San Bernardino Shooting: Explosives Show “Extremist Motivation”

A former FBI official tells Vocativ that makeshift bombs left at the scene of the San Bernardino shooting could point to a terror plot. But don't give credit to ISIS or al-Qaeda just yet

Dec 03, 2015 at 3:11 PM ET

The presence of three makeshift bombs inside the California conference room where a husband and wife allegedly executed 14 people in cold blood raises alarm bells for one former counter-terrorism official who spoke with Vocativ.

Even as President Obama maintained that Wednesday’s rampage in San Bernardino might have been “workplace-related,” Don Borelli, former assistant special agent in charge of the FBI’s New York Joint Terrorism Task Force, said a growing body of evidence suggests what many have feared: a pre-mediated act inspired by violent religious extremism.

“My first thought was this was a workplace violence thing, too,” said Borelli, who spent 25 years with the FBI and specialized in investigating domestic and foreign terrorists and who is now COO of the Soufan Group, a security intelligence firm. “But those explosives rigged to a toy car is what put me over the edge. We’re likely going to find some motivation tied to extremism.”

Law enforcement officials on Thursday said the FBI is treating the attack as a counter terrorism investigation, the New York Times reported. Officials also said one of the suspects had been in touch with people with Islamist extremist views, both in the U.S. and abroad.

More San Bernardino Shooting: Front Pages Across The U.S.

Investigators on Thursday continued to piece together other other clues left behind by Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, and Tashfeen Malik, 27, whom they believe carried out the deadly attack at the Inland Regional Center, where a holiday party thrown by Farook’s co-workers was being held. In all, the couple allegedly shot and killed 14 people and wounded another 21.

Police later killed Farook and Malik during a wild gunfight, marking a dramatic end to the deadliest mass shooting since the assault on Sandy Hook Elementary School nearly three years ago. A U.S.-born citizen, Farook had reportedly met Malik on a dating website. Both are said to have been devout Muslims.

Borelli warned, however, that it was still too early to draw any firm conclusions about what inspired the rampage. In an extensive interview with Vocativ, he discussed some of the other key areas of inquiry that investigators will likely pursue.

The Explosive Link To Extremism
“You don’t just go home and build a bomb because you’re pissed off,” Borelli said. “The impulsive thing thing to do is just grab your gun and shoot. We’ve seen when people get into a beef with co-workers and come back armed. We’ve seen it at post offices and military bases. The explosives are a big sign of a pre-mediated attack. Maybe it was planned, but not planned to happen on the day of the party.”

Extensive Preparation Provides Further Evidence
In addition to the explosives, police recovered two assault rifles and a pair of semi-automatic handguns from the suspects. At the couple’s residence, police found thousands of rounds of ammunition, 12 pipe bombs and hundreds of tools that could be used to construct additional explosive devices, San Bernardino Police Chief Jarrod Burguan said Thursday. Authorities said they were also wearing masks and tactical gear. “There’s no reason to have all of that unless you’re in law enforcement or you expect to find yourself in the middle of a gunfight,” Borelli said. “The layers upon layers on preparation point to a plan. Again, we don’t know if it was on that day. But there was an intent to cause a high level of violence and harm.” 

More After San Bernardino, Everyone’s Sick Of Your “Thoughts And Prayers”

But Don’t Go Giving Credit To ISIS or Al Qaeda Just Yet…
“This is very different than what we saw in Paris,” Borelli continued. “If these this couple had the level of sophistication and training required to do that, you’d see a lot more casualties for sure. Whatever motivated them, it appears that they were basically self-trained and self-supported. At this time, I don’t see a lot of elements of having a higher level of support from ISIS or Al Qaeda.” 

No Criminal History? No Watch List? Not Surprising.
An unnamed American official told the New York Times that Farook had not been the target of any active terrorism investigation, nor had he been someone the bureau was concerned about before Wednesday’s attack. “That doesn’t mean much,” Borelli said. “If somebody keeps a low profile, if they don’t get on social media and start espousing violence and doing all the things that flag them as a potential threat, then they’re not really going to land on anyone’s radar, law-enforcement wise. It’s not surprising.”

And How About That Saudi Connection?
Farook’s co-workers told the Los Angeles Times that the 28-year-old had recently traveled to Saudi Arabia and returned with Malik, whom he had met online. “You can’t submit too much out of that,” he said. “If Farook had traveled to Yemen or to Syria by way of Turkey I’d probably have a little bit more concern. That doesn’t mean he met somebody in Saudi Arabia who got him fired up for jihad.” Borelli added that “the Saudi intelligence service is good. If he was over there meeting extremists and garnering support for his plan or there’d probably be a good chance the Saudis would have had some knowledge of that they would have shared.”