Is the San Bernardino Attack the Latest in ‘Crowdsourcing’ Terrorism?

The couple who gunned down 14 people in California may have been influenced but not aided by Islamist extremists. The insidious threat of homegrown terrorism and anti-Muslim rhetoric could prove a volatile combination.

SAN BERNARDINO, CA - DECEMBER 03:  FBI agents and local law enforcement examine the crime scene where suspects of the Inland Regional Center were killed on December 3, 2015 in San Bernardino, California. Police continue to investigate a mass shooting at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino that left at least 14 people dead and another 17 injured. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
SAN BERNARDINO, CA - DECEMBER 03: FBI agents and local law enforcement examine the crime scene where suspects of the Inland Regional Center were killed on December 3, 2015 in San Bernardino, California. Police continue to investigate a mass shooting at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino that left at least 14 people dead and another 17 injured. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

The San Bernardino massacre that killed 14 people in the worst U.S. mass shooting in three years appears to have been carried out by a couple who were inspired by — but not directly working with — foreign-based extremist groups, two U.S. officials said Friday. It points to a mounting “homegrown” terrorist threat that authorities acknowledge is nearly impossible to stop and could set off a potentially vicious cycle of Islamist extremism feeding anti-Muslim rhetoric — begetting yet more violence.

A senior U.S. intelligence official said the couple suspected of carrying out the assault — Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, a U.S. citizen, and Tashfeen Malik, 27, his Pakistani-born wife — had no direct contact to known terrorist groups like the Islamic State or al Qaeda. But Wednesday’s attack on the Southern California services center for mentally disabled people “was too planned” to merely be an act of workplace violence, said the official, who spoke to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity.

The married couple, who wore body armor during the strike and used assault rifles, had built more than a dozen pipe bombs and stockpiled thousands of rounds of ammunition, authorities said after searching their residence. And on Friday, a U.S. law enforcement official confirmed to FP that Malik had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in a Facebook post, and then deleted it before the shooting.

Both officials said one of the shooters — it’s not yet clear which — may also have had contacts with a small number of people whom authorities initially believed were linked to affiliate extremist organizations, including the Somali-based al-Shabab, the Nusra Front in Syria and, potentially al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen. Those contacts were believed to have happened within the last year or so, and were not considered recent. More importantly, most if not all of those people were cleared some time ago by intelligence agencies, and are not believed to pose a threat, two U.S. officials said Friday.

Investigators were still combing through phone, messaging, and other computer records for evidence that the couple, who died in a shootout with police, had links or references to jihadis. An ongoing search of their house, where more than a half-dozen unexploded bombs are still believed to be lethal, turned up some materials referencing the oppression of Muslims, the intelligence official told FP on Thursday. The official refused to provide details.

One of the shooters contacted extremists through social media, the Associated Press reported, but the messages were not recent and did not indicate any coordination or plans for an attack.

State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner said Malik was issued a fiancée visa in Islamabad to let her move to the United States; he was not immediately certain of the year. The AP reported the couple married in 2014.

Law enforcement and intelligence officials repeatedly said there was no sign so far the couple was ever instructed to carry out the rampage during a holiday party at the social services center in San Bernardino, California. Twenty-one people also were wounded, in the latest of a string of mass shootings that have killed more than 370 people this year alone.

The attack came just weeks after terrorists from the Islamic State killed 130 people in a wave of violence across Paris, leading several European governments to order stringent new anti-terrorism measures. That the California massacre happened such a short time later and was also carried out by Muslims — both of whom investigators believe may have attended the holy hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia that Islam requires of its followers — sparked immediate fears it was an act of terrorism carried out by Islamic State or al Qaeda sympathizers.

Senior U.S. officials and their Western counterparts have warned repeatedly of the danger posed by so-called homegrown or “lone-wolf” attackers, who often have little to no direct contact with foreign extremist groups and are nearly impossible to track.

“It’s the hardest type of attack to detect,” former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told FP. And the online extremist propaganda that inspires lone wolves need not even specify a victim, giving the homegrown attackers wide berth to find soft targets and plan mass-casualty violence.

While al Qaeda tried to vet its recruits and select who would stage an attack, “this iteration of the radical jihadis tends to be much more willing to crowdsource terrorism,” Chertoff said.

Starting last September, the Islamic State appealed for attacks in the West as revenge for U.S.-led air raids against its fighters in Syria and Iraq. And volunteers with little or no firm ties to the organization have responded by carrying out deadly assaults in Europe, Canada, and Australia. Islamic State sympathizers have also attempted to unleash violence in the United States, including a hatchet attack against police in Queens, New York, and an attempted assault at a cartoon exhibit lampooning the Prophet Mohammad in a Dallas suburb that was derailed when police shot and killed the two would-be assassins.

It’s a problem wherever there are troubled souls with access to the Internet and that is everywhere in this great country of ours,” FBI Director James Comey said in November 2014. Radicalized by online propaganda, such lone wolves are “equipped to engage in their jihad without ever actually leaving their basement or bedroom,” Comey said.

But in some cases, it has been unclear to what degree lone-wolf assailants were inspired by Islamic State ideology or whether the Islamic State “provided a convenient excuse for violence that was already brewing in the hearts of the perpetrators,” J.M. Berger, an expert on jihadi activity in the United States, wrote in FP a month after Comey’s comments.

“For people who already have issues in their lives that might lead them to violence, the lure of such fame and personal validation may provide an outlet that is only ambiguously connected to the Islamic State’s radical religious and political platform,” wrote Berger, also the author of Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam.

That was the case for Army Maj. Nidal Hasan, who opened fire on a sprawling military base in Texas in November 2009, killing 13. Hasan, whose job performance as an Army psychiatrist raised concerns about his own mental health, is believed to have reached out to U.S.-born radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in 18 emails in the year immediately before the shootings. But he never received direct guidance on how to carry out the attack, and Awlaki later said he never advised Hasan to harm Americans. Awlaki, the former spiritual leader of al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen, was killed in a U.S. airstrike in 2011.

By their very nature, lone-wolf attackers usually work alone or in very small numbers, Chertoff said, meaning that their threat is narrowly limited. That appears to have been the case in San Bernardino, where no organized terrorist group had claimed responsibility or involvement in the shootings as of Thursday. By contrast, Chertoff said, those who carried out the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris appeared to have been assisted by the Islamic State. At least one had traveled to Syria, where the Islamic State is based.

The shooting in California coincides with a recent turn toward inflammatory, hostile rhetoric directed toward Muslims in America.

On the Republican campaign trail, front-runner Donald Trump has said he would consider creating a registry of Muslims living in the United States, while closing some mosques to stop radicalization. He and several of the other GOP presidential candidates have criticized President Barack Obama’s plan to resettle at least 10,000 Syrian refugees in the United States next year, with Ben Carson referring to them as “rabid dogs,” Jeb Bush saying only Christian refugees should be allowed in, and John Kasich proposing to create a government agency devoted to spreading “Judeo-Christian” values. At least 29 Republican governors — and one Democrat — have said they won’t accept Syrian refugees in their states, even though they have no power to block the federal government from resettling them there.

Trump also has repeatedly — and wrongly — claimed that Muslims in New Jersey cheered as the World Trade Center fell in the 9/11 attacks.

Anti-Muslim sentiment reared its head at a meeting last month to present plans for a new mosque near Fredericksburg, Virginia. A man shouted at Muslims in attendance, “I’ll do everything in my power to make sure that does not happen. We don’t want it because you are terrorists. Every one of you are terrorists.”

Bruce Riedel, a former senior CIA officer and an author who has closely tracked al Qaeda and the Islamic State, said the California couple’s Muslim identity alone could fuel more hostile rhetoric — and, in turn, provide yet more ammunition for extremists to recruit and encourage attacks.

“My worry is that it will spur more Islamophobia,” Riedel said.

FP Senior Writer David Francis contributed to this report. 

This story was updated at 12:10 p.m. ET on Friday, Dec. 4, with new information.

Photo credit: Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

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