FBI takes over investigation of San Bernardino mass shooting

Police find stockpile of ammunition, pipe bombs in home of shooters; Obama says motive may be terror related

A gun rampage in California that left 14 people dead and 21 wounded may have been terror or workplace related, President Barack Obama said Thursday as authorities discovered enough bullets and bombs in the culprits’ home to have caused even greater devastation.

On Wednesday, a heavily armed couple dressed for battle burst in on a holiday banquet, held by the coworkers of one of the attackers, and fired between 65 and 75 rounds. They were later hunted down and killed by police, who fired 380 rounds at the suspects during a shootout, authorities said. 

The gunmen have been identified as Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, and his 27-year-old wife Tashfeen Malik. Authorities said Thursday that neither of the suspects had a criminal record. 

The FBI was investigating the shootings as a potential act of terrorism but reached no firm conclusions Thursday, said a U.S. official briefed on the probe. Separately, a U.S. intelligence official said Farook had been in contact with known Islamic extremists on social media. Both officials spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the investigation publicly.

San Bernardino Police Chief Jarrod Burguan said authorities do not know if the suspects were planning another attack, but that they were well-equipped to do so. 

Police said the attackers had more than 1,600 bullets with them when they were gunned down.

Burguan said a later search of the couple's home turned up more than 3,000 rounds of ammunition, 12 pipe bombs and hundreds of tools that could be used to make improvised explosive devices.

But a motive has yet to be established, and David Bowdich, an asssistant regional FBI director, said it was "still too early to speculate."

Burguan said the search of a townhouse leased by the two shooting suspects in the nearby community of Redlands also turned up flash drives, computers and cell phones.

Officials in Washington familiar with the investigation told Reuters there was no hard evidence of a direct connection between the couple and any armed group abroad, but the electronics would be checked to see if the couple had made any kind of connection.

One U.S. government source told Reuters the FBI was examining information indicating that Farook was in contact with individuals who had themselves been under FBI investigation, some from cases already closed. The source also said it was possible that one or more of the Farook contacts under scrutiny were overseas.

But no information has emerged suggesting any ties or contacts between Farook and the Islamic State or other specific groups, the source said.

The San Bernardino coroner's office released the names of all 14 victims on Thursday afternoon. They ranged in age from 26 to 60. Burguan said 12 of the 14 killed were county workers as were 18 of the 21 injured.

In a press conference earlier Thursday, Obama said: "There may be mixed motives involved in this."

Obama suggested that the attack could be “terrorist related” or “workplace related,” adding “we don't know.” 

“We’re going to be vigilant in getting the facts before we issue any decisive judgments in terms of how this occurred,” he said, adding "at this point, this is now a FBI investigation."

On Thursday evening, San Bernardino police Lt. Mike Madden, a 24-year veteran, the first officer at the scene, described seeing unspeakable carnage and "pure panic" on the faces of the injured. "It seemed a little surreal," he said. "You do your job and train for it, but  … . People don’t call the police because they’re having a good day. This is tragedy like I’d never seen in my career.” 

The shooting happened at a social services center for the disabled where Farook's colleagues with the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health were renting space for a celebration. It was the nation's deadliest mass shooting since the attack at a school in Newtown, Connecticut, three years ago left 26 children and adults dead.

The attackers invaded the Inland Regional Center about 60 miles east of Los Angeles around 11 a.m., opening fire in a conference area where county health officials were having an employee banquet, said Marybeth Feild, president and CEO of the nonprofit center.

“They came prepared to do what they did, as if they were on a mission,” Burguan said.

Burguan said Farook was an environmental specialist with the San Bernardino County health department who sometimes worked at the Inland Regional Center.

Farook angrily left the office holiday party earlier Wednesday before returning with Malik, said Burguan.

The police chief said officers were on the scene within four minutes of the initial 911 call being placed. At first police believed there were “upwards of three shooters,” Burguan said. It wasn't until much later in the day that they changed that to two.

About four hours after the morning carnage, police hunting for the killers engaged in a shootout two miles from the social services center that left the two suspects dead and a black SUV riddled with gunshots. Farook and Malik were found with assault rifles and semi-automatic handguns, and were wearing tactical gear, but not bulletproof vests, authorities said.

At a late-night press conference on Wednesday, Burguan said, “Based upon what we have seen and based upon how they were equipped, there had to be some degree of planning that went into this. I don't think they just ran home, put on these types of tactical clothes, grabbed guns and came back on a spur of the moment thing.”

Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Los Angeles chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), said the couple left their baby with family Wednesday morning and never returned.

“We condemn this horrific and revolting attack and offer our heartfelt condolences to the families and loved ones of all those killed or injured,” said Ayloush. “The Muslim community stands shoulder to shoulder with our fellow Americans in repudiating any twisted mindset that would claim to justify such sickening acts of violence.”      

Farhan Khan, who is married to Farook's sister, spoke to reporters at the Anaheim CAIR office.

Khan said he last spoke to Farook about a week ago, adding he had “absolutely no idea why he would do this. I am shocked myself.” Khan says other family members had asked him to speak at the news conference and to express their sadness over the shootings.

The FBI says Malik came to the U.S. in July 2014 on a Pakistani passport and a so-called fiancée visa. To get the visa, she had to submit to an in-person interview and biometric and background checks to ensure she wasn't a threat to public safety or national security.

By law, Malik had 90 days to get married or leave the country. She became a conditional resident after marrying Farook. Two years after the wedding, she could have applied to stay in the U.S. permanently.

Difficult to comprehend

That the violence happened at a place dedicated to helping people with developmental disabilities — even if they were not targeted — made it even harder for some to comprehend.

“These are all disabled kids, very disabled,” said Sherry Esquerra, whose daughter and son-in-law work at the center. “She gets all the services she possibly could for these kids. So I just don't understand why somebody would come in and start shooting.”

According to its web page, the center has a client base of more than 30,000 people and their families. It is a privately run nonprofit, the largest of its kind in California with about 670 employees.

On Wednesday morning, FBI agents and other law enforcement authorities converged on the center and searched room to room for the attackers. Triage units were set up outside, and people were wheeled away on stretchers.

Seventeen people were wounded, according to authorities. Ten were hospitalized in critical condition, and three were in serious condition, Fire Chief Tom Hannemann said.

Others were marched from the building with hands raised so police could search them and make sure the attackers weren't trying to slip out.

They had indeed escaped. One witness, Glenn Willwerth, who runs a business across the street, said he heard 10 to 15 shots and then saw an SUV with tinted windows pull out “very calmly, very slowly” and drive off.

As the manhunt dragged on, stores, office buildings and schools were locked down in the city, and roads blocked off.

“This is the first time we've seen it like this, on lockdown,” Hector Guerrero, husband of an employee who works in the attacked facility, told Al Jazeera. “I don't think anything like this has happened in the Inland Empire.” The term refers to the metropolitan area and surrounding region just east of Los Angeles.

Authorities pursued the SUV, and a gun battle erupted around 3 p.m. One officer among nearly two dozen involved in the shootout suffered a minor injury and spent the night at a hospital.

A fake bomb — a metal pipe stuffed with cloth — was thrown from the SUV during the chase, said Agent Meredith Davis of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Three objects — thought to be explosive devices and all connected to one another — were found at the social service center and later detonated by a bomb squad, police said.

The facility has been the focus of recent complaints that its clients were not receiving all services requested or that some services were cut back without proper notice, said attorney Terri Keville of the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine.

The shooting comes less than a week after a man killed three people and wounded nine in a shooting rampage at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado. In October, a gunman killed nine people at a college in Oregon, and in June a white gunman killed nine black churchgoers in South Carolina.

Al Jazeera and wire services. With additional reporting by Haya El Nasser.

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