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San Bernardino massacre being investigated as terrorism, FBI says

Los Angeles Times logo Los Angeles Times 12/5/2015 Richard A. Serrano, Brian Bennett, Jack Dolan and Soumya Karlamangla
Investigators examine the scene around an SUV where two suspects were shot by police following a mass shooting in Wednesday's attack in San Bernardino, California, December 4, 2015. © Alex Gallardo Investigators examine the scene around an SUV where two suspects were shot by police following a mass shooting in Wednesday's attack in San Bernardino, California, December 4, 2015.

SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. _ San Bernardino shooter Syed Rizwan Farook had contact with people from at least two terrorist organizations overseas, including the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front in Syria, a federal law enforcement official said Friday.

His wife and fellow shooter, Tashfeen Malik, also pledged allegiance to an Islamic State leader in a Facebook posting, two federal law enforcement officials said.

The revelations came as the FBI formally announced it was investigating the shooting rampage as an act of terrorism.

FBI Director James Comey said the assailants showed signs of "radicalization" but that there was no evidence they were part of a larger terrorist network.

Farook and Malik died in a police shootout Wednesday, several hours after bursting into a holiday potluck for the San Bernardino County Health Department and killing 14 people.

As the investigation expands, the law enforcement source said, agents are trying to learn more about the couple's contacts in the U.S. and overseas, "especially those in Pakistan," where Farook visited and Malik was born.

One key question, said the official, "is if they had any weapons or terror training in Pakistan." The source described "some kind" of contact between Farook and people from the Nusra Front and the radical al-Shabab group in Somalia. It's unclear what type of contact or with whom.

Authorities in Pakistan also said Friday that they were investigating whether Malik had ties to Islamic militant organizations.

Officials cautioned that Malik's Facebook posting did not mean that the militant group directed Malik and her husband to carry out the Wednesday attack, and that investigators think it instead suggests that the couple had become self-radicalized. One of the officials said the Facebook post was made under a different name and had since been removed.

A Facebook spokesman confirmed that the company took down the profile page that included the post cited by law enforcement officials. He said the post was discovered a day after the shooting when Facebook employees conducted a search of the site for the shooters' names. The company's policy, he said, was to remove posts that "support or glorify" terrorism. The post had gone up Wednesday about 11 a.m. PST, around the same time the shooting began, he said. He said Facebook provided the contents of the post to law enforcement.

Witnesses and police have said Farook, a county public health worker, had been at the holiday party but left, possibly after a disagreement with a co-worker, and returned with Malik to attack the gathering.

That could be construed as workplace violence, the law enforcement source said, noting that evidence and witness recollections suggest that they shot Farook's supervisors first. Or, the source said, "after they got away" and were missing for several hours, they might have hoped to launch a previous plan for an even larger strike.

An acquaintance who prayed with Farook at a San Bernardino mosque told the Los Angeles Times that the shooter said he liked his wife because she wore a "niqab," a veil that covered almost all of her face.

Nizaam Ali, 23, said Friday he thought that Farook liked Malik's niqab because it showed she was religious and wasn't embodying "the modern role of women today, working and all that."

Ali, a student at California State University, San Bernardino, said he occasionally talked to Farook at Dar al Uloom al Islamiyah of America mosque.

Ali remembered Farook saying something like, "That's what really made me interested in her, that's what made her stick out from the other women."

Ali said he thinks wearing a niqab is courageous, especially in the West where people aren't familiar with such clothing. The two men agreed about that, he remembered.

"Other than that, his wife never came up in other conversations," he said.

He said Farook met his wife online, a practice Ali said is common among his friends. "In our community, it's different," he said, noting that it's difficult for Muslim men to find women to marry. "Internet has become something that eases it."

Ali said he had met Malik on a few occasions, but the niqab obscured her face. "If you asked me how she looked, I couldn't tell you," he said.

The couple were married in Islam's holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia last year, according to Farook's co-workers at the Health Department and others who knew them. The Saudi Embassy in Washington confirmed that Farook spent nine days in the kingdom in the summer of 2014.

Authorities said that when he returned to the U.S. in July 2014, he brought Malik with him on a fiancée visa. After a background check by the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, she was granted a conditional green card last summer.

The couple's infant daughter was born in May, according to records. Malik was 29, according to records. San Bernardino Police Chief Jarrod Burguan had erroneously given her age as 27. Farook, a U.S. citizen of Pakistani descent, was 28.

An attorney representing Farook's and Malik's family said Malik never spoke about Islamic State or terrorism.

"As far as I know, there was no discussion of any of that (among family members)," Mohammad Abuershaid said.

The couple hadn't been married that long, he said. "It wasn't like the family had much time to get to know her."

Abuershaid said the family was very conservative and that it would have been unlikely that Malik discussed her thoughts on world events, including the trouble in the Middle East, with her in-laws.

"Tashfeen was an individual who kept to herself most of the time," Abuershaid said. He added that she was a soft-spoken housewife who stayed at home with the baby.

The family has met with the FBI and plans to meet with agency officials again Monday, the attorney said.

Another lawyer for the family said family members were shocked to learn about Malik's and Farook's involvement.

"There's never been any evidence that either of the two alleged shooters were aggressive (or) had extremist views," said David Chesley.

A federal law enforcement source said Malik and Farook made an unsuccessful attempt to destroy their electronic devices.

David Bowdich, the assistant director in charge of the Los Angeles FBI office, said investigators have recovered evidence of multiple explosive armaments and that the assailants attempted to destroy their "digital fingerprints."

He added that two crushed cellphones were found in a trash can.

Comey said the FBI was trying to determine if the assailants were inspired by foreign terrorist organizations.

"We are spending a tremendous amount of time, as you might imagine, over the last 48 hours trying to understand the motives of these killers and trying to understand every detail of their lives," Comey said. "We know that this is very unsettling for the people of the United States. What we hope you will do is not let fear become disabling, but to instead channel it into an awareness of your surroundings."

Farook and Malik had amassed an arsenal of 2,000 9 mm handgun rounds, 2,500 .223-caliber assault rifle rounds and "hundreds of tools" that could have been used to make explosive devices, authorities said.

The couple fired at least 65 shots when they stormed a party at the Inland Regional Center, where about 80 people had gathered. Twelve of the 14 dead and 18 of the 21 injured were county employees, police said.

Hours later, the couple exchanged gunfire with police on San Bernardino streets, launching bullets into homes and terrifying residents.

Farook and Malik used two assault rifles and two semiautomatic handguns, all of which were bought legally, according to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

On Friday morning, dozens of reporters were let inside the Redlands town house where Malik and Farook lived. The doors and windows were boarded up, and the home was sparsely decorated. The upstairs had a crib, baby toys and children's books.

In the middle of the living room, a copy of the Quran rested on a small black table. On another table was a lengthy list of items the FBI had seized in its investigation: Christmas lights, an iPhone, boxes and bags of ammunition, letters, a passport and gun accessories.

___

(Staff writers Veronica Rocha, Richard Winton, Kate Mather, Ron Lin, Joseph Serna, Matt Stevens and Corina Knoll contributed to this report.)

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