Syed Farook's Workplace Wasn't the Target of Violence – the Christmas Party Was
As analysts hand-wring over why Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik chose colleagues as a target -- thus stoking assumptions of a "mixed" terrorism motive that included being sparked by some disagreement or grudge with Farook's co-workers -- the reason for the location of Wednesday's massacre could simply be linked to terrorists' focus on the holiday.
Al-Qaeda and ISIS have encouraged attacks on Christmas Day and at Christmas-themed events to take advantage of vulnerable crowds and to strike at the heart of a Christian holiday.
Farook's division at the San Bernardino County health department rented out the auditorium at the Inland Regional Center, a complex that provided aid to the developmentally disabled, for their annual Christmas party. It was part meeting, part banquet for the environmental health office, an event that police said Farook had attended the previous year. Police said there was a Christmas tree in the room and all of the tables were decked out in decorations; some of the deceased and injured were guests of county employees.
This year, Farook left early during the lunchtime event and returned with his wife, Malik, both clad in tactical gear and heavily armed. San Bernardino Police Chief Jarrod Barguan said the pair seemed to target no one in particular -- they were simply "spraying bullets," as many as 75 rounds. Fourteen people were killed and 21 were injured.
They returned in a black SUV they'd rented a few days beforehand to a rented townhouse in neighboring Redlands, which may not have been their primary residence and had been transformed into a bomb-making factory. Police found one explosive device at the auditorium -- three pipe bombs strapped together -- and 12 more pipe bombs at the home, as well as "hundreds" of tools for making bombs and other unspecified explosive agents or bomb components.
"It is possible that this was terrorist-related, but we don't know. It's also possible that this was workplace-related," President Obama told reporters in the Oval Office today. "And until the FBI has been able to conduct what are going to be a large number of interviews, until we understand the nature of the workplace relationship between the individual and his superiors -- because he worked with the organization where this terrible shooting took place -- until all the social media and electronic information has been exploited, we're just not going to be able to answer those questions."
White House press secretary Josh Earnest today echoed Obama's thoughts. "This individual carried out the violence at his workplace," he said. "So that's a relevant fact as well."
But there's been little attention paid to why Farook's co-workers were gathered together, technically away from their workplace: the Christmas party.
And terrorist groups have a fondness for the holiday season.
In 2001, shoe bomber Richard Reid attempted to down a transatlantic American Airlines flight on Dec. 22. Acting for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight heading from Amsterdam into Detroit on Christmas Day, 2009. On Christmas Day 2011, Boko Haram launched a series of strikes against churches in four cities that killed 41.
Farook, a U.S. native, traveled abroad and returned to the country in July 2014 with Malik, whom he married.
That spring, AQAP released an issue of Inspire magazine that explicitly suggested staging attacks during the holiday season and exploiting Christmas for strategic advantage.
In a bomb-making how-to with the AQ Chef -- the nom de guerre for al-Qaeda's bomb instructor for "open-source jihadists" -- the magazine stressed that "choosing the place and time is a crucial factor to success in any operation. Choose targets in your own country. You know the enemy better, you are within."
Suggested targets were sporting events, election campaign, festivals and any other gatherings regardless of whether or not there's a landmark involved -- "the important thing is that you target people and not buildings."
Recommended times to strike? Christmas and campaign season, said Inspire.
Jihadis were advised to blend into events, even donning a Santa beard if necessary to seamlessly mingle at Christmas events.
"Be creative in your Jihad. This is 'Open Source Jihad'. Surprise the enemy, don't follow a particular protocol," read one tip, stressing "the right man in the right place devastates the enemy."
A different article in that same issue noted that "even without Lone Jihād, life in America has become unbearable due to the recurring random shooting incidents." It praised Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hassan for using the method to inflict "devastating effects on the enemy."
This past summer's issue of Inspire featured a homemade grenade recipe constructed of a pipe with shrapnel and using a Christmas light in the circuit to put a three-second delay on the explosion.
ISIS, whose recruitment propaganda stresses the evil of "crusader" influences including holidays and declares it forbidden for Muslims to so much as receive a Christmas card, has stressed Christmas is a welcome target because of the fact that it's Christian.
In the latest issue of Dabiq magazine, an article slammed Muslims who would send their kids to schools in the West that celebrate holidays to "nullify one's Islam."
"Apart from teaching them to accept all manner of religious deviance and social perversion, the schools of the kuffār [nonbelievers] encourage children to take part in the various festivals of kufr and shirk [idolatry], including Christmas, Halloween, and Easter, amongst others," the article states. "They have them dress up, paint their faces, sing songs, attend parties, exchange gifts, and take part in school plays held for these various occasions."
ISIS has also been waging an anti-Christmas threat campaign on social media. "Oh kuffar you will get attacked on Christmas bi'idnillah," last month tweeted one user whose account has been suspended, along with icons of a gun, bomb and knife.
"May allah swt send a nice christmas present 4 these kuffar," one ISIS fighter tweeted today. "Ameeen."