RIVERSIDE, Calif. — Syed Rizwan Farook seemed happy, quiet and devoutly religious both before and after his journey to Saudi Arabia last year. His co-workers noticed only two changes after the trip: The restaurant inspector was growing a long beard, and, after a long search for love, he had a wife, someone he had met online and brought back to California from Saudi Arabia.
Farook was a California kid who loved snowboarding and fixing up cars. He was a solemn Muslim who prayed five times a day and described his faith on online dating sites as “always fearing Allah.”
On Wednesday, Farook, 28, and his wife, a Pakistani woman who entered this country on a fiance visa, killed 14 people and wounded 21 others at a government office in San Bernardino. The couple died later in a shootout with police.
Relatives, friends, co-workers, police and neighbors agree on one thing: It doesn’t make sense.
[‘Where’s Syed?’: How the San Bernardino shooting unfolded]
The story of the shooters doesn’t fit with the profiles of hundreds of others who have killed large numbers of fellow human beings. To start with, one of the two shooters was a woman — Farook’s wife of less than two years, Tashfeen Malik, 27 — exceedingly rare for such cases.
Then there is the disconnect between Wednesday’s murderous rampage and the visible behavior that preceded it. Less than three hours before he would open fire on his co-workers, Farook sat at a conference room table with six colleagues from the San Bernardino County health department where he had worked for the past five years, laughing with them as they heard the good news that their workloads would be lighter next year.
Shortly before that, Farook and Malik had dropped their 6-month-old daughter off at his mother’s house, telling her that they had a doctor’s appointment. Less than seven months before that, when Malik was pregnant, a woman by that name in Riverside registered for baby gifts on thebump.com, asking for Pampers, ear swabs, baby wash, an Evenflo car seat (at $49.99, the most expensive product on her list). She got every item she sought.
Initially, the natural craving to put Farook and Malik in a comprehensible category — radical Islamist terrorist, workplace vengeance-seeker — remained unsatisfied. But on Thursday, law enforcement officials said Malik pledged allegiance to the leader of the Islamic State in a statement on a Facebook page. It wasn’t clear if she was referring to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the emir of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, the terrorist group that says it has established a caliphate in Syria and Iraq.
There have already been other clues about a possible radicalization: two trips to Saudi Arabia, in 2013 and in July of 2014 (but he told some colleagues he was there to complete the hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, and to meet his wife-to-be) and some comments to friends about not wanting to be in the United States anymore (even though he was born in Illinois and portrayed himself as a guy with American passions — admiring Michael Jordan, savoring a campfire on hikes into the mountains with friends and family).
And there is no evidence of the kind of discord at work that might lead someone to lash out at colleagues. To the contrary, his co-workers and his boss say Farook seemed to like both his work — inspecting restaurants and swimming pools in San Bernardino County for health code violations — and the people he worked with.
As FBI investigators methodically piece together the puzzle of a man who seems to have left none of the digital visiting cards that homegrown terrorists generally drop along their path, they will find evidence of a life of traumas and successes, loneliness and searching.
[Motive elusive in deadly San Bernardino rampage as FBI takes over probe]
Malik remains an enigma, a millennial woman with no discernible digital footprint, a Pakistani who lived in Saudi Arabia, a new mother apparently willing to give her life for some reason unknown to those around her.
Evidence of a nexus between the couple and Islamic radicals remained fuzzy Thursday night. A senior U.S. law enforcement official said Farook was in contact with person of interests with possible ties to terrorism. Some of the contacts were made through social media.
“These were not substantial contacts,” the official said. “Those contacts would not have put him on our radar — you’re allowed to like someone’s Facebook page.”
The official said the FBI has not found definitive evidence that the couple had been radicalized. They don’t appear to have been regular readers of jihadist Web sites or terrorist literature such as Inspire magazine. “It’s very odd,” the official said. “It appears they were a happy couple of the Muslim faith.”
Syed Rizwan Farook — his family called him Rizwan — was born in Chicago in 1987 and named for his father, a truck driver who went through long bouts of unemployment. His mother, Rafia, works as a biller for Kaiser Permanente, the big managed health-care company. Both parents were born in Pakistan.
The home Farook grew up in was troubled and at times apparently violent. In 2002, when both husband and wife were unemployed and had run up credit card and retail debt of about $50,000, the couple filed for bankruptcy protection. And for most of the past decade, right up to early this year, his parents waged war in court against each other. Rafia repeatedly sought — and at least twice won — restraining orders against a husband who she said abused her verbally and physically.
In court papers, she described her husband as a “bipolar” alcoholic and told of harrowing incidents: He threw dishes in the kitchen. He pushed and choked her. He dropped a television on her.
Rafia wanted the elder Syed out of her house because “we have no other place to live [and] he is unstable,” she wrote in court papers in 2008.
“Syed had a fight with my son and me and he got drunk,” she wrote of her husband. She called his brother in Chicago because Syed was threatening to kill himself; the brother called San Bernardino police, who took Syed away for observation.
Rafia said she took her three children and left home in 2006 because of her husband’s abuse. “I do not know why he is bad,” she wrote.
Syed “tried to hit me,” and “my son came in between to save me,” the mother wrote in 2006. She asked the court to appoint Rizwan to supervise any visits between the father and their daughter.
[After Paris and California attacks, U.S. Muslims feel intense backlash]
Rafia’s complaints resulted in a court order in 2006 requiring her husband to stay away from her and her house and restricting his time with his children.
Syed Farook did not respond to calls to several phone numbers listed under his name.
In 2008, Rafia withdrew her request for a divorce and filed instead for legal separation. When court officials served Syed with the papers, he was in Karachi, Pakistan. Syed, who is listed in state business records as owner of his own trucking company, had been unemployed for several years at that time, Rafia said.
In November 2014, Rafia said in court papers, her husband threatened to commit suicide in front of her and Rizwan.
This February, a judge dissolved the Farooks’ marriage.
If his home life was marred by conflict, Rizwan Farook showed little evidence of it when he stepped out into the world. At Los Sierra High School, he was a baby-faced boy with closely cropped hair and piercing black eyes. He belonged to a club with other Muslim students, and classmates recalled him as quiet and respectful.
Farook stayed near home for college, enrolling in a small program in environmental health at California State University at San Bernardino. He graduated in 2010.
“He wasn’t close friends with anybody, and he wasn’t an extroverted person,” said Amanda Adair, a classmate in the program who became Farook’s supervisor at the county health department.
In college, he “was kind of a wallflower,” Adair said. “He would talk about his religion.”
During and soon after his college years, Farook took to the Internet in search of a wife. On sites such as SingleMuslim.com and iMilap.com, an Indian site devoted to making matches “for people with disabilities and second marriage,” he published profiles describing himself as a 6-foot-tall non-smoker who wanted kids and was politically “very liberal.”
He said that the most important thing in any relationship was to be “guided by and as written in Islam.” Elsewhere, he wrote that he was “religious but modern.”
His favorite city was Istanbul. His favorite restaurants were Chinese and Arabic. He called himself “very analytical.”
Through all the years she knew him, Adair found Farook to be “very, very devout, and he would take time out to pray and fast and do all those things. He got along with everybody, but he kept his distance.”
Adair was out of the office Wednesday. When she heard that Farook was the shooter, she was startled but not shocked. “How could you just go kill people that you work with every day?” she said. “But at the same time, when it was him, I sort of could make sense of it. I don’t think it was a thing about being disgruntled, but I think it was his religion.”
[Relatives had hope until the buses of survivors stopped arriving]
Farook’s co-workers didn’t know him very well, in part because he was so quiet and in part because of the nature of their jobs. Theirs was generally a happy office; they enjoyed the work and made good money. (Farook made $71,230 in 2013, state records show.) They would come in each morning, spend perhaps an hour in the office and then head out on their rounds, inspecting eateries.
“So there is not a lot of time to develop angry relationships,” Adair said. Farook “just got his job done.”
“He was very good,” said Chris Nwadike, 62, a fellow inspector whose desk was about four feet from Farook’s for about a year. “He never argued with anybody. He had nothing to argue back.”
They would chat about work and sometimes about their lives. Farook spoke in a quiet, low voice. When Nwadike and others in the office teased him about finding his wife through the Internet, he would smile but would not laugh.
“I said, ‘Maybe they can mail her to you,’ ” Nwadike recalled.
Last year, Farook told his colleagues he was going to Saudi Arabia to bring back his future wife. He was very matter of fact about it.
“He told us he was going to marry,” Nwadike said. “He asked for two weeks off.”
When Farook came back from that trip, he seemed “happy, was still himself, went back to his work,” Nwadike said. “Sometime later, his wife came.”
Soon after, people noticed that Farook was growing a beard. He never said why.
Co-workers saw no reason why Farook would be unhappy with his job. “The guy gets along with everybody,” Nwadike said. “He’s one of the ones who has the knowledge. He was doing fine. . . . I thought we were all friends.”
Farook lived at home with his mother as recently as two years ago. When he moved out on his own, he went to see Judy Miller, the landlady at 53 North Center Street in Redlands, in a leafy suburban neighborhood of single-
story ranch stucco houses.
“He seemed very sincere and very gentle,” Miller said. “He truly was a gentle person.”
Miller rented one of her condos to Farook. He was always on time with his rent, she said. The only issue that came up was a messy patch of grass in Farook’s back yard.
“I never really saw the wife,” Miller said. “They lived a very quiet life.”
Jared Rork, Farook’s neighbor, said he often saw men in their late 20s entering the tan home. “They were always working on cars, Hondas mostly,” Rork said. “They played music pretty late, too . . . stuff you’d hear in the Middle East.”
Last month, Miller e-mailed her tenants to let them know she would be selling her properties because her husband was ailing. Farook replied that he was interested in buying the place he was renting.
Farook’s relatives, who consider themselves deeply embedded in American life, expressed shock that he could have been capable of such a horrific crime. His brother, Syed Raheel Farook, served for four years in the U.S. Navy, starting in 2003, spending the majority of his time assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise.
In the San Bernardino County neighborhood where Farook’s sister, Saira Farook Khan, lives, neighbors say the husband, wife, and two young children are quiet and rarely seen. Young children could be heard fussing inside the home Thursday morning. Outside, on the neatly manicured lawn, two American flags waved.
Gibbons-Neff reported from Riverside and Brittain and Fisher from Washington. Abby Phillip and Eli Saslow in Riverside and Alice Crites, Karen DeYoung, Adam Goldman, Kimbriell Kelly, Dan Lamothe, Stephanie McCrummen and Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.