Aerial view of SUV in San Bernandino

Photo by Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

San Bernardino Suspects
Had Links to ISIS

| published December 4, 2015 |

By Keith H. Roberts, Thursday Review contributor


Though for many Americans the violent drama which played out on live television in San Bernardino, California on Wednesday already looked and sounded very much like an act of terrorism, even by the rarified and sometimes complex definitions of “terrorism” offered by law enforcement, federal officials were for the last two days reluctant to ascribe the term officially to the crime.

Now, however, both the FBI and the White House acknowledge that the attacks on Wednesday which left 14 dead and more than 20 wounded almost certainly meet the criteria of a an act of terror. The FBI now believes that at least one of the perpetrators—and possibly all—have links to the Islamic State, and there is now evidence that at least one of the killers had expressed loyalty to ISIS.

Two of the terrorists were killed by police in a shootout late on Wednesday: U.S.-born Syed Rizwan Farook, aged 28, and Pakistani-born Tashfeen Malik, aged 27. Both were killed in an intense gun battle about a mile and a half away from the Inland Regional Community Center and social services offices where the newly-married couple stormed into a meeting and holiday office party, shooting at random and killing at least 14 people.

The incident drew in law enforcement and emergency services personnel from a dozen jurisdictions in southern California, and forced an entire community, about 60 miles east of Los Angeles, to go into lockdown mode for more than 12 hours. The shooting spree also earned the dubious distinction of becoming the worst and deadliest mass killing in the U.S. in three years.

The FBI says that Malik, who had relocated from Pakistan to marry her fiancé Farook, had previously pledged total loyalty to ISIS. The evidence comes amidst an intensive search of the digital and electronic records of the couple, despite apparent attempts—according to police—that someone had attempted to delete thousands of emails and wipe the couple’s computer and laptop clean. Also of great interest to the FBI and other investigators: a pair of deliberately damaged smart phones belonging to the couple; preliminary analysis of those cell phones show that the couple made frequent phone calls or sent routine text messages to individuals on the terror watch-list in several countries and individuals of interest to the FBI in other investigations.

If true, these facts will surely raise deep concerns in Congress, among watchdog groups, and among journalists. On Thursday, law enforcement and FBI officials were initially quick to dismiss the implication that the couple was engaged in an act of by-the-book terror, since officials said that the couple was not on the radar of law enforcement.

Despite the new evidence which shows that the couple acted on behalf of the Islamic State, there is no reliable evidence that ISIS knew of either Malik or Farook prior to Wednesday. ISIS, which is generally quick to take credit for the terror acts of its followers and combatants worldwide, neither immediately acknowledged the attacks in San Bernardino, nor took any steps on the internet or social media to take credit for the shootings.

Unlike recent attacks in Paris, Egypt, Lebanon and Turkey—in which ISIS immediately boasted of responsibility—Islamic State spokesmen have been relatively silent on the San Bernardino attacks. Terrorism experts suggest that for this reason alone, it may turn out that the couple had no direct links to ISIS other than a shared ideology. U.S. law enforcement officials have long worried aloud about the “nightmare scenario” of self-inspired, home-grown acts of terror which are linked to the Islamic State or to al Qaeda only by dint of ideology, and not through operational planning or coordination.

Still, the political shockwaves are still rumbling across the country in the wake of the shootings, which by late Wednesday night had already sparked a deeply divided conversation about guns and radical Islam. On new channels such as CNN and Fox News, most liberals were using the incident as yet another example of the dangers of a society in which access to guns is relatively easy. Conservatives were calling the shootings an act of terror, and suggested that the FBI and other law enforcement agencies had clearly fallen short of their mandate to track suspicious behavior of potential jihadists. In Washington, the blame game began almost immediately, with some Republicans angered by the refusal of the White House to call the San Bernardino attacks an act of terror perpetrated by radical Islamists.

Rizwan and Malik were armed with assault rifles and semi-automatic handguns, along with some 6,000 rounds of ammunition. The couple also had at least a dozen powerful pipe bombs—some found in their vehicle (a rented SUV), in their townhouse apartment a couple of miles from the scene of the attacks, and in a nearby garage. The enormous stockpile of ammunition and the extra cache of bombs have led to some speculation by investigators that the couple may have had additional targets in mind before they initiated the first shootings at the community center and office complex.

Investigators are also looking closely at social media accounts belonging to both shooters. An apparently fake account belonging to Malik was discovered late Thursday. That account, according to law enforcement sources, includes overt conversations about carrying out acts of terror, along with pledges of loyalty to the Islamic State, in particular Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the top ISIS leader in the Middle East.  Malik also posted information about ISIS on her personal account.

NBC News foreign correspondent Richard Engel reported that some sources in the intelligence community have characterized the couple's terror plot as "amateurish." But other analysts have called the attack just the opposite, concluding that the use the of the high-powered weapons, the handguns, and the pipe bombs as sign of a plot which may have been weeks in the making. Critics of the government's apparent reluctance to define the attacks as an act of terror are also concerned that the term "amateurish" be applied to a plot which became the nation's deadliest mass assault in more than three years, and a shooting rampage in which the perpetrators had the apparent foresight to destroy hard drives and cell phones.

Though the FBI and police have conducted what they say is a thorough search of the couple’s townhome in the Redlands community, the apartment manager on Friday opened up the home to videography and photographic crews of the media, allowing cameras from CNN, MSNBC, and other networks to enter the home. Much of the media tour was broadcast live or streamed via the internet. Later, after police and FBI officials intervened, the landlord requested that reporters and camera operators leave the townhome. Some retired law enforcement officials—now working as analysts for the networks—said that they could think of no precedent for allowing reporters to enter the apartment belonging to such notorious mass killers. In California, law enforcement officials were divided over the issue of why reporters had been allowed into the apartment on Friday, and some FBI officials said that the apartment was supposed to have remained closed and sealed as the investigation was still ongoing. But later, some FBI officials said that since their inquiry into the contents of the apartment had already concluded, it made no difference to the agency who entered the scene.

Farook apparently met his bride-to-be online after a thorough search of Muslim dating sites. Farook traveled to Pakistan to meet Malik in person, and later the couple traveled to Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, where they were married. Farook’s co-workers in San Bernardino say that he began to change after his marriage to Malik. The investigation into the mass shooting has now become international, as police in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia look more deeply into the families and connections of both Malik and Farook.

Farook had a well-paying job as a restaurant and facilities inspector for the county, where he earned about $70,000 per year. His apartment townhome was in an upper middle class area of Redlands. Though the FBI and other law enforcement agencies say they have not yet found any direct connection to either al Qaeda or ISIS, investigators are still looking closely at the smashed computer hard drives, the contents of other digital equipment, and the two heavily damaged phones.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Terror Concerns Still Haunt Europe; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; November 23, 2015.

Syrian Refugee Crisis Sparks Intense U.S. Debate; Keith H. Roberts; Thursday Review; November 20, 2015.