As investigators try to understand why a husband and wife in San Bernardino, California, launched a bloody shooting rampage this week, they are beginning to question whether the attackers had more than one motive.
Two U.S. officials, who asked to speak anonymously when discussing the details of the still unfolding case, said that the shootings bear the markings of two kinds of assaults with which Americans have become all-too familiar: religious inspired violence and workplace violence. And that has caused investigators to proceed cautiously in labeling the shootings in San Bernadino as simply one thing or another.
“I do think you could call it a ‘hybrid’ attack,” said one independent counterterrorism expert who works with U.S. officials, noting that attackers Tashfeen Malik and Syed Rizwan Farook seemed to be inspired by the so-called Islamic State widely known as ISIS, but had chosen a target with some personal connection or significance. The expert also asked not to be quoted by name while discussing a still-unfolding and delicate investigation.
There are signs that the couple were under the influence of radical Islamists. A Facebook executive told the Associated Press Friday that Malik has posted a message praising ISIS. And Reuters reported that she had lived for many years in Saudi Arabia, where she may have come under the influence of religious extremists.
Farook met Malik online and later traveled to Saudi Arabia to meet her. The couple were married and eventually had a child. A co-worker of Farook said that after he came back from Saudi Arabia with his new bride in July 2014, he seemed different.
“I think he married a terrorist,” the co-worker told CBS News.
A third U.S. official told The Daily Beast that while it was too soon to conclude that the attack was ordered by ISIS, Malik’s potential connections to extremists were being closely examined, with an eye towards her as the possible instigator of the attacks.
Based on the weapons in the couple’s possession or in their home, including two semi-automatic handguns, more than 6,000 rounds of ammunition, and 12 pipe bombs, they were apparently planning a large-scale attack that could have targeted random people, officials said.
But Malik and Farook ultimately lashed out against people they knew, Farook’s co-workers at the Inland Regional Center, where he was a health inspector. Among the 14 people killed as employees were enjoying a holiday party was Nicholas Thalasinos, a Jewish co-worker with whom Farook reportedly had a heated argument over religion two weeks before the shootings.
This blending of motives raises the question of whether Malik and Farook herald a new kind of violence, in which radicals enact their violent ideology not on strangers, but on people they know.
“There does not need to be a single motive,” Bruce Riedel, a veteran CIA officer and terrorism expert, told The Daily Beast. “The shooters may have had a workplace grievance, real or perceived, and also sympathy for al Qaeda or ISIS. In fact the two may have fed off each other.”
“We do not yet know the motive; we cannot rule anything out at this point,” David Bowdich, the assistant FBI director in charge of the Los Angeles office, told reporters Friday. “We don’t know if this was the intended target or there was something that triggered him to do this immediately.”
Of course, motives often remain elusive, even in crimes that are eventually solved. The search for a motive in the San Bernardino case may prove to be unfathomable.
As the investigation has progressed, links between the couple and radical Islamists have begun to emerge, with a particular emphasis on the role that Malik may have played in the plotting and in forming connections to radicals. FBI officials have said that the couple were in contact with suspected militants already under scrutiny by the bureau, but they haven’t specified whether it was Malik or Farouk, or both, who were doing the talking.
“My suspicion is the wife may have been the radicalizer,” Riedel said.
But U.S. officials also urged caution in rushing to label the attacks as “terrorism,” or exclusively so.
“You’re seeing a lot of people rush to reach that conclusion, and there’s just a lot we don’t know yet,” one U.S. official told The Daily Beast. The couple was also not under scrutiny by U.S. intelligence or law enforcement agencies prior to the attacks, two officials said. That fact has also caused investigators to proceed carefully, until they can better understand the events that led the couple to strike.
Linking the attacks to ISIS also has extraordinary political implications in a presidential election season when the shootings in Paris last month ignited a backlash against Syrian immigrants and Muslims.
One of the U.S. officials who described the attacks as a hybrid said it was also important to distinguish between ISIS-inspired and ISIS-directed attacks. The latter is of greater concern to U.S. law enforcement and security agencies because it speaks to an ambition to conduct elaborate operations, more like the one in Paris that killed 130 people and involved 7 perpetrators.
And yet, if the couple were acting largely on their own, they seem to have understood that they risked being detected as they went about hatching their plans. Reportedly, they tried to destroy cell phone and hard drives, and Malik posted online in praise of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi using a pseudonym.
Those decisions speak to a level of operational security in the couple’s planning, the counterterrorism expert said. But did ISIS teach them how to cover their tracks, or did Malik and Farook know enough to avoid calling attention to themselves? Those questions remain unanswered.