Initial thoughts on San Bernardino

Although there is much still to learn about the attack in California in which a husband and his wife opened fire on a group of his co-workers, killing 14 and wounding many more before dying in a shootout with police, there is some information available that casts interesting light on what we know, and what we think we know, about terrorism.

First and foremost, was this an act of terrorism?  It seems so, but the jury is still out.  A few facts do point in that direction but need clarification:

  • the female assailant was allegedly in contact with Islamist extremists on-line.  Interesting but not definitive.  What was the nature of those communications (initial FBI statements have said that the activity was not significant)?
  • that same assailant “pledged allegiance to Islamic State”.  This is important but means little in terms of her relationship with IS.  ANYONE can claim allegiance to a terrorist group.  Does that make that person a “member”?  The Toronto 18 called themselves “Al Qaeda in Canada”.  That did not make them a homegrown AQ cell.  Trust me on that one.
  • IS has claimed the attack. So what.  Is there any evidence of pre-knowledge, direction, or other involvement?  Or is IS jumping on the bandwagon, taking advantage of the attack to bolster its pretended sphere of influence and trying to spread fear and panic?
  • the two attackers were “radicalised”.  I have read that they were “self-radicalised”.  You have all read my views on the inaccuracy of “self-radicalisation”.  Now two people – a couple – were “self-radicalised” (should that be “selves-radicalised”?). What’s next – a trio?  A quartet?  A baker’s dozen?  A score?  We need to assign this term to the ash heap.

What I find most instructive is what this attack tells us about terrorists in general.  We have said repeatedly that there is no profile and that looking for one is a fool’s errand.  This particular duo once again demonstrates that the litany of poverty, alienation, etc., etc., etc. is wrong

  • the two were married with a young child- so much for the “I have nothing to live for” argument
  • the man had solid employment – ditto the “society has failed me” argument
  • he was born in Illinois and has siblings – i.e. homegrown
  • the woman was born in Pakistan and vetted stringently before being granted a US visa – again, probably radicalised in the US.

We have a large number of questions and any early analysis is dangerous.  What we might speculate at this early stage is that the couple radicalised largely in the US but that process is opaque at this point.  The motivation is unclear although the arsenal of weapons and explosives they had amassed certainly suggests planning and intent.

Most importantly, we need to keep events like these in perspective.  Yes, this is a tragic act and we need to learn more as to why these individuals did not trip any wires for the FBI or other agencies (this is NOT intended as a criticism of those organisations – I know all too well what is involved in intelligence collection and analysis and you will not hear me scream “intelligence failure” like a lot of know-nothings will inevitably).  But it is one act and it is dwarfed in the US by the all-too-frequent mass shootings which, in 2015 alone, have outnumbered the days in the calendar (yes, there have been more shootings than there have been days this year!).  The vast majority of which were perpetrated by ordinary Americans.

I know promoting this is a losing battle, but let us keep calm and carry on.  Terrorism remains a low probability event irrespective of what happened in California.  Let us figure out how to do counter terrorism better, but keep living.  Let us not hand victory to the terrorists.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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