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‘Very few red flags’ to tip off authorities to Tennessee attack

Officials are describing their case on the shooting rampage by Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez on members of the U.S. military as a terror investigation. Hari Sreenivasan speaks to Michael Leiter, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, about what we know about the shooter and whether he may have been influenced by groups like the Islamic State, which has called for lone wolf attacks.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now we take a deeper look at what we know about the attack in Chattanooga and the current threats against Americans.

    Hari Sreenivasan picks up the story.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Investigators are combing through clues to find out why Mohammad Youssuf Abdulazeez went on a shooting rampage yesterday in Chattanooga.

    Officials describe the case that targeted members of the U.S. military, taking the lives of four Marines, as a terror investigation.

    For more, we turn to Michael Leiter, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center.

    So, Michael, on the one hand, we have federal authorities saying we do not have a direct link yet to ISIS. On the other hand, this is exactly the type of attack that ISIS and al-Qaida are trying to inspire around the world.

  • MICHAEL LEITER, Former Director, National Counterterrorism Center:

    That's exactly right.

    And I think federal officials are being appropriately cautious. It is only 24 hours after the event and much evidence that will be uncovered is not yet open or public. All that being said, it's quite clear, I think by all of the indications, that there was some inspiration from al-Qaida or ISIS ideology.

    Exactly what those links are back to those organizations, that's what we still have to figure out.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And ISIS has specifically been asking people to target members of the U.S. military. Right.

  • MICHAEL LEITER:

    That's right.

    And ISIS has been really much more successful at using social media and calling for Muslims globally to attack at home, not traveling to Afghanistan, or Iraq or Syria, and targeting either law enforcement officials or members of the military.

    So, in that sense, certainly, the initial appearance of this attack very much falls in line with what ISIS has been encouraging.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Well, you mentioned social media. How cooperative have social media companies been in balancing the privacy rights of their users vs. aiding authorities in an investigation like this?

  • MICHAEL LEITER:

    Well, this is a very thorny problem, especially after the disclosures by Edward Snowden. There's great discomfort between the national security community and social media companies.

    I think the social media companies are doing what they can, but, in truth, many in the U.S. government think that they can do a little bit more, and that would be disclosing information to federal officials once they see it is clearly associated with terrorist activity.

    The fact is that social media and other modes of secure communications are really how these organizations are getting their message out and in some ways communicating. So it is going to have to be a very cooperative effort between the technology community in the U.S. and abroad and global counterterrorism officials.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    When we have members of the military saying the equivalent of let's raise the threat level, let's recheck all the security features that we have, but how do you prevent an attack from a lone wolf like this?

  • MICHAEL LEITER:

    This is really difficult, and this is some of the worst fears of the U.S. counterterrorism officials.

    The fact is, detecting these people in the first instance, as we just talked about, is difficult because of the nature of social media and communications. But even once you identify them, to actually track and surveil them, really, the resources of the FBI and local law enforcement are totally swamped.

    So, it's a real challenge. So this will involve work overseas to try to diminish organizations like ISIS, domestic efforts here and force protection. But some of these people are always going to remain vulnerable. In a society where people can easily gain access to weapons, unfortunately, we are going to face events like this.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    But what are the red flags counterterrorism officials are looking for? Because this individual wasn't on the radar.

  • MICHAEL LEITER:

    I think, normally, officials would be looking for, again, engagement in social media, statements or communications of known terrorists, which really suggested a radicalization and potentially a movement towards executing an attack.

    Certainly, some of the travel might have raised red flags, but this is an individual of ethnic Jordanian descent, so simply to travel to Jordan really wouldn't do it. So, I think what's most concerning about this case is that, even though it's only 24 hours later, right now, there are very few red flags. There are very few dots that appeared to have been missed.

    And in that regard, the speed with which this individual seems to have gone from an extremely well-educated, well-integrated individual in American society to someone who would perpetrate these attacks with few, if any, indicators, just really does highlight how hard this challenge is.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right, Michael Leiter, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, thanks so much for joining us.

  • MICHAEL LEITER:

    Thank you.

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