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From Tenn. to Times Square, military recruiting centers prove easy targets

The shooting at a Chattanooga, Tenn., U.S. military recruitment center is the latest in a string of incidents targeting the unprotected and prevalent offices. (Video: Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

Mohammad Youssef Abdul­azeez may have wanted to die, but he nonetheless appeared to have planned his last acts carefully — particularly the target for his hatred.

On Thursday morning, the 24-year-old swung a silver Ford Mustang convertible into one of Chattanooga’s many strip malls.

This one, however, was different. Between an Italian restaurant and a cellphone shop hung a neon sign emblazoned with the American flag. Beneath it, window upon window advertised every branch of the U.S. Armed Forces. To the left, an Army soldier was portrayed patrolling some desert country. To the right, the glass was etched with the insignia of the Marines. And in the middle stood a phrase that seemed to encapsulate them all: “Heroes Don’t Brag.”

It was Chattanooga’s military recruitment center. And it was exactly what Abdulazeez was looking for.

As he drove past the patriotic storefront, Abdulazeez pulled out a gun and opened fire, spraying the windows with at least 30 bullets. He then sped to a nearby U.S. Naval Reserve Center and opened fire again. Four Marines died in the attacks. At least three others were wounded, including members of the Marines, Navy and local police, before Abdulazeez himself was killed.

“Somebody brutally and brazenly attacked members of our armed services,” Chattanooga Police Chief Fred Fletcher said, according to the Times Free Press.

Mayor Andy Berke called the killings “a nightmare for our city,” but the brazen assault was actually far from the first of its kind.

Over the past half century, military recruitment centers have been targeted time and time again across the country: by Black Panthers and neo-Nazis, Vietnam War protesters and Japanese communists. Most recently, they have become targets for Islamist terrorism.

Whoever the attacker, the reasoning is always simple: what better place to find unarmed soldiers than at a recruitment center?

“Recruiting offices have been kind of on the leading edge of targets simply because they are both ubiquitous and they’re vulnerable,” Brian Michael Jenkins of the Rand Corp. told the Military Times.

“These recruiting offices are everywhere,” he said. “They’re in shopping centers. They’re all around the country. So if you think about attacking a military target, as opposed to driving to some military base where there will be armed guards at the gate; if you want a geographically convenient, readily accessible target that the shooter can portray as a military target, then recruiting stations fit the bill.

“So the attack, while shocking, is not surprising,” Jenkins said.

Although Abdulazeez’s motive is not yet clear, Thursday’s attack comes amid a flurry of threats against American military bases in the United States and abroad from Islamist terror groups.

[U.S. military boosts security at all stateside bases because of militant threat]

In May, after threats from the Islamic State, the United States boosted security at its stateside bases.

But unlike bases, with their blast walls and gun turrets, there isn’t much that recruitment centers can do. By definition located in civilian areas, their officers are in uniform but prohibited from carrying weapons.

Although some military centers near Chattanooga responded to the attack by closing shop on Thursday, most stayed open. The 6th Marine Corps Recruiting District, which includes Tennessee, closed all facilities within 40 miles of the shooting.

“While we expect our sailors and Marines to go into harm’s way, and they do so without hesitation, an attack at home, in our community, is insidious and unfathomable,” said Navy Secretary Ray Mabus in a statement.

Authorities say at least four victims and one gunman are dead, with three others injured, in shootings at a Naval reserve center in Chattanooga, Tenn., on Thursday. (Video: Reuters)

Aside from the center in Chattanooga, the Army’s recruiting stations remained open for “business as usual,” Brian Lepley, a spokesman for U.S. Army Recruiting Command, told the Military Times. He added that the Army trains recruiters every year on how to deal with active shooting scenarios.

Representatives from the Army and Air Force said current safety procedures are adequate, according to the Military Times. But Thursday’s shooting has already led to calls for recruiters to be armed.

Harry Houck, a former NYPD detective, told CNN that it was time to change the military’s “gun-free zone” mindset for recruitment and reserve centers.

“I’m a Marine. And this really is hitting me a little harder here than normal that [these Marines] weren’t able to protect themselves at the time this occurred,” he said. “We need people that are armed.”

Lepley, the Army spokesman, said that was unlikely.

“We can’t have barricaded centers. We can’t have places where we recruit young men and women that look like a fortress,” he told the Military Times. “We have to have a connection to the American people.”

That tension — between projecting strength to the public and, at the same time, protecting their officers — has haunted military recruitment centers for decades. In small towns across the country, U.S. Armed Forces offices are immediately recognizable: splashed in aggressively patriotic imagery and staffed by men and women in full uniform (just without the guns).

Yet that same symbolism, so necessary for drawing recruits, has often made these centers targets for attackers ranging from jihadists to Japanese militia members.

Military recruiting centers were first targeted during the Vietnam War. As the casualties mounted and the campaign became bitterly unpopular, anti-war activists began bombing recruitment offices across the United States.

On Jan. 2, 1973, a U.S. Navy recruiting center in Portland was seriously damaged by a bomb explosion. Two days later, a nearby U.S. Army recruiting center was dynamited. Frank Stearns Giese, a 63-year-old former Oregon college professor, was convicted of plotting the bombings based upon his fingerprints being found on a Black Panther book.

In 1986, 22-year-old neo-Nazi Robert Elliot Pires was arrested and accused of a string of bombings, including an attempted attack on a military recruitment building.

Two years later, Yu Kikumura, a member of the Japanese Red Army, a communist militia, was arrested while planning to bomb a military recruitment office in Manhattan to protest the U.S. bombing of Libya.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, however, military recruitment centers have primarily been targeted by Islamist terrorists.

In the most attention-grabbing attack, a homemade bomb exploded on March 6, 2008, outside a U.S. military recruiting office in Times Square. Security cameras showed someone on a bicycle plant the bomb and then speed off before the blast, yet no one was ever caught. In June 2013, the FBI and NYPD offered a $65,000 reward for information on the attack. And on April 15 of this year, the reward was increased to $115,000. The FBI says it has persons of interest but has not made any arrests.

No one was injured in the Times Square bombing. But a year later, another attack on a recruitment center in Little Rock, Ark., ended in bloodshed. In an attack presaging Thursday’s, Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad opened fire as he drove by a recruiting office, killing one soldier and wounding another. Muhammad, born Carlos Leon Bledsoe, was an American who converted to Islam as an adult. He is now serving a sentence of life in prison.

In 2010, Muhammad Hussain, another convert to Islam originally named Antonio Martinez, was arrested while allegedly plotting to bomb a military recruiting center in Maryland.

That same year, a former Marine named Yonathan Melaku was arrested for shooting at a Marine Corps recruiting station and a Coast Guard recruiting station in separate incidents in Virginia. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

And in 2011, Abu Khalid Abdul-Latif and Walli Mujahidh were arrested for allegedly planning attacks on a recruiting station in Seattle.

Recruiters have also faced other difficulties stemming from the country’s 14 straight years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. As during the Vietnam War, activists have picketed recruiting centers, particularly during the invasion of Iraq.

“Parents will tell us all the time that ‘Johnny’s not joining!’ and just hang up on us,” Sgt. 1st Class John J. Stover, a Topeka recruiter, told the New York Times in 2004. “The difference is that no one has ever recruited during a sustained war.”

But in Tennessee, a state that prides itself on its military history, there was nothing but praise and prayers for recruiters and their fellow service members on Thursday.

“We live in the Volunteer State, a state that’s rich with tradition and affiliation with our armed forces,” said Berke, the Chattanooga mayor, during a Thursday night news conference.

“We cannot countenance what happened to those four families today,” he said. “Our hearts ache for them.”