Three days after a heavily armed Muslim couple who lived in a home investigators described as “an IED factory” burst into a Southern California office building and gunned down 14 people, the FBI finally — and awkwardly — acknowledged Friday that it is treating the case as an act of terrorism.
In an unusual and brief address to reporters at which Attorney General Loretta Lynch appeared and questions were not taken on camera, FBI Director James Comey affirmed the bureau’s LA office’s characterization earlier in the day.
“This is now a federal terrorism investigation,” Comey said, alluding to evidence collected from electronic devices and reports that Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik may have been sympathetic to radical terrorist groups prior to the attack. After his comments, Comey asked pool reporters if they had any questions, but the pre-taped event, which was later distributed to media outlets, was cut off abruptly and no questions were permitted.
The director, a Republican appointed in 2013 and a former deputy attorney general under President George W. Bush,” did not allude to the Muslim faith of suspects Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik. But in pronouncing it a case of terrorism, he seemed to be stating the obvious while at the same time going farther than President Obama has been willing to go and possibly hinting at some behind-the-scenes dissent. Sources told Fox News Lynch was there to “ensure [Comey] didn’t take it too far” in his characterization of the attacks.
On Thursday, in the face of mounting evidence of a terror motive, President Obama refused to rule out an office dispute as the possible motive for the attack. The equivocation stoked outrage among many of Obama’s critics, who noted his insistence on labelling as “workplace violence” the 2009 Fort Hood shooting, in which a Muslim Army major killed 13 people and injured another 30 while shouting “Allahu Akbar” and his ongoing refusal to characterize acts of terror as driven by radical interpretations of Islam.
“If you can’t come to a conclusion at this point that this was an act of terror, you should find something else to do for a living than being in law enforcement. I mean, you’re a moron,” former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who led the city during the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath, thundered hours later on Fox News.
Then, on Friday, hours before the FBI announcement, Fox New confirmed that Malik had pledged her allegiance to ISIS as the morning attack began. She and her husband were killed hours later in a shootout with police just two miles away. Those developments confirmed the suspicions of many, and left it obvious that Malik, at least, was driven by radical Islam.
“We are investigating it as an act of terrorism, for good reason,” David Bowdich, the assistant FBI director in charge of the Los Angeles office, told reporters in an afternoon news conference before his boss spoke.
Bowdich, who said neither of the two were on law enforcement’s radar prior to the attack, cited several factors for the focus on terrorism, including “extensive planning” that went into the attack. The pair attempted to cover up their digital trail, damaging hard drives and other electronic devices, Bowdich said. Investigators did find two cell phones recovered from trash cans near the couple’s Redlands home, and recovered evidence of communications with others who are now being investigated.
“They tried to wipe out their digital fingerprints,” he said, adding that digital communications will likely provide further substantiation of the motive, but “it’s not a three-day process.”
The post by Malik, in which she pledged allegiance to ISIS leader and self-proclaimed “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was confirmed by Facebook official. They said she posted the pledge just before she and Farook stormed a San Bernardino party for his co-workers before escaping. The couple died hours later in a shootout with police, and in the aftermath the 29-year-old Pakistani woman has remained largely a name without a face. No confirmed pictures of her have surfaced, and few details have emerged. The aura of mystery surrounding Malik has given rise to suspicions she may have been the radicalizing force who turned Farook from an aloof county restaurant inspector into her cohort in carnage, an Islamist fanatic capable of murdering co-workers who had embraced him for years.
“Usually it’s ISIS supporters trying to radicalize young girls online as they try to find new wives, but this may be the first case I know of where the opposite happened,” said Ryan Mauro, a national security analyst for Clarion Project, which tracks international terrorism.
Mauro noted that Farook’s older brother, who shares his name, served in the U.S. Navy, which would seem to indicate that Farook’s radical leanings did not come from within his own family.
“It is possible that she radicalized him or that suspected terrorists inside America he was communicating with are responsible for the radicalization, which led him to be attracted to a more hardline Salafi girl,” Mauro said.
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