A year after the San Bernardino terror attack, the FBI is still struggling to answer key questions – Los Angeles Times
In the year since Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik killed 14 people in a terrorist attack in San Bernardino, authorities have conducted more than 600 interviews, gathered more than 500 pieces of evidence and served dozens of search warrants.
They launched an unprecedented legal battle with Apple in an effort to unlock Farook’s iPhone and deployed divers to scour a nearby lake in search of electronic equipment the couple might have dumped there.
But despite piecing together a detailed picture of the couple’s actions up to and including the massacre, federal officials acknowledge they still don’t have answers to some of the critical questions posed in the days after the Dec. 2, 2015, attack at the Inland Regional Center.
Most important, the FBI said it is still trying to determine whether anyone was aware of the couple’s plot or helped them in any way. From the beginning, agents have tried to figure out whether others might have known something about Farook and Malik’s plans, since the couple spent months gathering an arsenal of weapons and building bombs in the garage of their Redlands home.
Officials said they don’t have enough evidence to charge anyone with a crime but stressed the investigation is still open.
“There are unanswered questions in this case,” FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller said. “There is an ongoing investigation into did they get financial or material support from anyone else.”
The FBI has made several public appeals to help build a timeline of the terrorist couple’s movements between the attack and the beginning of a high-speed pursuit that would end with police fatally shooting them. In particular, officials said they could not account for the couple’s movements during a key 18-minute period.
But after checking video surveillance and interviewing countless witnesses, the FBI said, it still can’t say where Farook and Malik were during that time.
Another frustration has been the couple’s electronics. Early on in the investigation, federal officials stressed that the couple’s digital footprint would be key to building a complete picture of the plot.
The FBI was finally able to get a third party to unlock Farook’s work-issued iPhone. But officials said it didn’t yield any clues to the attack. The FBI believed the pair tried to destroy hard drives and other electronic devices, but the investigation has not yielded much on that front.
Experts said these gaps, while vexing, are far from uncommon in such sprawling investigations.
“There are always going to be untied threads,” said Brian Levin, a terrorism expert and director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino. “And while this is most likely the work of a duo, there is always enough threads to leave open the question: What did those closest to the assailants actually know?”
Levin and others cited the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 people. More than 20 years later, some questions about that terrorist attack remain unanswered.
Investigators quickly arrested Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols in the case. McVeigh suggested others knew about their plans, There also remains a variety of questions over the timeline of the attack and whether McVeigh really had the sophistication to mastermind such a destructive plot on his own.
Brian Jenkins, a terrorism expert and senior advisor to Rand Corp.’s president, cited the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing case as another example in which terrorism investigators pieced together many of the facts but failed to answer all the questions.
“When you are recreating the events before and after an attack, there are lot of pieces and sometimes there are gaps,” Jenkins said.
Despite the lingering uncertainties in the San Bernardino terror attack, federal officials were able to lock down some key facts in the early days of the investigation.
Farook traveled to the Middle East before the attack and came back with his wife. Farook was born in Illinois, but Malik was raised in Pakistan and lived in Saudi Arabia before marrying him. From the beginning, one of the biggest questions was whether the attack was part of a larger international plot hatched by Islamic State or some other Islamic terror group. Malik posted a note on Facebook pledging allegiance to Islamic State before the attack, authorities said.
The FBI concluded fairly quickly that the couple were “self-radicalized.” They were inspired by terrorist groups, officials said, but did not receive financial support from any foreign or domestic organizations.
“They are essentially homegrown terrorists, self–radicalized and inspired by those overseas,” Jenkins said.
A few weeks after the massacre, authorities alleged that Farook and a friend, Enrique Marquez Jr., had planned an earlier bombing and shooting plot against a community college and drivers on the 91 Freeway but aborted the idea. Marquez is accused of purchasing two military-style rifles that Farook and Malik used in the attack, which also wounded 22 people at the regional center and two police officers in the final shootout.
But federal authorities said Marquez bought the weapons years earlier and didn’t know about last year’s plot or participate in it.
One of the early questions for investigators was whether those closest to the couple knew what they had been planning. Family members have said Farook was outspoken about his fundamentalist views but said they had no idea he planned violence. The FBI has said it found no evidence that Farook’s relatives had prior knowledge of the assault.
The question of whether others had suspicions about the couple’s activities has loomed large and was an issue in the presidential race. President-elect Donald Trump claimed during his campaign that neighbors saw explosives at the home of the attackers but neglected to alert law enforcement. Others have also suggested neighbors didn’t report activities at the home out of some sense of political correctness because the couple was Muslim. But there is no evidence that witnesses saw weapons in the Redlands townhouse.