The FBI on Friday morning took over the investigation of the San Bernardino massacre, saying the carnage is now being investigated as a potential act of terrorism.
“We are now investigating these horrific acts as an act of terrorism,” said FBI Assistant Director David Bowdich during a Friday afternoon press conference in San Bernardino. “There are a number of pieces of evidence that have essentially pushed us off a cliff — to determine we are investigating an act of terrorism.”
He said investigators had uncovered evidence of “extensive planning” by Tashfeen Malik and Syed Farook, the shooters in Wednesday’s attack on a holiday party at a community center.
The investigators found two crushed cellphones in a public trash can near the townhouse where the couple had lived. “We have uncovered evidence that they attempted to destroy their digital fingerprints,” Bowdich said.
He said the agency is also looking into “telephonic connections,” but he would not say who the calls were with.
Asked if this is the first time the group variously known as IS, ISIL or Daesh has attacked America, Bowdich replied, “Do not let this cause mass hysteria. We’re not there. We are not there at all.”
“Are there others? Are they based in the US? Outside the US? We don’t know the answer to that,” he added. And he would not offer an opinion on whether the pair were planning further attacks. “It’s certainly something we are looking at.”
A couple hours later Friday afternoon, FBI Director James Comey adjusted that information, saying there is no evidence suggesting a tie between the couple and a larger organization.
“There is a lot of evidence in this case that doesn’t quite make sense,” said Comey in Washington. “There’s no indication that they are part of a network, no indication these killers are part of a larger organized group or a cell.”
With the transfer of authority, San Bernardino Police Chief Jerrod Burguan will now be working as part of the national investigation. “The information will flow to the FBI,” said Burguan, who has become a regular presence on national and international television and radio stations.
The FBI’s decison to take over the investigation came after a series of events that included the discovery Thursday of a weapons arsenal in the home of Malik and Farook. Information on possible terrorist connections has been coming in bits and pieces since then.
Both members of the murderous pair had ties to Pakistan. Malik was born in Pakistan and traveled to Saudi Arabia before marrying Farook. She entered the U.S. as his bride and later obtained her residency in the United States. Farook was born in the U.S. of Pakistani parents and was a U.S. citizen.
During Malik’s relatively short time in the U.S., the couple had amassed a huge arsenal. Investigators found a dozen pipe bombs, about 2,000 handgun rounds and as many assault rifle rounds, in addition to tools for making more bombs. They said many of the bomb components were ordinary household items, like radio-controlled toys and Christmas lights.
Police chief Burguan had said early on that the method of the attack suggested premeditation and a motive other than a sudden burst of anger.
“There had to be some type of planning that went into this,” Burguan said Wednesday after the shooting. “I don’t think they just went home, put on these types of tactical clothing, grabbed guns and came back on a spur-of-the-moment thing.”
Malik and Farook had come into the social services center wearing masks, with commando-style clothing and a weapons menagerie. They were armed with .223 caliber assault rifles, a DPMS model A-15 and a Smith & Wesson M&P 15, and both were also armed with semi-automatic pistols, one made by Llama and one by Smith & Wesson.
The complex and fast-moving story appeared initially to involve a work place grievance by a county health worker who was a devout Muslim and left a Christmas party in anger, to return with an assault rifle. But the drumbeat of possible connections to radical Islam became louder by the day.
The bits of information culminated in reports Friday of a Facebook post by Malik pledging allegiance to the Islamic State. The information came from federal sources, who said it was made on Wednesday before the attack. She had tried to erase it but agents were able to recover the post which they said was made on a site that was not under her name.
The news agencies, including AP, CNN and the New York Times, reported that Malik had pledged support to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdad. That news was followed shortly by the FBI takeover of the investigation late Friday morning.
Over the course of this week, the desert town of San Bernardino east of Los Angeles, normally a slow-moving small town with plenty of parking spaces in the central area, has been invaded by the national media. Friday morning, newspapers reported that journalists had entered Malik and Farook’s former home in Redlands, looking through ID documents, a Koran and baby books.
FBI officials confirmed that they released the townhouse to the landlord. Kate Mather, an L.A. Times journalist, said on Twitter, “Neighbors are also showing up and walking through. Again, the building owner let us in (and is doing interviews outside.) Unprecedented.”
At the national level, Wednesday’s shooting rampage worked into the congressional debate over background checks for gun buyers. Presidential spokesman Josh Earnest, for example, commented on gun control amendments that fell in the U.S. Senate Thursday by a vote of 45 to 54.
“We saw that Republicans stood up once again with the NRA and in the face of common sense to vote down a measure that would close the loophole on background checks. Currently individuals can purchase firearms over the internet and at a gun show without going through a background check,” said spokesman Earnest.
“It doesn’t make sense if we’re committed to making it harder for individuals that are criminals, that are the subject to a court order, or have mental problems, documented mental problems,” he continued. “We shouldn’t make it so easy for them to get a gun.
“And we can do that without undermining the basic rights of law-abiding Americans, but once again Republicans blocked that effort,” he concluded.
Photo by Patti Martus
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