County environmental health officer Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, used to drive each weekday afternoon to a working-class neighborhood with faded stucco homes with Spanish-style roofs and wrought iron fencing. He would turn into a driveway lined with palm trees, park and then go inside the small mosque with a gilded dome for 1 p.m. prayer.
Then, a few months ago, he stopped showing up at the Dar-Al-Uloom Al-Islamiyah of America mosque in the community at the base of the San Bernardino Mountains.
His association with the mosque has turned it into the center of an incoming media storm. The attention intensified Friday after the FBI announced that a massacre orchestrated by the county health worker and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, 29, was being treated as an act of terror.
On Friday afternoon, mosque officials begrudgingly invited inside a couple dozen reporters – if only to say that they are grieving, too, and are unable to offer an explanation for Farook’s actions.
“It’s been two days, too much media, too many people,” said Mahmood Nadir, a teacher and assistant imam at the mosque. “When I see stories like this, it shocks me. We are speechless. If someone comes and prays here, that doesn’t mean they represent us.”
Nadir said he barely knew Farook. Even when he showed up for prayer, the teacher said, he didn’t socialize much. He was hardly chatty. And then he was gone.
“He stopped coming three or four months ago,” Nadir said. “You see, everything is strange about him. People don’t understand why this has happened. Only a psycho would do such an act.”
Farook and Malik, who was never seen at the mosque, unleashed their attack at 11 a.m. Wednesday, gunning down 14 people with AR-15 rifles and 9mm handguns and wounding 21 others at a county employees holiday party at the Inland Regional Center. Hours later, they were both shot dead in a wild firefight with police.
On Friday, media reports tied Malik to a Facebook post in which she pledged allegiance to the leader of the extremist Islamic State group before the couple’s fury of mass violence.
David Bowdich, assistant director of the FBI’s Los Angeles office, declared: “We are now investigating these horrific acts as an act of terrorism.” He said authorities were pursuing leads based on data that they are recovering from two cellphones smashed and ditched by the couple.
At the Dar-Al-Uloom Al-Islamiyah mosque, Abdul Hameed, 31, who showed up for afternoon prayer, speculated that Farook could have been inspired by the recent Islamic State terrorist attacks in France.
But Hameed, a software engineer who lives in Fontana, said he still believes this was a case of workplace violence – carried out by a deranged employee and his wife.
“I think he was just an isolated head case – mentally ill, probably reading crazy stuff on the Internet,” Hameed said.
Farook, whose wife was born in Pakistan and recently came over on a visa commonly known as the “fiancée visa,” was American-born and a graduate in environmental health from California State University, San Bernardino. He had worked for the county for five years.
Roshan Abassi, an assistant imam who had seen Farook at prayer sessions at the mosque, took umbrage over persistent questions seeking explanation for his deeds. He said sorrow over the horrific acts runs deep at the mosque, where Friday’s prayers focused on a message of peace and anti-violence.
“Today we heard a verse from the holy book: It says the one who kills an innocent soul has killed all of mankind,” Abassi said.
The mosque president, Nadri Mohammad, read a statement saying members of the congregation “offer our deepest condolences to those affected by this tragedy, and we stand with our fellow Americans in this difficult time.”
Yaser Slayyeh, a local cardiologist, came to the mosque Friday to condemn the violence and support his congregation.
“I just came here from doing a procedure on a patient who was dying – and he made it through” and lived, Slayyeh said. “So somebody who kills is something I don’t understand.”
Mosque officials say they have received several death threats since Wednesday.
“It’s a sad thing,” said Mohammad Mahmood, a Moreno Valley resident who owns a San Bernardino machine shop and turns out for prayers at the mosque. He said he is watching his children closely – and feels personally uneasy because of anger directed at Muslims.
“There will be a backlash, of course,” Mahmood said. “Guess why: I’m a brown-skinned guy with a beard who is named Mohammad.”