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Act of terrorism? Mystery looms over California mass shooting

Family members of the two suspects in the rampage that left 14 dead had no knowledge of their plans, their attorneys say. Here’s what we know so far:

world Updated: Dec 05, 2015 09:37 IST
California shootings

Candles are placed at a makeshift memorial site honouring the victims of Wednesday's shooting rampage in San Bernardino, California. (AP)

The FBI announced on Friday that it is investigating the mass shooting at a California office party as an act of terrorism , but the agency’s director said there is no indication that the husband and wife who killed 14 were part of a larger plot or members of a terror cell.

Authorities did not cite specific evidence that led them to the terrorism focus, but a US law enforcement official said the wife, Tashfeen Malik, under a Facebook alias had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group and its leader. A Facebook official said Malik praised the group in a post at 11am Wednesday, when the couple were believed to have stormed a social service center and opened fire.

Malik and her husband, Syed Farook, died several hours later in a gunbattle with police.

The IS-affiliated news service Aamaq called Malik and Farook “supporters” of their cause but stopped short of claiming responsibility for the attack.

FBI director James Comey would not discuss whether anyone affiliated with the Islamic State communicated back to Malik, but he said there was no indication yet that the plot was directed by ISIS or any other foreign terror group.

Attendees hold candles with a hand written message as they reflect on the tragedy of Wednesday's attack during a candlelight vigil in San Bernardino. (REUTERS)

“The investigation so far has developed indications of radicalization by the killers and of potential inspiration by foreign terrorist organizations,” Comey said.

Despite mounting signs of the couple’s radicalization, there “is a lot of evidence that doesn’t quite make sense,” Comey added.

The US official who revealed the Facebook post was not authorised to discuss the case publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Family members of the two suspects in the rampage that left 14 dead had no knowledge of their plans, their attorneys say. Here’s what we know so far:

Does the assault have a link to terrorism?

The FBI’s announcement does not mean that the agency has concluded Farook his wife, Malik, were terrorists - only that investigators have gathered enough preliminary information to move their probe in that direction.

That’s a step beyond earlier this week, when police said they knew nothing conclusive about the possible motivation of Farook or his wife.

David Bowdich, assistant director of the FBI’s Los Angeles office, said in Los Angeles on Friday that the shooters attempted to destroy evidence, including crushing two cellphones and discarding them in a trash can.

FBI agents gather evidence in front of the Redlands residence and vehicle belonging to the shooters in connection to the Wednesday massacre in San Bernardino, California. (REUTERS)

The husband and wife used homemade explosives and assault-style rifles in the attack on a holiday party of Farook’s co-workers, authorities say, but much remains unknown.

A US law enforcement official said that Malik used an alias on Facebook to make her declaration of support for the Islamic State and its leader. But there is no sign anyone from the group communicated with her or provided any guidance for the attack.

A copy of the Quran and a plastic delivery envelope are shown inside the home of suspects Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik in Redlands, California. (REUTERS)

What did The Farook’s family know?

Nothing, according to attorneys David Chesley and Mohammad Abuershaid, who represent Farook’s mother and three siblings.

Farook’s mother, Rafia Sultana Farook, lived with the couple in a modest Redlands apartment but never saw anything that would suggest they were planning a massacre at a holiday party for Farook’s co-workers or building explosives for use in the attack, the attorneys told reporters in Los Angeles. The mother stayed mostly to herself at the home, upstairs, and “everyone was in shock” after details of the rampage emerged, Chesley said.

Read: Cops say couple involved in California shooting, relative ‘shocked’

“We all want an answer” for what motivated the attacks, Chesley said. “We can’t jump to conclusions.”

Family and friends have expressed disbelief that the quiet, religious couple staged the deadly attack.

Farhan Khan (C), brother-in-law of San Bernardino shooting suspect Syed Farook, speaks at the Council on American-Islamic Relations during a news conference in Anaheim, California. (REUTERS)

Friends knew Farook by his quick smile, his devotion to Islam and his talk about restoring cars. They say they didn’t know he was busy with his wife building pipe bombs and stockpiling thousands of rounds of ammunition for the assault on Farook’s colleagues from San Bernardino County’s health department.

The dead in Wednesday’s attack ranged in age from 26 to 60, and 21 were injured.

Who is Tashfeen Malik?

In the days since the shooting, only sparse details have emerged about her life.

Farook told friends he met his future wife online and she was Pakistani. Malik arrived in the US on a K-1 visa for fiancées and with a Pakistani passport in July 2014, authorities said.

The two were married August 16, 2014, in nearby Riverside County, according to their marriage license. Both listed their religion as Muslim. The couple had a 6-month-old daughter; they left the baby with relatives Wednesday morning before the shooting.

Read:Did the Pak wife radicalise her husband before California shooting?

Pakistani intelligence officials say Malik moved as a child with her family to Saudi Arabia 25 years ago. They say the family is originally from the Pakistani town of Karor Lal Esan, about 200 miles southwest of the capital of Islamabad in Punjab province.

Malik didn’t stay in Saudi Arabia, eventually returning to Pakistan and living in the capital Islamabad, though she returned to Saudi Arabia for visits.

Farook attended Dar Al Uloom Al Islamiyah mosque in San Bernardino. Gasser Shehata, who also went to the mosque, said Farook would come to the mosque about three times a week, usually during his lunch break from work as a San Bernardino County health inspector. His wife didn’t join him, he said.

The mosque where shooting suspect Syed Rizwan Farook was seen two to three times a week at lunch time, is shown in San Bernardino. (REUTERS)

Shehata said he saw Malik sitting in Farook’s car once about nine months ago wearing a niqab, a veil that covers a woman’s face except her eyes.

The family attorneys described Malik as a soft-spoken, very private housewife who spoke broken English and lived in Pakistan until she was 18 or 20 years old. Following religious tradition in their home, men and women would remain separated during social visits, and Malik wore a burqa, a robe-like garment that covers most of the face and is the most conservative Islamic apparel worn by women. Farook’s brothers had never seen her face.

Are there any other indications of a possible terrorism link?

On Thursday, a US intelligence official said Farook had been in contact with known Islamic extremists on social media.

But the official said the contact was with “people who weren’t significant players on our radar” and dated back some time. There also was no immediate indication of any “surge” in communication ahead of the shooting.

Read: California gunman Syed Farook ‘was in touch’ with Islamic extremists

Farook had no criminal record, and he and his wife weren’t on the FBI’s radar before the shooting. Also, police are looking at the possibility that the shooting was tied to a workplace dispute.

Investigators say they had more than 1,600 bullets with them when they were killed and well over 4,500 rounds of ammunition at their home. Chesley said it wasn’t unusual for gun owners to buy ammunition in bulk to save money. Farook legally bought two handguns used in the massacre, and their two assault rifles were legally bought by someone else federal authorities want to question.

“When you can get them at a cheap price, you stock up,” he said.