FBI Treats San Bernardino Murders as Possible Terrorism CaseDecember 4, 2015
SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. — The couple who the police say killed 14 people and left 21 wounded here had stockpiled thousands of rounds of ammunition and a dozen homemade pipe bombs in their home, officials said Thursday, a sign that they might have been planning further attacks.
The F.B.I. is treating the Wednesday shooting as a potential terrorist act, though the agency is far from concluding that it was, two law enforcement officials said.
The suspects’ extensive arsenal, their recent Middle East travel and evidence that one of them had been in touch with people with Islamist extremist views, both in the United States and abroad, all contributed to the decision to refocus the investigation. But officials emphasized that they did not know what set off the attack, and said that they were not ready to call it terrorism.
“We do not yet know the motive; we cannot rule anything out at this point,” said David Bowdich, the assistant F.B.I. director in charge of the Los Angeles office, discussing the lethal attack at a training session and holiday party for county workers. “We don’t know if this was the intended target or there was something that triggered him to do this immediately.”
The suspects, Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, and Tashfeen Malik, 27, fired as many as 150 bullets inside the Inland Regional Center and then in the shootout with the police that left the couple dead, officials said. On Thursday afternoon, the authorities released the names of the 14 victims, ranging in age from 26 to 60.
With the F.B.I. examining Mr. Farook’s electronic devices, analysts and agents have found evidence that at least a day before the attacks, he began deleting data leading investigators to believe that he was planning the attack.
“It’s not like he got angry and came back and started deleting and destroying things,” said one law enforcement official.
The attack was the nation’s deadliest mass shooting since the assault on an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., nearly three years ago.
Mr. Farook went to the holiday luncheon for employees of the county health department, where he worked as a health inspector, left early — agitated, according to some witnesses — and returned a short time later with his wife, both in tactical gear and with an arsenal to mow down his co-workers. But Chief Jarrod Burguan of the San Bernardino police said there was more at work than a spontaneous workplace dispute.
“There appears to be a degree of planning that goes into this,” the chief said at a news conference. “Nobody goes to a party and puts together such an elaborate scheme.”
Both at the center, and hours later on a quiet residential street where Mr. Farook and Ms. Malik died in a shootout with the police, this city was rocked by a barrage of gunfire more typical of a war zone.
The suspects fired 65 to 75 rifle rounds inside the center, leaving behind four spent high-capacity magazines. Hours later, cornered after a chase, “the suspects are believed to have fired 76 rifle rounds at the officers,” Chief Burguan said.
In a shootout with 23 officers from seven different agencies, he said, “law enforcement fired approximately 380 rounds at the suspects.” During the shootout, a San Bernardino officer was shot in the leg and a sheriff’s deputy was cut by flying debris.
Most of the carnage unfolded in a single room of the Inland Regional Center, which provides services to people with disabilities and was filled with people Mr. Farook knew, the police said. While shots rang out, others in the building cowered and hid, sending text messages or making frantic calls.
The suspects were armed with two .223-caliber assault rifles and two 9-millimeter semiautomatic pistols — all obtained legally — and they left behind at the center an explosive that did not detonate, made of three pipe bombs, Chief Burguan said.
In a rented Ford Expedition with Utah plates, he said, the couple had 1,400 rounds for the rifles and 200 for the handguns with them at the time of the shootout. And at the small duplex townhouse where they apparently lived in the nearby city of Redlands, officers found more than 2,500 rounds for the assault rifles, more than 2,000 for the pistols, several hundred for a .22-caliber rifle, and 12 pipe bombs. There were also supplies for making more bombs.
“Clearly they were equipped and they could have done another attack,” Chief Burguan said. “We intercepted them before that happened, obviously.”
With investigators seeking a motive and collecting evidence, law enforcement officials raided the townhouse apartment of Syed Raheel Farook, the dead suspect’s brother, according to neighbors. The F.B.I. also combed the background of the suspects.
The F.B.I. uncovered evidence that Mr. Farook communicated with extremists, domestically and abroad, a few years ago, but not recently, according to congressional officials who were briefed on the investigation.
They said he had contacts with five people whom the F.B.I. had investigated for possible terrorist activities — including one associated with the Shabab, the Islamist militant movement in Somalia, and another associated with the Nusra Front, the wing of Al Qaeda in Syria. In all five cases, the investigations were closed and no charges were filed.
But by late Thursday, no evidence had emerged that Mr. Farook had communicated with anyone of “significant investigative concern,” one official said, and no evidence that he was tied to, or inspired by, any terrorist group.
The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss an investigation publicly.
Dozens of investigators, some of them operating out of armored vehicles, congregated at the couple’s townhouse, moving slowly for fear of explosives. They picked through the dwelling overnight and through the day Thursday, and also scoured a Nissan sedan parked at the curb. They considered ordering neighbors to evacuate, but then told them to shelter in place, setting up a cordon to keep everyone else at a distance.
The authorities collected several electronic devices from the home, including a computer, cellphones, a music player and thumb drives. Law enforcement officials said they had begun reviewing Mr. Farook’s emails, while other items were being sent to the F.B.I.’s investigative laboratories in Quantico, Va., where analysts will scour them for information.
Two phones and at least one other device were severely damaged, as if to hinder recovery of their contents, including one that was so badly smashed that it has slowed efforts to extract information, the officials said.
A cellphone Ms. Malik had with her on Wednesday had almost nothing on it — no social media apps or encrypted apps — prompting investigators to suspect that it might have been a “burner phone,” meant to be used and discarded.
Asked if the design of the explosive devices had come from Inspire, an online magazine published by an arm of Al Qaeda, Mr. Bowdich said investigators were looking into that possibility.
Two senior United States security officials said that F.B.I. counterterrorism officials were overseeing the investigation because of the possibility that it might be terrorism, not because they had concluded that it was.
President Obama said in an Oval Office statement Thursday morning that it was possible that the attacks in San Bernardino were terrorist-related, but he said it was also possible they were work-related. At this stage, he said, law enforcement still does not know why this “terrible event occurred.”
The F.B.I. has investigated thousands of Muslims for potential ties to terrorists in the years since the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, many of whom were never linked to any crimes. The details about Mr. Farook that have emerged, including the arsenal he and his wife had that indicated a preparedness to commit violence on a large scale, have prompted investigators to look deeper into whether he had connections to militants or extremist ideology.
Mr. Farook was a United States citizen, born in Illinois to Pakistani immigrant parents. Family members said he had been an observant Sunni Muslim, and on a dating website several years ago, he listed Urdu as his mother tongue. He had gone to Saudi Arabia multiple times, including a 2013 trip for the annual hajj, the trip to Mecca that all Muslims are expected to complete at least once, federal officials said.
Mr. Bowdich said that Mr. Farook visited Pakistan last year, and that the couple entered the United States in July 2014, with Ms. Malik traveling on a Pakistani passport. Another federal official said Mr. Farook traveled alone to Saudi Arabia and returned with his future wife, the pair flying on July 27 from Jidda to Chicago, with a stop in London.
The Saudi Embassy in Washington confirmed that Mr. Farook spent nine days in that country during the summer of 2014.
Ms. Malik entered the United States on a K-1 visa, a 90-day visa given to fiancés planning to marry Americans. The couple applied on Sept. 30, 2014, for a permanent resident green card for Ms. Malik, which requires passing criminal and national security background checks using F.B.I. and Department of Homeland Security databases, and she was granted a conditional green card in July 2015.
The suspects arrived at the Inland Regional Center at 11 a.m. on Wednesday, armed with the four guns and wearing masks. Chief Burguan said the suspects were wearing “tactical vests,” with pockets for spare magazines and other equipment.
The two handguns that were recovered were bought by Mr. Farook, and all four weapons were bought legally, Chief Burguan said. A senior federal law enforcement official said the assault rifles were bought by a third person who is not considered a suspect.
Officials said the two assault rifles were variants of the AR-15, the semiautomatic version of the military M-16 rifle; one was made by DPMS Panther Arms, and the other was a Smith & Wesson M&P model, a designation meaning military and police. The senior law enforcement official said one handgun was made by Llama, and the other by Smith & Wesson.
Witnesses to the massacre reported one, two or three gunmen, and on Wednesday, officials said they thought there were probably three. Later, the police detained a person who was fleeing on foot away from the shootout with officers.
“We did ultimately determine that he was not involved in the incident,” Chief Burguan said Thursday. “He is not a suspect.”
Investigators were confident that there were just two people who did the shooting, he said.
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