Mike Blake / Reuters

New revelations, endless guesses fuel fears in San Bernardino

New details, speculation leave stunned residents confronting fresh fears after deadly shootings in California city

SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. – Shock, horror and mourning still permeate this town three days after a husband and wife fired up to 75 rounds at a holiday party in a social services center, killing 14 and injuring 21.

But the conversation at San Bernardino’s coffee shops, offices and dinner tables has shifted and is now dominated by an endless litany of questions: Why did they do it? Who was behind it? Why target co-workers? Why here? Was this the first of many planned attacks? Are other suspects on the loose?

At first, many residents such as Blanca Pfister, 52, assumed the shooting was yet another in a long list of mass killings at the hands of a mentally ill person.

“I never thought terrorism,” said Pfister, who lives in the neighboring town of Redlands, as did the suspected shooters — Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, and his 29-year-old wife Tashfeen Malik — who were gunned down by police. “Of course, we want to know” what really happened.

Some theories that appeared far-fetched at first are gradually being confirmed as law enforcement hold more briefings, and more details trickle out. 

First came the release of the suspected shooters’ names, and the revelation that Farook was a U.S.-born Muslim. Then came information about his bride, whom he brought back from Pakistan and married here. Then there was the 6-month-old daughter the two left in the care of her grandmother before allegedly carrying out the rampage. And there were reports that Farook had left after arguing with his co-workers at the holiday gathering, then returned and attacked them. And then the shocking revelations that the garage at the suspects’ Redlands home was a veritable armory, with 12 pipe bombs and thousands of rounds of ammunition found there.

And then on Friday the FBI announced that it was investigating the crime as an “act of terrorism” and is now leading the investigation. Also today the media arm of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) issued a statement saying the two suspected "attackers" were among their "supporters."

Media had reported earlier that Malik had posted a statement on Facebook in support of ISIL.

But it wasn’t clear if ISIL was in any way behind the plot, or if it might have been the work of followers of the group who took it upon themselves to commit the crimes. The FBI said it doesn’t yet know what inspired the shooters.

In any case, “it’s scary,” said Cheri Greth, who lives in the San Bernardino suburb of Grand Terrace. “First, I couldn’t believe anything like this could happen close by,” she said. “Then I thought it was terrorism the minute they said their names. I think she (Malik) was the one who radicalized him.”

Greth and her husband, Rick Greth, both 70, came to the Inland Center shopping mall early Friday morning when stores had just opened. They said they haden’t left their house since the attack, and were avoiding crowded areas that could be “soft targets.”

“I don’t know what’s going on,” Cheri Greth said. “I want to know but I don’t want them to reveal too much,” so as not to harm the investigation.

Her husband said the incident shows the importance of people being watchful and reporting any suspicion, something that the suspects’ neighbors had reportedly felt uncomfortable doing for fear of being accused of racial profiling.

Rick Greth is not sure ISIL has infiltrated San Bernardino.

The shooters “were probably sympathetic to the cause but not necessarily part of a cell,” he said. “We don’t know what’s going on.”

“The whole thing is just freaky,” said Pastor James Linton, 31, a priest at Christ’s Church, an Anglican church in nearby Yucaipa. “People are crazy.”

Every Friday, Linton goes to San Bernardino’s Planned Parenthood Clinic, which is next to a crisis pregnancy center — another type of institution that has recently come under shooting attack.

“I pray for people and let them know those resources exist and they have a choice,” he said.

Today, he said he saw one center worker sprinting in to get inside.

“People are scared,” Linton said. “I don’t know if knowing (the reasons for the shootings) would make it easier. I don’t think so.”

Blanca Pfister, left, and Fabiola Alhawash outside the Inland Center mall, Dec. 4, 2015.
Haya El Nasser

Emilio Amaya, executive director of San Bernardino Community Services Inc., which provides legal help to immigrants, said he worries that the fact that one of the killers came in on a K-1 “fiancée” visa will prompt officials to tighten immigration laws even further.

“It’s going to make it even tougher to get legal status,” he said. “What we need to do is something about getting new laws to control access to weapons.”

Law enforcement have said the rifles used in the shooting were purchased legally.

“I have a 17-year-old,” Pfister said. “He’s really scared.”

She said he worries that gun rights will be taken away, and that people need to be armed to protect themselves.

Pfister and Fabiola Alhawash, 41, were on their way to watch their children in a Christmas pageant at a local theater. Pfister’s son was nervous about being in a crowded place.

“When something like that happens, you walk down the street and look around for the next disaster,” Alhawash said.

“We don’t know the reasons … It makes our community realize that there’s nobody isolated from this,” Amaya said. “This is happening in San Bernardino and it’s something that would happen in Syria.”

Amaya said there are a lot of hate groups in the area and he is concerned about copycat crimes.

“Anything could happen,” he said. “Everybody is scratching their heads. It’s unbelievable. We are still in shock.”

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