Tenn. attack still not called terrorism; indecision affects benefits to families
By DAN LAMOTHE | The Washington Post | Published: December 5, 2015
WASHINGTON — More than five months after attacks on two military facilities in Chattanooga, Tenn., left four Marines and a sailor dead, federal investigators still have not determined whether the attack was terrorism - and it's financially costing the families of those who died, as Purple Heart awards hang in the balance.
The July 16 attack killed Gunnery Sgt. Thomas Sullivan, 40; Staff Sgt. David Wyatt, 35; Sgt. Carson A. Holmquist; Lance Cpl. Squire D. "Skip" Wells, 21; and Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Randall Smith, 26. Other service members and a Chattanooga police officer also were wounded by Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez, 24, a naturalized U.S. citizen, who was born in Kuwait. The attack was carried out at the Chattanooga Naval Reserve Center and a recruiting station a few miles away.
As previously reported, Abdulazeez called Muslims who waged jihad in earlier generations "the best human beings that ever lived" other than the prophets, on his blog. He also downloaded recordings of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-Yemeni cleric who recruited for al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula until he was killed in a 2011 airstrike, according to a NBC News report.
But there still is no assessment of whether the incident qualifies as international terrorism. Sharry Dedman-Beard, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office in eastern Tennessee, said the investigation is ongoing and declined additional comment.
The issue is particularly sensitive in light of a similar attack this week in San Bernadino, California, that killed 14 people and wounded 21 more. It was carried out by a married couple, Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik. Malik, 27, was a Pakistani woman who entered the United States on a so-called "fiance visa." She pledged allegiance to the Islamic State militant group on Facebook prior to the attack, a U.S. law enforcement official said on Friday.
The law enforcement official compared the San Bernadino case to the Chattanooga attack, noting that it took days for the FBI to sort out what happened and some questions still remain.
The Chattanooga shooting, occurring at military facilities, however, raised the possibility of Purple Heart medals being awarded to the families of the troops killed there and the survivors who were wounded. Under current criteria, however, the Chattanooga victims will not be eligible unless the government determines that Abdulazeez was in contact with a foreign terrorist organization beforehand and was "inspired or motivated by the foreign terrorist organization."
Military officials have proactively prepared Purple Heart nomination packages for the troops involved, said Maj. Rob Dolan, a Marine Corps spokesman in Quantico, Virginia. But the awards are still in limbo while the investigation remains open.
"Determination of eligibility still rests on the completion of the FBI investigation," Dolan said.
The financial benefits of the Purple Heart can include the payment of hostile-fire pay for those killed or wounded in an attack, and special compensation for troops whose disability is attributed to an injury for which they were awarded the medal.
The issue has come up before. Earlier this year, then-Army Secretary John McHugh ordered the Purple Heart and associated benefits be awarded to the families of 13 people who were killed and more than 30 who were wounded in the 2009 mass shooting at Fort Hood, Texas.
The lack of Purple Hearts in that case had become a political issue, and required Congress to pass legislation that expanded eligibility by redefining an attack by a "foreign terrorist organization" to include an incident in which an attacker was in communication with a foreign terrorist organization or motivated by it, McHugh said in announcing the awards in July.
Shortly after the Chattanooga attack, a resolution was introduced in the House by Rep. Charles Fleischmann, R.-Tenn., to say that the service members wounded and killed meet the criteria for the Purple Heart and that Navy Secretary Ray Mabus should do so. It now has 86 co-sponsors and bipartisan support.