San Bernardino Killers Were Rare ‘Hybrid’ Terrorists
Perpretrators appear to have blended Islamist extremism with personal grievances common to mass shooters
The terrorist attack that killed 14 people at a San Bernardino holiday party had vexed federal investigators. In the days following the killings, the FBI wasn’t sure whether it was a terror assault or a workplace killing.
It now looks like a combination of both. Married couple Syed Farook, 28, and Tashfeen Malik, 27, appear to have associated themselves with radical Islamism. Malik pledged loyalty to militant leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi shortly after the attack.
The couple stockpiled weapons, ammunition and explosives — indicating that they planned the assault far in advance. But Farook previously worked as an environmental health inspector for the San Bernardino County Health Department, and the couple targeted a holiday party held by the department.
Nor is there any evidence that the couple had any direct ties to the Islamic State, at least for now.
Which is an odd case — and relatively rare for attacks of this sort. The attack was different from what we’d come to expect from the Islamic State, and it has elements that set it apart from other workplace killings in the United States. And that should influence how we try to prevent such killings in the future.
But first, we need to define what we’re talking about. For that, psychologists have coined the term “pseudocommando” to describe mass shooters who typically strike during daylight and whose sense of personal grievance and desire for revenge “transforms … into a perverse sense of honor, which allows him to justify [their] actions,” editor James Knoll of Psychiatric Times noted in a 2012 article.
Unlike the San Bernardino killers, pseudocommandos often do not define their killings in ideological or political terms. In many cases, workplace killers and school shooters who “go postal” kill people whom they simply felt wronged them. It’s hard to call that terrorism.
On the other end of the spectrum, terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State have explicit political justifications for their atrocities, but the assailants often have little — if any — personal connection to their targets. They commonly choose crowded areas simply because that’s where the people are, though there also may be some symbolic importance.
Above — police training. COD Newsroom/Flickr photo. At top — hostage rescue exercise at Camp Humphreys, South Korea. U.S. Army photo
Then there’s a third category — a hybrid. This is someone or a small group which blends grievances at those close to them with an ideological justification for their actions. More often than not, they have no direct relationship with any organized terrorist group. According to the Washington Post:
Investigators said the couple had managed to stay off the FBI radar and apparently didn’t take any overt steps to make contact with Islamic State operatives living overseas.
“This is not Jihad 101,” the senior law enforcement said, saying that the attackers had not taken the usual steps commonly seen in previous terrorist attacks. Other attackers or people accused of trying to travel overseas seeking training have made contact with terrorists through social media. In some cases, supporters of the Islamic State have shared the group’s propaganda.
Under the couple’s own terms, the killing spree was an act of terrorism. But the lack of an organizational connection — that we know about — to the Islamic State and the choice of target has more in common with apolitical mass shooters. Farook also personally knew some of his victims had an argued with them in the past.
There’s a precedent for this. In May 2014, 22-year-old college student Elliot Rodger stabbed his three roommates to death and drove around the college town of Isla Vista, California shooting at pedestrians. In his manifesto, Rodger singled out women and blamed them for his loneliness, and “beta” males — which included his roommates — for their success with relationships.
Rodger also considered himself part of a small group of oppressed “alpha” males whom he believed should organize and strike back. He rendered his personal anger in ideological terms. An ongoing debate is whether an ideology — in this case men’s rights activism which he encountered online — drove him to kill, or whether his own personal problems found a ready-set mythology that allowed him to justify his murderous actions to himself.
I don’t think anyone ever came up with a convincing answer. For Farooq and Malik, was Islamic extremism a justification for actions they had already planned? Or did they stumble across the ideology, which set them down a path to violence? Or perhaps it was some combination, with personal grievances sucking them into an ideology which further drove a wedge between them and those close to them.
We don’t know, but the answers — whether we find any — should raise more questions about how to prevent other killing sprees. Counter-terrorism efforts focused on detecting extremist networks can prevent attacks before they occur, as one of the biggest signs that someone is radicalizing is who they know, such as a person communicating with members of a terrorist organization.
But if Farooq and Malik didn’t do that, then how would you stop them? Like the hybrid nature of the attack, preventing future ones may require a combination of lessons learned from counter-terrorism and methods to prevent workplace violence and school shootings. Thinking of the attack in terms exclusive to one category or the other will come up short.