Wednesday 21 February 2018

FBI investigates California shooting as act of terrorism

Tashfeen Malik and her husband Syed Farook died in a fierce gun battle with authorities hours after their deadly attack in San Bernardino (FBI/California Department of Motor Vehicles/AP)
Tashfeen Malik and her husband Syed Farook died in a fierce gun battle with authorities hours after their deadly attack in San Bernardino (FBI/California Department of Motor Vehicles/AP)

The mass shooting at a Southern California office party is being treated as an act of terrorism - but the FBI said there was no indication the husband and wife who killed 14 people were part of a larger plot or members of an Islamist cell.

If the investigation confirms the massacre was inspired by Islamic extremism, it would be the deadliest such terrorist attack on US soil since September 11, 2001.

While authorities did not cite specific evidence that led them to the terrorism focus, a US law enforcement official said the wife, Tashfeen Malik, 27, had, under a Facebook alias, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) group and its leader.

A Facebook official said Malik praised IS in a post at 11am on Wednesday, around the time the couple stormed a San Bernardino social services centre and opened fire.

Malik and her husband, Syed Farook, 28, died in a fierce gun battle with authorities several hours after their commando-style assault on a gathering of Farook's colleagues from San Bernardino County's health department.

An IS-affiliated news service called Malik and Farook "supporters" of their Islamist cause, but stopped short of claiming responsibility for the attack.

FBI director James Comey would not discuss whether anyone affiliated with IS communicated back to Malik, but he said there was no indication yet that the plot was directed by any other foreign terror group. He also declined to rule out that future possibility.

"The investigation so far has developed indications of radicalisation by the killers and of potential inspiration by foreign terrorist organisations," he said. He warned that the investigation has not yet shown evidence the couple was part of a larger group.

Despite mounting signs of the couple's radicalisation, there "is a lot of evidence that doesn't quite make sense", Mr Comey said.

Lawyers for Farook's family urged the public and media to wait for specific evidence before jumping to conclusions, saying none of his relatives had any indication either Farook or his wife held extremist views.

David Bowdich, head of the FBI's Los Angeles office, said "a number of pieces of evidence" pointed to terrorism and that the agency was focused on that idea "for good reason".

The Facebook official, who was not allowed under corporate policy to be quoted by name, said the company discovered Malik's post on Thursday, removed the profile from public view and reported its contents to law enforcement.

Mr Bowdich said he was not aware of the IS-affiliated Aamaq news service report but was not surprised IS would attempt to link itself to the attack. He said investigators were looking carefully to determine if there is an IS connection.

Farook, a US citizen who grew up in Southern California, and Malik rented a townhouse in nearby Redlands where investigators said they found an arsenal of ammunition and home-made bombs.

On Friday morning, the property's owner allowed reporters inside. The surreal scene - reporters walking among baby items, handling family photos and looking at dirty dishes in a sink - was broadcast live on cable TV.

While appearing unseemly, there was nothing compromising from an investigative standpoint as Mr Bowdich said the FBI was done with the scene.

Meanwhile, analysts were trying to retrieve data from two cellphones found nearby that had been crushed in an apparent attempt to destroy the information inside. "We hope that will take us to their motivation," Mr Bowditch said.

Lawyers for Farook's family urged the public not to rush to judgment.

"If the most evidence there is to any affiliation is a Facebook account under another person's name then that's hardly anything at all," David Chesley said.

Mr Chesley and his legal partner, Mohammad Abuershaid, described Malik as "just a housewife" who closely followed Muslim traditions. They said Farook's mother, who lived with the couple, never saw any of the weapons or bombs authorities found.

The FBI questioned her on Wednesday night and, according to the lawyers, refused to release her until Farook's siblings came for questioning.

The couple's orphaned six-month-old daughter is in the care of child protective services, and the family will try to obtain custody her next week.

Farook had no criminal record, and neither he nor his wife was under scrutiny by local or federal law enforcement before the attack, authorities said.

Malik was a Pakistani who grew up in Saudi Arabia and came to the US in 2014 on a fiancee visa. Farook, a restaurant health inspector for the district, was born in Chicago to Pakistani parents, but raised in Southern California.

Law enforcement officials have long warned that Americans acting in sympathy with Islamic extremists - though not on direct orders - could launch an attack inside the US Using slick propaganda, IS in particular has urged sympathisers worldwide to commit violence in their countries.

Two weeks ago, with Americans on edge over the IS attacks in Paris that left 130 people dead, Mr Comey said US authorities had no specific or credible intelligence pointing to an attack on American soil.

Since March 2014, 71 people have been charged in the US in connection with supporting IS, including 56 this year, according to a recent report from the George Washington University Programme on Extremism.

Though most are men, "women are taking an increasingly prominent role in the jihadist world", the report said.

A UPS postal centre about a mile from the scene of the attack was evacuated today after a driver noticed a package addressed to the home of the Malik and Farook.

San Bernardino police chief Jarrod Burguan says it appeared the package was from a "reputable vendor" but the centre was cleared and a bomb squad called out of caution.

Mr Burguan said the driver had left the postal centre on Friday night and returned after noticing the address in Redlands.

Press Association

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