Investigators still unable to say if San Bernardino shooting was terrorism

    Flowers are left by the side of the road as a San Bernardino police officer blocks the road leading to the site of yesterday's mass shooting on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2015 in San Bernardino, Calif. A heavily armed man and woman dressed for battle opened fire on a holiday banquet for his co-workers Wednesday, killing multiple people and seriously wounding others in a precision assault, authorities said. Hours later, they died in a shootout with police. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

    Investigators could spend weeks or months sifting through complex and contradictory evidence to figure out the specific motives of the suspects in the San Bernardino mass shooting.

    "At this stage, we do not know why this terrible event occurred," President Barack Obama told reporters on Thursday morning. Two terrorism experts agree it is too soon to say for sure whether the attack that killed 14 people was an act of terrorism, workplace violence, or some hybrid of the two.

    Police have identified the two suspects, who were killed in a shootout with officers hours after the attack, as Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik. The two are believed to be married and have a 6-month-old daughter.

    Farook was attending a holiday party with co-workers at the Inland Regional Center on Wednesday morning when police say he became angry, left, and returned with Malik armed with hand guns and rifles and dressed in tactical gear.

    Authorities have not identified a motive for the shooting and federal officials have so far refused to describe it as terrorism. With the two suspects dead and neither apparently having much of an online presence, investigators will be digging deep into their lives and backgrounds to piece together what happened.

    "We still don't have a motive," San Bernardino Police Chief Jarrod Burguan told reporters Thursday. He said Farook and Malik "sprayed the room with bullets" so he does not know if they were targeting anyone specific.

    "There was some planning that went into this," he said, suggesting the attack was not just a response to whatever happened at the party.

    "This is not your average investigation," David Bowdich of the FBI Los Angeles field office said at a press conference, pointing to multiple scenes and many victims involved. They are examining evidence and analyzing digital media to try to establish a motive.

    "I would much rather be slower and correct with the information that comes out to you than fast and incorrect," he said.

    CNN reported Thursday that law enforcement sources say Farook was "apparently radicalized" and communicated with overseas terror suspects.

    According to Max Abrahms, professor of political science at Northeastern University, this shooting clearly meets two criteria of the traditional definition of terrorism--an act of violence against a civilian target by a non-state actor--but the public does not yet know if there was a political goal.

    "The motive in this case is kind of confusing in terms of terrorism, because the target is not symbolic," Abrahms said. It was a center for people with developmental disabilities where Farook's employer, the department of health, happened to be holding a holiday party.

    However, noting the restaurant and other targets chosen in the recent attacks in Paris, he said terrorists are growing more indiscriminate in their targeting.

    Investigators will be looking to interview family, friends, and co-workers to see if Farook or Malik had ever expressed anti-U.S., anti-government, or Islamist opinions. They may look at any mosques the couple attended and whether they articulated a jihadist ideology there.

    "They'll want to get as close to the suspects as possible in terms of who they talk to," Abrahms said.

    Farook reportedly traveled to Saudi Arabia at least twice and brought Malik back with him after one trip. That visit and any other travel to the Middle East will likely also be scrutinized. Authorities will search their computers for communications with people abroad and any travel plans they may have made.

    Dean Alexander, director of the Homeland Security Research Program at Western Illinois University, said the nature of the attack suggests it was more than just a workplace shooting. The involvement of Farook's wife and the level of equipment and weapons involved, including improvised explosive devices, indicate it was not a spur of the moment incident.

    The travel abroad will be a focus for investigators, Alexander said, and they will want to know where Farook stayed in Saudi Arabia and who he may have met with. They will also be looking at Malik's family and connections in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

    "Even the lone wolves are not lone wolves," Alexander said. If they are not officially trained, they are typically at least inspired by an ideology. This is true of Islamic terrorists and right or left-wing extremists.

    While the involvement of multiple suspects and particularly a female shooter would be highly unusual for a mass shooting incident, Alexander observed that there are many examples in the past of "family-affiliated terrorism," including couples and siblings who have been drawn in by ISIS.

    "This is a weird attack," Abrahms said. It seems to have been calculated and planned, but it also may have been catalyzed by an event at the party. The suspects appear to have had an escape plan, but they made a number of operational mistakes, including not changing vehicles and planting explosives that did not detonate.

    "Their level of sophistication is a bit of a question mark for me."

    The motive does matter, though, both on the domestic and international level.

    "Governments and the national public have a tendency to overreact to the terrorism threat," Abrahms said. If this is confirmed to be a terrorist attack, the country will likely shift to the right politically and more hawkish candidates may benefit in the 2016 election.

    "At the end of the day, the same number of people will be killed, whether it was a terrorist attack or workplace violence," Abrahms said, but "in a democracy, public perception affects policy."

    A terrorist attack could spur stronger opposition to admitting Muslim refugees to the U.S. and greater tolerance for policies that infringe on civil liberties. It may also increase support for sending troops to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

    According to Alexander, the exact nature of the shooting will affect what kind of training and precautions are needed to prevent it from happening again. Also, if the attack was inspired or coordinated with ISIS, it would show a new level of sophistication to their operations.

    While some evidence is reportedly pointing toward Farook's radicalization, the experts expect officials will be slow to declare an exact motivation for the shooting. That level of caution is appropriate, given the stakes involved.

    "I think there's virtue in getting things right," Abrahms said.

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