San Bernardino and America’s struggle with terror, gun violence
Behind every single one of the 353 mass shootings in the United States in 2015 lies a policy debate narrative. The latest one in San Bernardino, California, is no exception. This tragedy is not being seen through the lens of the recurring trend of gun violence in the United States and the exclusive focus on the Islamic State (ISIS) is obscuring the residual impact of al-Qaeda on US-based self-radicalised individuals.
US President Barack Obama spoke from the Oval Office hoping to calm a nation considering the recent rampages in Paris and San Bernardino as sequential attacks foretelling a new wave of terrorism on American soil. The 2016 presidential election campaign is exacerbating this fear as well, prompting Obama to defend his counterterrorism strategy instead of attempting to make progress on gun control measures.
Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik managed to easily turn their home into a bomb factory and arms stockpile before killing 14 people at a holiday party at an office where Farook worked.
It has been labelled a “hybrid attack” where the motive is a combination of workplace violence and terrorism, although federal investigators are treating the case as an act of terrorism. The obvious reason was Malik’s deleted Facebook post pledging allegiance to ISIS; the jihadist group returned the favour by calling the attackers “supporters”.
ISIS, in fact, has not focused on expanding its operations inside the United States, despite US air attacks on the group for more than a year. But the Paris attacks on November 13th signalled a shift in its approach with the emergence of an alliance between the home-grown “self-radicalised” and fighters affiliated with ISIS.
As international air strikes on Raqqa increase in the coming weeks and months, the extremist group might adopt an outward approach by systematically expanding operations in the West. This is probably the greatest concern post-San Bernardino, leaving US officials to wonder whether this will become a recurring scenario with young, US-based, tech-savvy, self-radicalised individuals emerging from the shadows to commit sporadic violence.
However, there is no credible evidence yet that the San Bernardino attack was the result of a centralised decision taken by the ISIS leadership. Only an amateur terrorist would use a real Facebook account to announce allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi days before planning an attack.
Compared to 5,000 from Europe, including 750 from the United Kingdom, only 250 people have travelled or attempted to travel from the United States to join ISIS in Syria or Iraq, according to a study by George Washington University researchers. Moreover, even though the self-radicalised individuals may idealise and laud ISIS, they turn to alternative sources such as al-Qaeda to learn about the execution of terror acts, as the investigation in Farook’s background is showing.
Al-Qaeda’s influence in the United States should not be taken lightly. Perhaps the greatest threat to US national security, even long after his death, remains Anwar al- Awlaki, the soft spoken American imam killed in a US drone strike in Yemen in 2011.
Awlaki inspired and recruited, in direct contact and via social media, many US-based terrorists and his followers continue to look for his online videos along with al-Qaeda textbooks on how to make bombs, which are the major recruiting tools for those Americans who are prone to be radicalised.
With scarce resources available, US authorities are struggling to determine how to allocate law enforcement measures between a looming terror threat and an increasing rate of general gun violence. Most of the mass shootings reported in the United States have no correlation with al-Qaeda or ISIS.
According to the Gun Violence Archive, a non-profit organisation that provides statistics on gun-related violence, more than 12,000 people have been killed by firearms in the United States in 2015, while 350 Americans were killed from 2001-13 in terror attacks overseas.
Since the 9/11 attacks, 45 Americans have been killed in jihadist attacks inside the United States, compared to 48 killed by right-wing attacks, according to the New America Foundation, a Washington based think-tank.
A survey published in June by the Police Executive Research Forum showed that 74% of 382 US local and state law enforcement agencies view anti-government violence as the biggest threat they face in their jurisdiction, while 39% mentioned “al-Qaeda-inspired” attacks.
The San Bernardino attack fits the gun violence debate as much as it falls in the category of the growing terror threat by lone wolves. The challenge of how best to approach law enforcement in the age of terrorism is daunting. Closing loopholes terrorists can use in the US system to easily acquire guns should be as critical as fighting ISIS abroad.