December 4, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: Confusion Amidst Tragedy at San Bernardino

• A December 2 mass shooting in San Bernardino, California left 14 dead, 21 wounded, and a nation arguing about how to define the attack

• Significant elements of the shooting, such as prior planning and explosives, strongly suggest some aspects of terrorism; the lack of an obvious motive or symbolic target runs counter to that hypothesis

• Officials are combing through all aspects of the two perpetrators’ lives to determine any connection to terrorism, be it inspirational or directional

• The issue of how to define an act of terror has become a divisive issue in the United States.


The mass shooting by a husband and wife in San Bernardino is as tragic as it is perplexing. Syed Rizwan Farook, along with his wife Tashfeen Malik, attacked his co-workers after an office party—a personal connection with the victims unusual in traditional terrorist attacks. The method of the attack, however, is consistent with terrorism; involving explosives, masks, and rifles, some planning, and degree of competence. Reports of online exposure to extremist messages, and tangential indirect contact with some extremist Facebook pages, are not strong enough to definitively claim terrorist ideology as the motivation, even though it is suggestive of such. Nor is the foreign travel of the attackers itself definitive, though it might be an important clue. Almost every aspect of the case is unclear.

Indeed, the only thing clear about the case so far is how divisive the issue of defining terrorism has become in the United States. Tragedies like mass casualty crimes—or even natural disasters—no longer unite communities or the nation, let alone galvanize a society towards meaningful action. Rather, attacks such as San Bernardino and last week’s mass shooting in Colorado Springs immediately become the latest backdrop in the ongoing argument over the nature, scale, and reaction to threats to society. Some of this is inevitable, given the speed of speculation on social media; some of this stems from deeper societal and political divisions. The result is that issues of national security are no longer a rallying point, but a fault line.

Attacks in which a black flag is inconveniently absent further illustrate the issues inherent to classifying acts of terror. Defining terrorism has always been a political action, used to fit into established narratives. There are three characteristics that the FBI uses to define domestic terrorism under 18 U.S.C. § 2331: involve acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law; appear intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; and occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States. Such characteristics can be applied to almost any violent act, given the intimidation or coercion stipulation. In the wide latitude of the definition has crept a reliance on the identify of the attacker, absent obvious motive, symbolic targets, or even method of attack.

The investigation of the attack in San Bernardino will most likely reveal the motives of the two attackers. Yet, as with many other issues concerning terrorism in the United States, the competing narratives are already hardening and will become fact-resistant. The FBI is investigating the case—like it does every case—in isolation, and will follow the facts to some semblance of clarity and understanding. The American public, however, views attacks such as this latest one not in isolation, but as proof of whatever narrative to which they ascribe. The fear-driven separation of communities into groups of ‘others’ is one of the more lasting and damaging consequences of terrorism.


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