Investigators are trying to determine whether the husband-and-wife killers acted alone — inspired, but not directed, by foreign Islamist radicals — or were involved in a more elaborate plot.
Hundreds of federal agents, in the United States and overseas, are looking for any contacts that the shooters — Chicago-born Syed Rizwan Farook, 29, and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, 27 — might have had with terrorist groups.
“The investigation so far has developed indications of radicalization by the killers and of potential inspiration by foreign terrorist organizations,” FBI Director James B. Comey said Friday. But he said that, so far, there is no evidence that they were part of a larger group.
The communications suggested that the Islamic State was embracing the California attack without fully claiming involvement, according to Rita Katz, executive director of the SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks online communications of extremists.
When claiming responsibility for previous attacks, the group has done so quickly in statements calling attackers soldiers, something that did not immediately happen in this case, Katz wrote in a blog post Saturday.
Instead, the group’s first possible comment came through “a prominent but unofficial media group under its media umbrella,” a statement released by the Amaq News Agency two days after the attack.
That statement called the attackers supporters, and different versions of an al-Bayan Radio news bulletin released Saturday in different languages referred to them in various ways, she said. After the Paris attacks, by comparison, the group claimed responsibility in several languages using text and audio messages.
However, Katz also cautioned that it is too soon to know if the attackers had contact with any other groups or extremists.
In his weekly radio address Saturday, President Obama urged the nation to remain united in the wake of Wednesday’s attack. He urged patience as federal law enforcement works to get a “full picture” of the shooters’ motives.
“It is entirely possible that these two attackers were radicalized to commit this act of terror,” Obama said. “And if so, it would underscore a threat we’ve been focused on for years — the danger of people succumbing to violent extremist ideologies.”
There are a host of unknowns in this case, including whether the shooters had other targets in mind, a possibility suggested by the dozen pipe bombs and the thousands of rounds of ammunition in their apartment.
The shooters also sought to cover their tracks by damaging some of their personal electronic devices. Authorities found two crushed cellphones near the apartment and were examining other evidence that the shooters “attempted to destroy their digital fingerprints,” said David Bowdich, assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles office.
Bowdich told Reuters that the pair had a small arsenal inside their Redlands, Calif., residence and in their personal possession when they were killed. The list of weaponry, he said, included two assault-style rifles, two semi-automatic handguns, 6,100 rounds of ammunition and 12 pipe bombs.
Police determined a package addressed to the couple’s home did not contain a threat after a delivery driver alerted authorities to the item Friday evening. The package came from a “reputable vendor,” according to tweets by San Berardino Police Chief Jarrod Burguan.
An investigation by a bomb tech with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department at a United Parcel Services processing center deemed the item — which contained clothing — to be “safe,” Burguan tweeted.
Farook and Malik were slain by police in a frenzied gun battle four hours after they killed 14 people and wounded 21 in an attack Wednesday at a gathering of county workers. For two days, FBI officials — as well as President Obama — had expressed uncertainty about whether the rampage at the Inland Regional Center was terrorism or an unusual case of workplace violence.
But new evidence pointed to an ideological motivation rather than a workplace grudge. Law enforcement officials said that, after the shooting, Malik went on Facebook and pledged her allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State, the militant group that says it has established a caliphate in Syria and Iraq.
A Facebook official confirmed the posting, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation. The official said Facebook, which is cooperating with law enforcement, identified and removed the post a day after the attack, saying any content praising an Islamic State leader violates its community standards.
Farook had maintained a Facebook page that was deleted before the shooting, according to Katz. A post on an Islamic State-linked blog Friday claimed that the attack was carried out by Islamic State supporters, SITE reported.
But although the Islamic State quickly asserted responsibility for last month’s shootings in Paris and for other recent attacks, the group so far does not appear to have done the same for the San Bernardino shooting.
‘A very, very private person’
Two criminal defense lawyers representing Farook’s mother, three siblings and brother-in-law held a news conference Friday and offered insight into the shooters, describing the husband as a loner and the wife as extremely conservative religiously, so much so that she would not be in the same room as her male in-laws. Malik’s brother-in-law had never seen her face.
“She did maintain certain traditions in terms of prayer and fasting. She chose not to drive voluntarily. She was a very, very private person. She kept herself pretty well isolated,” family lawyer David Chesley said.
Syed didn’t want any fathers or brothers or brothers-in-law in the same room when she would also be there,” said another family lawyer, Mohammad Abuershaid.
“The family was not that close to him,” he added. “He was kind of like the lone wolf.”
A professor at Bahauddin Zakariya University in Multan, Pakistan, remembered Malik as a student.
“She used to wear complete veil and a religious-minded student,” Nisar Ahmad said by phone. “She was not mixing with her male class fellows in the department. … But no one had the idea that she would act that as she never involved in such activities.”
Ghulam Shabir, director of public relations for the university, told The Washington Post that he was unaware of Malik’s attendance. He said a statement would be issued Monday after the university had a chance to check its records.
But the lawyers emphasized that there are no established links between Farook, Malik and terrorist organizations, and Chesley said it is inappropriate to assign culpability to Muslims broadly when someone who is Muslim is involved in a shooting.
Offering insight into Malik’s religious background, Hifza Batool, a Pakistani relative of the shooter, told the Associated Press that Malik grew more conservative about three years ago.
Batool told the AP that Malik, who was her step-niece, went from wearing Western-style clothing to a burqa covering her full body at that time.
“I recently heard it from relatives that she has become a religious person and she often tells people to live according to the teachings of Islam,” Batool, 35, said.
“Tashfeen Malik’s parents are rich and we are poor and they don’t like to meet with their poor relatives,” she added.
Farook and Malik were married in Riverside, Calif., in August 2014, according to the Riverside county clerk’s office. They had a daughter, born May 21 of this year. The baby is in child protective services, the lawyers said. They said they think they won’t be able to get her to family members — the child may be adopted by an aunt — until at least Monday, when there is a court hearing.
In one of the more bizarre moments in the case, the landlord for Farook and Malik allowed camera crews to enter the couple’s apartment Friday and film reporters rummaging through the family’s personal belongings, including photographs, toys and stuffed animals in the baby’s crib. The FBI said later that the agency had finished processing the crime scene and no longer had control over the apartment.
A friend of Farook, Gasser Shehata, said he used to see Farook two or three times a week for prayer at the Dar Al Uloom Al Islamiyah-Amer mosque in San Bernardino. Shehata, an Egyptian by birth, said he talked with Farook soon after a Russian jetliner was destroyed over the Sinai Peninsula by a bomb in late October. The Islamic State claimed responsibility.
“I asked why they’re killing innocent people,” Shehata said. Farook didn’t say anything in response, he said.
Shehata said he thinks that if Farook had become radicalized by that point, he would have said something to indicate such views.
Three weeks ago — just before the terrorist attacks in Paris — Farook stopped coming to the mosque, he said.
Ahmed Zahran said that Farook came to the mosque in Riverside, CA regularly until about a year ago.
He said that after seeing the photo of Malik on the news, he didn’t recognize her and that he didn’t know anyone at the mosque who knew her.
Farook is “the least [likely] person that you’d expect,” Zahran said.
‘This is not Jihad 101’
At the shooters’ apartment, police recovered four guns, including two assault rifles. Comey said Friday that investigators had located the individual who bought the two rifles and had cleared the person of any involvement in the attack.
Investigators said the couple had managed to stay off the FBI’s radar. There is no evidence that they tried to make contact with Islamic State operatives overseas.
“This is not Jihad 101,” a senior law enforcement official said, noting that the shooters had not taken steps commonly seen in previous terrorist attacks, such as attempting to make contact with Islamic State militants or sharing the group’s propaganda.
The Islamic State uses sophisticated propaganda to recruit adherents and has called for lone-wolf attacks in the United States and other countries.
In Saudi Arabia, intelligence agencies are investigating Malik’s time in that country. The Saudi government has not confirmed when she lived there or whether she left with Farook when he visited for nine days in the early summer of 2014.
A Saudi official said that Malik’s name does not appear on any watchlist there and that no evidence has been uncovered of contacts between her and any radical individual or group during her time there. The official said Malik had lived with her father “off and on” in Saudi Arabia over the years, apparently traveling back and forth an undetermined number of times to Pakistan, her country of birth.
A senior law enforcement official said Friday that the attack in San Bernardino evoked the mass shooting in Chattanooga, Tenn., earlier this year, when 24-year-old Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez opened fire at an armed-forces recruiting center and a Navy Reserve center, killing five people. In that case, the official pointed out, it took days for the FBI to sort out what had happened, and some questions remain unanswered.
Some evidence collected in California was flown across the country Thursday so the FBI could examine it in its lab, Bowdich said.
The FBI’s Operational Technology Division in Quantico, Va., has units that can try to retrieve data from smashed, burned and damaged devices, including cellphones, hard drives and flash drives. A computer analysis team there can try to pull call records, pictures, GPS location data, address book information and other data from the devices, while a forensic analysis unit can attempt to restore and enhance audio and visual data.
In the meantime, the FBI said Americans should be alert but not panicked about the threat of further terrorist attacks.
“Do not let fear become disabling,” Comey said. “Please channel that sense of fear into something healthy. Just an awareness of your surroundings.”
Rejecting fear entirely proved a difficult task for many who attended the 38th annual San Bernardino Family YMCA Children’s Christmas Parade on Saturday.
A few days ago, a public gathering would’ve been no big deal, but after Wednesday’s shooting, many in the crowd of several hundred told the Los Angeles Times they were struggling to reclaim a sense of normalcy.
“I am on high alert,” 41-year-old Lisa Carreno told the Times. “My daughter is a cadet who will be leading this parade.”
Standing beside her husband, who told the paper he found himself watching what people around him were doing with their hands, Carreno said she was also having a difficult time letting down her guard.
“I’m keeping track of people wearing backpacks or behaving suspiciously in any way whatsoever,” she said.
Efrain Moreno, 52, told the Times that living in a city scared by such a tragic event is already hard.
“It doesn’t feel safe here anymore,” he said. “You have to be more vigilant now. And you feel lost. What’s going to happen to the city? What’s the future like here?”
William Dauber, Abby Philip, Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Missy Ryan and Eli Saslow in San Bernardino; Tim Craig in Islamabad, Pakistan; and Karen DeYoung, Sarah Larimer, Ellen Nakashima, Greg Miller, Brian Murphy, Niraj Chokshi, Sari Horwitz, Elahe Izadi, Wesley Lowery, Kevin Sullivan, Julie Tate and Alice Crites in Washington contributed to this report.