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Opinion

San Bernardino killers traded the American Dream for a nightmare of terror

San Bernardino incident proves terror can strike anywhere

David Horsey / Los Angeles Times

Since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, I have thought that, if I were a terrorist interested in generating the highest level of fear among Americans, I would not go after high-profile targets in New York or Washington; I’d seek out random soft targets in unexpected places far from the centers of power.

Welcome to San Bernardino.

The FBI has yet to determine with certainty that Wednesday’s horrific assault at the Inland Regional Center that took the lives of 14 people and left another 21 wounded was an act of terrorism, but it is becoming difficult to imagine any other characterization. The initial theory that the shooting might be explained simply as a disgruntled employee taking out his anger on co-workers seems increasingly unlikely. 

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Yes, Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the two shooters, was a county health worker and the scene of his crime was a staff holiday party hosted by his employer at which Farook was in brief attendance. But, when he stalked out of the gathering early, Farook did not just go pull a pistol out of his car and walk back inside to impulsively act out his anger. He returned with his wife, both dressed in combat gear, and they were armed with assault rifles, pipe bombs, handguns and hundreds of rounds of ammunition.

The 28-year-old Farook and his 27-year-old wife, Tashfeen Malik, were clearly prepared for slaughter. The fact that they dropped off their baby girl with a grandmother earlier in the morning suggests they knew that, later in the day, they would either be on the run or dead. After killing the pair in a shootout in the middle of a residential street, police found a huge cache of weapons, ammunition and bombs inside the couple’s Redlands home. This was not just a guy “going postal;” this was someone with a long-simmering plan.

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Farook, the Chicago-born son of Pakistani immigrants, brought his fiancee, Malik, into the U.S. from Pakistan on a temporary visa in 2014. After they married, she passed a security check and was issued a provisional green card. Farook had traveled to Saudi Arabia twice, in 2013 and 2014. Federal law enforcement officials say they have uncovered suspicious contacts between Farook and people with suspected ties to radical Islamists. None of this activity had put him on any terrorism watch list.

In a weird way, it would be reassuring if a strong link to an Islamist extremist group can be proved. If Farook and his wife could be identified as members of a terrorist sleeper cell like those imagined in Hollywood thrillers, we would have a familiar scenario to explain their actions. We could make sense of what we are dealing with. What is disturbing, though, is that no one who claims to know Farook has said there was the slightest hint about what was going on in his head. His surviving co-workers were shocked. They said he was a quiet but likable guy who had not shown any dissatisfaction with his job. People who knew him at his mosque said he never expressed any radical ideas. His family said he was a young father who seemed content with life.

What made him turn to evil? What if his connection to a group like Islamic State or  Al Qaeda turns out to be tenuous or nonexistent? What if he radicalized himself through a few brief conversations with Muslim radicals and careful study of extremist websites? What if it is easier than we have ever imagined to flip a switch in some people’s heads and transform them from mild-mannered young people to merciless killers almost overnight?

In that case, we face a threat that could go undetected and manifest itself on any day in any place on the map. How do we defend ourselves against an enemy like that?

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