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FBI investigating California shooting as ‘act of terrorism’

Patrick T. Fallon, AFP | FBI agents inspect a vehicle in Redlands, California, close to the suspects’ home on December 3, 2015

A US-born Muslim who along with his wife gunned down 14 people in California may have been radicalised and had been in contact with known terrorism suspects, news reports say.

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The FBI is now treating the shooting as "a terrorist act". In an online radio broadcast, the Islamic State (IS) group said that two of its followers had carried out the attack. US government sources, however, have said there is no evidence the attack was directed by the militant group, or that it even knew who the attackers were.

Tashfeen Malik, 27, and her husband, Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, were killed in a shootout with police hours after the Wednesday massacre at the Inland Regional Center social services agency in San Bernardino, about 60 miles (100 km) east of Los Angeles.

CNN reported on Friday that one US official said Malik, who was born in Pakistan, had pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a posting on Facebook made on Wednesday, the day of the attack, under an account that used a different name.

The disclosure about the online activities of Tashfeen Malik provided the first significant details suggesting a motive for her participation in the shootings.

CNN, quoting officials, said Farook had been in contact with known terror suspects overseas and had become radicalised after marrying Malik in Saudi Arabia last year, although an imam at a local mosque he attended said Farook showed no signs of that.

Malik and Farook had spent time destroying computer hard drives and other electronics before embarking on their rampage Wednesday, a US government source said.

The FBI – who were scouring cell phones and a computer hard drive of the couple – had evidence that Farook had communicated with extremists domestically and abroad a few years ago, the Los Angeles Times said, citing a senior federal government official briefed on the investigation. This official was also quoted as saying there are indications he communicated with at least one person being monitored as a potential terror suspect.

Farook's connection to that person may only be tangential, the source said, but the link suggests there may be a "deeper terror matrix" behind the California shootings, the official said.

Investigators are also looking into a report that Farook had engaged in an argument with a co-worker who denounced the "inherent dangers of Islam", a US government source said.

Pakistani intelligence officials have contacted Malik's family in her homeland as part of the investigation, a family member said.

Up to 3,000 people attended a vigil Thursday evening in honor of the victims, lighting candles and listening to memorial speeches.

President Barack Obama, who ordered flags to be flown at half-staff until Monday, said a terror attack could not be ruled out, but also cautioned against jumping to conclusions.

"At this stage, we do not yet know why the terrible event occurred," said Obama, who has repeatedly called on the Republican-controlled Congress to pass tougher gun control measures, after a string of mass shootings across the United States in recent years.

"It is possible that this was terrorist related, but we don't know. It's also possible that this was workplace-related."

The attack was the deadliest mass shooting in the United States since the 2012 assault on an elementary school in Connecticut left 26 people dead, including 20 children.

Tributes pour in for victims of San Bernardino shooting

Intended target?

Some of the reasons pushing authorities to believe Wednesday's shooting may be terror-related included the astonishing arsenal the couple had amassed, their foreign travels, and the fact that they appeared to have meticulously planned the attack.

"There was obviously a mission here," David Bowdich, the assistant FBI director in charge of the Los Angeles office said, in the wake of the killings at a holiday party for county employees at a social services centre.

"We don't know if this was the intended target or if there was something that triggered him to do this immediately."

San Bernardino police chief Jarrod Burguan said Farook and his wife   who dropped off their six-month-old daughter with Farook's mother shortly beforehand   fired about 150 bullets inside the Inland Regional Centre and during a subsequent shootout with police that left both dead, after a huge manhunt.

He said investigators had found an additional 5,000 rounds of ammunition at the couple's home along with 12 pipe bombs and bomb-making material.

"Nobody just gets upset at a party, goes home and puts together that kind of elaborate scheme," Burguan said, referring to indications that Farook had attended the party and left following a dispute, only to return a short time later with Malik.

'Not afraid'

The duo were dressed in black military-style gear and carried assault weapons and semi-automatic handguns when they raided the party where about 80 people had gathered shortly before lunchtime.

Authorities identified the victims as six women and eight men ranging in age from 26 to 60. All but two were county employees and colleagues of Farook, who worked as an environmental inspector for the health department.

"This is a tragedy but we must show that we are not afraid," said Dorothy Andrews, 74, who joined several thousand people who turned out at the city's San Manuel Stadium.

Acquaintances told AFP that Farook did not seem to have extremist views and was living "the American dream" with his wife and baby daughter.

"He was married, he had a daughter and last year he made $77,000," said Gasser Shehata, 42, who attended the same mosque as Farook. "He had everything to be happy."

According to the site Mass Shooting Tracker, the latest attack brings to 352 the number of mass shootings in the United States so far this year. A mass shooting is defined as four or more people shot in one incident.

(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP and REUTERS)

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