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San Bernardino terrorist attack shatters Southern California's illusion of safety

San Bernardino terrorist attack shatters Southern California's illusion of safety
Personal items of the San Bernardino shooters sit in their Redlands home. Security experts say assaults on “soft” targets such as the Inland Regional Center are now as much a risk as attacks on famous sites. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

As terrorist attacks fueled by extreme Islamist ideology convulsed cities in the U.S. and Europe over the last 15 years, Los Angeles and its sprawling suburbs were spared.

It couldn't last forever.

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The assault on a San Bernardino social services center last week by a U.S.-born Muslim man and his Pakistani wife was an event of national significance, potentially reshaping next year's presidential contest and raising Americans' fears of terrorism to levels not seen since the World Trade Center attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

But the killing of 14 people by Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik has had a particular effect in Southern California, a densely populated region whose residents have at times felt themselves remote from the transatlantic waves of terror that have washed over New York, London, Paris, Madrid and Washington, D.C.

That sense of separation is deeply rooted in the state's culture and history, experts say, though it is in many ways unrealistic. The truth is that the Southland — home to more than 22 million people, as well as an entertainment industry that is arguably the foremost exporter of the secular culture denounced by Islamic fundamentalists — is as vulnerable as anywhere else in the U.S. to extremist violence in the post-9/11 era.

"We used to call California an 'island on the land.' There was a sense of — take your pick: outside history, ahead of the curve. But that's simply not true," said William Deverell, a history professor at USC who studies the American West. "The notion that this is an island that can't be breached, that's wrong. And San Bernardino has proven it."

Deverell said the attack was in a sense more jarring for having happened in the far-flung Inland Empire, where many ex-Angelenos have sought refuge from high housing costs and urban crime, rather than at an iconic location in Santa Monica or the Hollywood Hills. Security experts say assaults on "soft" targets unprepared for politically motivated violence are now as much a risk as the spectacular, symbolically resonant attacks on famous buildings or tourist sites.

Farook and Malik appear to exemplify this brand of "homegrown" or "self-radicalized" terrorist. Federal officials have said the pair may have quietly plotted a mass killing for years in relative isolation, taking inspiration but not direction from overseas terrorist groups.

"You can't think of it in terms of, 'Here is someone sitting at terrorist central control who says we have to look at California more seriously.' It's not that at all," said Brian Michael Jenkins, a national security expert at the Rand Corp. "Whether or not something in California is a target of terrorism depends on whether someone who is radicalized lives in California."

Debbie Maller, 55, has lived in San Bernardino for two decades and was at a coffee shop in the city's downtown Friday afternoon. She said she had sometimes worried about terrorist violence when visiting big cities after the 9/11 attacks, but had never had such fears in her hometown.

"I would have never thought of the words 'San Bernardino' and 'terrorism' together," she said.

To some, an attack like the one Farook and Malik carried out is less remarkable than the fact that it took this long to happen. The Southland has a notable history of frustrated extremists and near-misses with terrorism.

Among them were "millennium bomber" Ahmed Ressam, who plotted unsuccessfully to bomb Los Angeles International Airport in 1999, and Riverside County native Adam Gadahn, the grandson of a prominent Jewish urologist. Gadahn became a propagandist for Al Qaeda and threatened to attack L.A. in a 2005 video broadcast. (In January, U.S. officials say, he was killed in an overseas counterterrorism strike.)

"This is stuff we've been warning about for years, and we've been warning about it because they've been broadcasting it. It's not like we have a crystal ball," said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino. "We've been a target for some time."

Rep. Brad Sherman, a Democrat who represents the western San Fernando Valley and sits on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said he doesn't think Southern Californians were oblivious to the risk of terrorism before San Bernardino. However, he said they may not always have been vigilant in reporting suspicious activity to authorities.

"People see something, they don't say something, maybe because they don't want to be branded a racist, or they don't want to get involved," Sherman said. "We have not been blind, but we may have been mute."

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Sherman cautioned that the reporting of such suspicions should be handled respectfully. He also said the risk of death in a terrorist attack — still meager in comparison with most other dangers, such as automobile accidents — should be kept in perspective. "We have to calm down," he said.

On Friday morning at the intersection of Hyperion Avenue and Sunset Boulevard, in the heart of L.A.'s Silver Lake neighborhood, some seemed more than capable of heeding that advice.

Kate Green, a 30-year-old fashion industry worker walking a pug, said she lived in London for eight years before moving to L.A. She said the threat of terrorism was much more palpable in that city than here, in part because of U.K. law enforcement's greater visibility during periods of heightened security.

"There's [police] walking around with machine guns," she said. "It's way more present."

Asked about San Bernardino, Green said: "It sounds terrible, but it really hasn't affected me."

Across the street, documentary filmmaker Paul Marchand was sitting outside the Casbah Cafe. Marchand, 34, said the San Bernardino killings had made a deep impression on him, in part because his girlfriend's father works near the facility where Farook and Malik opened fire on a gathering of county employees.

But he acknowledged that, before last week, fear of an attack by extremists close to home was not high on his mind.

After the 9/11 attacks, "there was a second there where we thought we were next," Marchand said. "But I haven't really felt that way since then. Until now."

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