Police continued searching Thursday for a motive in the San Bernardino massacre, with officials from Southern California to the White House studying a wealth of evidence, bomb-making materials and an arsenal of bullets to determine whether it was a terrorist act.
Although President Barack Obama and FBI officials said it was too early to label the mass shooting an act of terror, authorities noted that the slayings of 14 people and wounding of 21 others on Wednesday morning at a holiday party required intensive planning rather than being a sudden outbreak of violence sparked by a dispute among co-workers.
“There appears to be a degree of planning that went into this,” San Bernardino Police Chief Jarrod Burguan said. “Nobody just gets upset at a party and goes home and comes up with a scheme like this.”
Authorities on Friday were peering into the backgrounds of both suspects – Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, a Chicago-born man of Pakistani heritage and an inspector for the county health department, and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, 27, a Pakistani woman who traveled with him from Saudi Arabia in July 2014 before they were married.
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Police said they already had uncovered evidence that more attacks may have been in the works: 12 pipe bombs and hundreds of tools were found in the couple’s rented Redlands townhome, along with 4,500 rounds of rifle and pistol ammunition.
The couple launched their attack at about 11 a.m. Wednesday at Inland Regional Center, where a holiday party for county health workers that included Farook was underway. He left partway through the event, possibly after an altercation, and returned dressed in black tactical clothing with his wife. The pair were armed with AR-15 rifles and 9mm handguns and opened fire without saying anything, officials said.
“They sprayed the room with bullets,” Burguan said, estimating up to 75 rounds were fired. “I don’t know that there was any one person they targeted; they killed 14 people.”
They also left behind three pipe bombs tied together and connected to a remote controlled car that apparently was to be used as a detonator. The device did not go off.
One of the first officers on the scene, Lt. Mike Madden, said he and a team of three others rushed inside thinking they were confronting shooters still present.
“As we went into the conference room the situation was surreal,” Madden said. “It was unspeakable, the carnage that we were seeing, the number of people that were injured and unfortunately already dead, and the pure panic on the faces of those individuals who are still in need and needing to be safe.”
By the time he arrived, the shooters had fled.
The pair apparently had planned some sort of attack well in advance. They rented a black Ford Expedition in the area several days ago that was to be returned on Wednesday and used it to escape. Earlier that day, they dropped off their 6-month-old baby at Farook’s mother’s house, telling her they had doctor’s appointments.
After fleeing the massacre, they returned to their Redlands neighborhood, where police saw them and gave chase. Malik fired at officers from the back of the SUV while Farook drove.
The SUV stopped along busy San Bernardino Avenue and the two were cut down by a hail of 380 rounds from police who swarmed the area. The couple fired an estimated 76 shots at officers but caused only wounds to the legs of two officers and did not harm any bystanders.
“That was nothing short of heroic, and I’m extremely proud of the way that (officers) handled that,” Burguan said of the deadly encounter that killed the suspects but spared passers-by.
On the suspects’ bodies, police found more than 1,600 rifle and pistol rounds, Burguan said. All four of the weapons the couple had – two AR-15 rifles and two 9mm pistols – had been purchased legally, he said. Farook had purchased the handguns himself; police had not revealed the original buyer of the rifles.
Authorities stressed that they still do not know what prompted the violence, which killed victims ranging in age from 26 to 60.
“We do not know the motive, and we cannot rule anything out at this point,” said David Bowdich, assistant agent in charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles field office.
Investigators were looking into the movements of both suspects and possible ties overseas.
Bowdich said Farook had traveled to Pakistan last year and that he returned to the United States in July 2014 with Malik, a Pakistani woman who entered the country on a K-1 visa that gave her 90 days to marry Farook before she would have to leave.
The Saudi Embassy in Washington said Farook traveled to Saudi Arabia in the summer of 2014 for a total of nine days.
At the State Department, spokesman Mark Toner confirmed that the U.S. government had issued Malik a K-1 visa, more commonly known as the “fiancée visa,” in Pakistan, probably in Islamabad. Toner said he had to check the issue year and city. He said he had no information about where the couple had met or whether Malik had lived in Saudi Arabia.
The K-1 visa allows for a single entry within six months of issuance and, once in the United States, if the couple do not wed within 90 days, “I would presume that that would invalidate the visa,” Toner said. The K-1 visa has received extra attention in the United States because of the hit TLC reality show, “90 Day Fiance,” which chronicles couples in the three-month period they have before marrying.
Toner said Malik apparently raised no red flags because she would have gone through a comprehensive background check before the visa was issued. Whether it’s a K-1 or other visa class, Toner said, “all of these individuals undergo a thorough vetting, including a counterterrorism screening.”
After getting married, Malik applied for a green card to remain in the country legally. A U.S. government official confirmed that Malik received her green card in July, making her a U.S. permanent resident.
Farook had no criminal record and “was not on the radar screen of our agency prior to yesterday,” Burguan said.
Farook is believed to be of Pakistani heritage, but was born in the United States and appears to have grown up in Southern California. Riverside Superior Court records show that his mother, Rafia Farook, filed for divorce in 2006 from her husband, also named Syed Farook, and sought a restraining order after alleging domestic violence. The Los Angeles Times quoted officials at California State University, San Bernardino, as saying Farook graduated with a bachelor’s degree in environmental health in 2010. He enrolled in a graduate program but dropped out after one semester.
People who knew Farook were quoted in published reports as saying he was soft-spoken and polite.
Some Muslim leaders speculated about whether the young man had been radicalized by his Pakistani wife, whom he had met in Saudi Arabia.
“It is very likely that this man would not have gone crazy if his wife was not a partner, an accomplice, a motivator,” said Irfan Haq, a Pakistani immigrant who represents 16 Sacramento-area mosques as president of the Council of Sacramento Valley Islamic Organizations.
“She could have been a plant of some sort, somebody with a terrorist mindset looking to marry someone to get into the U.S.,” Haq said. “She could have been somebody who was already radicalized.”
Farook “had a good job, a wife, a child – everything was going for him,” Haq said. Those who tend to join radical movements tend to be “kids in their early 20s who are jobless, hopeless, don’t see any future and get caught up in this propaganda and try to go to Syria or the Middle East. This guy is totally the opposite.”
Haq added, “I was crying yesterday when I first heard this, I was sad, angry and shocked – my heart goes out to all the victims and their families.”
Gov. Jerry Brown traveled to San Bernardino for a briefing by law enforcement late Thursday, postponing by one day his planned travel to Paris for a climate conference.
The attack, the latest in a series of mass shootings in the nation that the website shootingtracker.com has pegged as the 353rd so far this year, has spawned a fresh political debate over whether new gun legislation is needed, as well as a review of what the motive may have been for the incident.
Obama convened a national security team meeting for Friday morning “because he himself is determined to get to the bottom of what exactly happened,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said.
Speaking from the Oval Office, the president said, “At this stage, we do not know why this terrible event occurred,” but he added that the investigation is now being headed by the FBI.
“It is possible this was terrorist-related, but we don’t know,” Obama said. “It’s also possible this was workplace-related.”
Bowdich said the FBI is moving quickly in some areas with the probe, noting that a team flew in from Washington to begin reconstruction and re-enactments of the crimes, and that evidence from San Bernardino already has been flown back to Washington for analysis.
But, he stressed, the agency must take the proper amount of time on the investigation.
“It would be irresponsible and premature for me to call this terrorism,” Bowdich said.
Staff writer Stephen Magagnini in Sacramento and McClatchy Washington bureau reporters Hannah Allam and Steve Thomma contributed to this report.