Has ISIS terrorism crossed the Atlantic?
WASHINGTON - The mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, that killed 14 and wounded 21 increasingly looks like a terrorist attack that was inspired by one or both of the shooters’ devotion to the Islamic State (ISIS).
Although much remains unknown about the motivations of the killers, it is clear that Syed Rizwan Farook, who was born in Chicago and raised in the United States, travelled to Saudi Arabia to meet and marry Tashfeen Malik, a devout Pakistani woman he had met online.
Malik reportedly posted online comments in support of ISIS and an official of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) said that Farook had attempted to contact the Somali-based terrorist group al-Shabab and the Syria-based al- Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra.
Farook and Malik were killed in a firefight with police. When officials searched their home, they found thousands of rounds of ammunition and a dozen pipe bombs, suggesting the attack on the Inland Regional Center — a state government facility where Farook was employed — was not intended to be the couple’s only target.
As of yet, there is no evidence Farook and Malik were part of a larger operation or members of an ISIS cell and they appear to have had no accomplices in the United States. In public expressions of shock, Farook’s family appears to have been taken by complete surprise. The consensus is that Farook and Malik were “lone wolves” who were inspired by, but not directed by, ISIS and other radical jihadist movements.
In some ways, the “lone wolf” theory is more frightening than the idea of an organised cell. Organisations can be disrupted and destroyed; lone wolves are virtually impossible to stop. The fact that America is literally awash in firearms — there are more guns in the United States than there are people — means that an American with no prior criminal record can purchase a gun, including the deadly assault weapons favoured by mass killers, far more easily than he can secure a licence to drive a car.
The fact that Farook was American-born and raised and had no prior criminal convictions meant that his purchase of weapons did not even raise an eyebrow among law enforcement officials. The California terrorist attack has raised many issues but access to guns is unlikely to change any time soon. Just 24 hours after the San Bernardino attack, the Republican-controlled US Senate rejected a bill that would have prevented individuals on the US terrorist watch list from purchasing weapons. In other words, the fact that someone is on the “no-fly” list and cannot board an airplane will not prevent him from purchasing an assault weapon.
In other areas, however, there likely will be changes in policy: US President Barack Obama’s plan to greatly increase the number of Syrian refugees accepted in the United States in 2016 and beyond is unlikely to be implemented. It was already under threat from Republicans and state governors following the ISIS attack on Paris.
Anti-Muslim sentiment in America also is likely to surge and will be reflected in the rhetoric of the 2016 presidential election, especially among Republican candidates. That Farook was born and raised in the United States could add a potentially dangerous new angle to the anti-Muslim rhetoric, for it will intensify the hateful arguments that it is the religion of Islam itself that is the source of terror.
Pressure will grow on Obama to take more aggressive actions in the ground war against ISIS. Even before San Bernardino, polls indicated that 60% of Americans believed Obama’s strategy against ISIS was failing. That number certainly is higher now.
And Obama — who in any event has just over a year left in office — is not the only one threatened by perceptions of policy failure. Former US secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the leading Democratic candidate for 2016, told an interviewer following the San Bernardino attack that the United States is “not winning” the war against ISIS, her cleanest break yet from the administration in which she once served.
On December 6th, Obama addressed the nation on national television. His speech was essentially designed to quell fears and calm a nervous nation; it offered very little in terms of new policy proposals. “The threat from terrorism is real,” the president said, “but we will overcome it.” Obama called the San Bernardino attack a “new phase” in the terrorist threat: US-born extremists who fly below the radar of investigators and are virtually impossible to stop.
Obama warned against the demonisation of Muslims and appeared to make a direct reference to Republican presidential rhetoric when he said: “Our success won’t depend on tough talk or abandoning our values and giving in to fear.”
The bottom line is that Obama is determined to maintain his strategy — air strikes against ISIS positions, deploying US Special Operations forces to Iraq and Syria, cooperating with Turkey on border security and intensifying intelligence efforts. While these policies may be successful in the long term, in the short term they will not prevent lone wolf attacks nor the rising xenophobic rhetoric.