Logistics Specialist 2nd Class Randall Smith, a father of three daughters who had recently re-enlisted and transferred to Chattanooga.