On July 16, 24-year-old Mohammad Youssuf Abdulazeez opened fire on a military recruiting station and a Navy and Marine Corps Reserve center in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The rampage killed five—four Marines and a sailor—marking another tragic moment of violence in America. But was Abdulazeez, a naturalized American citizen born in Kuwait, a terrorist or just a murderer? If he was a terrorist, was it an instance of homegrown extremism or was it the work—or inspiration—of a foreign group?
The heroism of the service members involved is clear cut, but definitions of what constitutes terrorism far less so, particularly in the social media-inspired fire hose of ISIS propaganda that makes linking cause and effect difficult. The investigation into whether or not Purple Hearts should be conferred, for example, has been ongoing since the attack five months ago. On Wednesday, the FBI and Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) announced the mass shooting was, in fact, inspired by a foreign terrorist group meaning that the military will posthumously award Purple Hearts to the five killed, as well as to a Marine injured during the attack.
“Following an extensive investigation, the FBI and NCIS have determined that this attack was inspired by a foreign terrorist group, the final criteria required for the awarding of the Purple Heart to this Sailor and these Marines,” Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said in a statement. Without explicit orders or communication with a terrorist organization, it is increasingly hard to divine the motivations of a mass killer of any type. FBI Director said as much to Fox News (via the Navy Times):
"We've investigated Chattanooga as a terror attack from the beginning," Director James Comey said, according to a report from Fox News. "The Chattanooga killer was inspired by a foreign terror organization. It's hard to entangle which particular source … there are lots of competing poisons out there."
Recent changes to military definitions surrounding terrorism reflect the altered landscape of modern warfare that American soldiers face. “Language in the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act broadened the definition of a stateside attack by ‘a foreign terrorist organization,’” according to ABC News. “Purple Hearts could be awarded if it could be determined that prior to the attack the perpetrator may have had contacts with a foreign terrorist organization and ‘if the attack was inspired or motivated by the foreign terrorist organization.’” The changes to the law came in response to the 2009 Foot Hood attack, which was initially designated as workplace violence making those hurt or killed ineligible for a Purple Heart.