The Real Power Of ISIS: Inspiring Terrorism Like San Bernardino

Barack Obama described Sunday's massacre in Orlando as "homegrown"—another apparent instance of ISIS extremism inspiring violence overseas

Syed Farook — REUTERS
Dec 05, 2015 at 12:00 PM ET

The discovery that Tashfeen Malik, the female killer behind the San Bernardino massacre, had pledged allegiance to ISIS on the same day as the rampage underscores the real power and the incredible threat of the Islamic State.

In the digital age, terrorism can bloom across borders without weapons, money or marching orders ever changing hands. For all the fear of jihadists hiding among the swells of migrants seeking refuge in the United States, or the prospect of an orchestrated attack on the scale of Paris last month, there remains a reality far more frightening: would-be terrorists don’t need to be in touch with ISIS to do the its bidding. They don’t need a passport, training or even funding to inflict widespread mayhem.

Through pockets of the dark net, social media and messaging apps, ISIS has weaned a generation of young jihadists on a diet of brutal propaganda and stomach-churning violence. Time after time, its militants have then called on those who are unable to join its jihad in Syria and Iraq to wage war at home.

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Wednesday’s rampage shows that the almost unfettered access to high-powered weapons and unlimited ammunition across the United States creates a particularly ominous threat here.

“We have a perfect storm right now in this country and it’s scary,” said Don Borelli, a former assistant special agent in charge of the FBI’s New York Joint Terrorism Task Force.

That appears to be the case for Malik who with her husband, Syed Farook, slaughtered his co-workers, the same men and women who had previously thrown them a baby shower. The massacre was the deadliest mass shooting in the U.S. since the assault on Sandy Hook Elementary School nearly three years ago

A law enforcement official speaking about the discovery of a Facebook post in which Malik pledged allegiance to ISIS told the New York Times, “At this point we believe they were more self-radicalized and inspired by the group than actually told to do the shooting.”

Using our deep web technology, Vocativ discovered that ISIS extremists began celebrating the mass shooting in San Bernardino hours after the massacre, creating the hashtag #America_Burning. The Islamic State, however, did not take credit for the shootings in the ghoulish postings.

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ISIS has repeatedly inspired deadly attacks on the western world even without direct contact or coordination. Recent incidents include:

-Amedy Coulibaly, a French terrorist and friend of the gunmen in the Charlie Hebdo shooting, killed four men at a Kosher grocery store in Paris in January. Coulibaly had pledged allegiance to ISIS prior to the attack.

– A Danish-born gunman killed two strangers and wounded five police officers during a violent rampage in Copenhagen last February.

– In Australia, another gunman seized 17 hostages in a Sydney cafe. 

– The United States has not been immune either, even before San Bernardino. ISIS militants said that a hatchet-wielding man who charged at four police officers in Queens in October 2014 was the “direct result” of its calls to action.

– The gunmen at a Texas “Draw Muhammad” event in May, both of whom were killed after they opened fire, had pledged allegiance to the group, and it has claimed responsibility for their actions. 

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“This is sadism on a clinical level,” John Horgan, a psychologist and terrorism researcher at Georgia State University, told Vocativ earlier this year. “This is psychological warfare at its most deadly.”

Max Abrahms, a professor of political science at Northeastern University, said the heightened threat of inspired attacks in the U.S. is a by-product of its success in preventing would-be terrorists from entering or organizing inside the country. “Countries that are contending with large militant groups don’t worry about this type of lone wolf threat,” he said. “In Nigeria you worry about Boko Haram.”

The emergence of a link connecting ISIS to Wednesday’s massacre marks an unprecedented level of bloodshed for these types of inspired attacks. In all, the couple allegedly shot and killed 14 people and wounded another 21. 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 as well as 12 pipe bombs.