California shootings: Authorities work to determine motive

Fourteen killed, attackers named as Syed Rizwan Farook (28) and Tashfeen Malik (27)

Investigators are searching for the motives behind why a husband and wife allegedly opened fire with military-style weapons, killing 14 people and wounding 21 at a Christmas work party in California.

The two suspects, US-born Syed Rizwan Farook (28) and his Pakistani wife Tashfeen Malik (27), left their six-month-old daughter with Mr Farook's mother on Wednesday morning, claiming to have a doctor's appointment, before launching their deadly attack.

Law enforcement agencies are investigating possible terrorism and a workplace grievance as motives.

‘Irresponsible and premature’

"It would be irresponsible and premature for me to call this terrorism," said David Bowdich, assistant director of the FBI in Los Angeles.


The mass shooting took place at the Inland Regional Centre, a state-run centre for people with developmental disabilities in San Bernardino, about 90km east of downtown Los Angeles.

Farook, an inspector for a local county health department, had been at his work party and left "under circumstances that were described as angry", said San Bernardino police chief Jarrod Burguan.

Up to 30 minutes later, Mr Farook is suspected of returning, along with his wife, to the party at about 11am armed with assault rifles and semi-automatic handguns and wearing masks and body armour.

A remote-controlled explosive device, made up of three combined pipe bombs, was left behind at the scene but failed to detonate.

The couple were killed more than four hours later after a chase of a rented black SUV spotted at the scene and a shootout with police.

Hoard of ammunition

Police said the couple had 1,600 rounds of ammunition on them or in their black SUV and later found 2,000 more rounds, 12 pipe bombs and hundreds of tools to construct more explosive devices at their home.

“There appears to be a degree of planning that went into this,” Mr Burguan told reporters on Thursday.

“Nobody just gets upset at a party, goes home and puts together that kind of an elaborate scheme or plan to come back and do that.”

The mass shooting was the deadliest in the US since a lone gunman killed 20 schoolchildren, six staff and himself at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in December 2012.

Speaking at the White House, US President Barack Obama said: "It is possible that this was terrorist-related but we don't know. It is also possible that this was workplace related."

Two of the four guns, the handguns, used in the attack were purchased legally by Mr Farook, police said, but declined to say who purchased the “long guns”, the two high-capacity assault weapons.

California has some of the toughest gun control laws in the country, which ban the sale or possession of many assault weapons, raising questions about how the weapons were obtained.

Surprise expressed

Those who knew Farook, an American citizen, expressed surprised at his alleged involvement. Colleagues said he had recently travelled to Saudi Arabia and returned with his new wife, who he had met online.

His wife was living in the US on a K-1 visa for fiancées.

Co-workers said Farook was a devout Muslim, but rarely discussed religion at work. He had travelled to Saudi Arabia, likely to have been to attend the annual Hajj pilgrimage, a rite of passage for Muslims.

The FBI said Farook returned to the US in July 2014 and that he had also visited Pakistan.

Authorities were working to discover if the couple had links to Islamic militant groups abroad, US officials familiar with the investigation said.

No hard evidence

Officials in Washington familiar with the investigation said so far there was no hard evidence of a direct connection between the shooters and any militant group abroad.

The sources said authorities had raided a townhouse believed to have been used by the couple in search of electronic devices that could show if they had been browsing on jihadist websites or social media.

“Rest assured that we will get to the bottom of this,” President Barack Obama said at the White House, adding that the FBI was taking over the investigation.

“It is possible that this was terrorist-related. But we don’t know. It is also possible that this was workplace-related,” Mr Obama told reporters after meeting with his national security advisers in the Oval Office.

Farook and Malik have been identified as Muslims.

Officials from Mr Obama to Mr Burguan said the attack may have been an act of terrorism but that a motive had not yet been determined.

Two critical

Ten people remained hospitalised at two local hospitals on Thursday, two in critical but stable condition, three in fair condition and five in stable condition, the hospitals said.

The two assault rifles and two handguns recovered from the shootout were legally purchased in the US, said Meredith Davis, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). Two of them were purchased by someone "associated with this investigation", while the buyer of the other two was not linked to the investigation, she said.

Hussam Ayloush, who heads the Los Angeles area chapter of the Muslim advocacy group Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), appealed to the public not to jump to conclusions about the motives behind the attacks.

He said he was concerned about a backlash against the broader Muslim community in view of the rise of Islamic State and some opposition among politicians and the US public over government plans to accept Syrian war refugees.

“We’re living in a very difficult time,” he told CNN. “There’s a lot of Islamophobia out there, a lot of anti-Muslim sentiment, fueled by pundits here and there trying to blame a whole community for the acts of a few.”

‘Absolutely no idea’

Farook’s family and co-workers struggled to make sense of the shooting, the deadliest in the US in three years. His brother-in-law went before television cameras and said he had “absolutely no idea” why Farook would stage such a massacre.

Mr Burguan said Farook was a county public health employee who had attended the party, held in a conference building on the campus of the Inland Regional Center.

He had at some point stormed out, however, before returning with Malik to open fire on the celebration. The couple were dressed in assault-style clothing and also placed several bombs at the scene, which police detonated.

Mr Burguan said the manner in which the couple were equipped indicated there was “some degree of planning” behind the attack.

Running tally

There have been more than 350 shootings in the US this year in which four or more people were wounded or killed, according to the crowd-sourced website, which keeps a running tally of gun violence in the country.

Wednesday's carnage amplified concerns about gun violence and security after deadly assaults at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs last week and the attacks in Paris almost three weeks ago by Islamic State militants that killed 130 people.

President Barack Obama called for gun law reform to reduce the likelihood of mass shootings.

"We have a no-fly list where people can't get on planes, but those same people who we don't allow to fly could go into a store right now in the United States and buy a firearm and there's nothing that we can do to stop them," he said in an interview with CBS News on Thursday.

The attack in San Bernardino, a largely working-class city 60 miles (100km) east of Los Angeles, appeared to differ from other recent US such incidents in several ways, including the involvement of two people rather than a lone perpetrator.

A third person seen fleeing with the suspects from the area of the shootout was detained, but Mr Burguan said he was not sure if that person was involved in the attack.

At a news conference called by the Los Angeles area CAIR chapter, the brother-in-law of Farook, Farhan Khan, said he was bewildered by what happened.

“Why would he do that? Why would he do something like this? I have absolutely no idea. I am in shock myself,” Mr Khan said at the news conference in Anaheim, California, south of Los Angeles.

Co-workers told the Los Angeles Times they were surprised to hear Farook’s name linked to the shootings - their view was that he was quiet and polite and did not bear any obvious grudges. They told the newspaper he had travelled to Saudi Arabia and returned with his new wife, whom he had met online.

The manhunt initially led police to a home in the neighbouring town of Redlands. Police then pursued a vehicle that was seen leaving that address back to San Bernardino, where the shootout occurred.

Mr Ayloush told Reuters the couple left their baby with Farook’s mother at that Redlands home early on Wednesday and told her they were going to a doctor’s appointment for Malik, whom he described as Farook’s wife of two years.

Two adult victims of the shooting were in critical but stable condition at Loma Linda University Medical Center, which said in a statement it had received five patients who were wounded in the attack. The condition of patients taken to other medical facilities was not immediately known.

The suspects were discovered at a different location after police responded to a tip-off. This came more than four hours after gunmen had originally opened fire at the party in the social services centre.

Social event

The shooting, which occurred at about 11am (7pm Irish time on Wednesday), appeared to be unconnected with the patients at the centre but linked to a social event that was being hosted by the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health in the building.

Up to three gunmen were sought following the massacre after eyewitnesses reported seeing multiple heavily armed gunmen, possibly wearing body armour, entering the community building shooting.

“These people came prepared to do what they did, as if they were on a mission,” said San Bernardino Police Chief Jarrod Burguan. “They were armed with long guns, not with handguns.”

Police following up on a lead in the nearby town of Redlands chased a black SUV believed to have been involved in the earlier shooting.

Riddled with bullets

TV news footage showed the black vehicle surrounded by police and riddled with bullets about two miles from the social services centre.

Farook, the male suspect, was an inspector with the county health department and worked with some of the victims at the party where the shooting occurred. He is said to have abruptly left the party before the attack.

David Bowdich, the FBI’s assistant director in Los Angeles, said that the incident was being regarded as “possibly terrorism”.

President Barack Obama has repeated his call for tighter gun controls to make mass shootings in the US “rare as opposed to normal”.

“We should never think that this is something that just happens in the ordinary course of events because it doesn’t happen with the same frequency in other countries,” Mr Obama told CBS News shortly after news of the shootings broke.

‘We must take action’

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, responding to the California shootings on social media, said: "I refuse to accept this as normal. We must take action to stop gun violence now."

Businessman Donald Trump, who is leading the Republican field of presidential candidates, paid tribute to police in southern California at a campaign rally in Manassas, Virginia last night and held a moment's silence for the victims of the San Bernardino massacre.

Additional reporting: Reuters

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is News Editor of The Irish Times