Right after the shootings in San Bernardino, the terrorism talk started. Media and politicians said:
- The two shooters are connected to ISIS.
- They were influenced by foreign terrorist groups.
- Syed Rizwan Farook was “self-radicalized” as an “Islamic terrorist.”
- Tashfeen Malik posted public statements on social media about violent jihad.
The politicians and the headlines, it turns out, were wrong. And that matters. In a season that proclaims hope for peace and good will, we can begin by countering fear-mongering with facts.
The San Bernardino shooters were not part of ISIS or any other group.
According to the FBI, there’s no evidence linking the shooters to ISIS or any other foreign terrorist network.
Syed Rizwan Farook and his friend Enrique Marquez were planning terrorist attacks as far back as 2010 and 2011 and 2012. They are both U.S.-born citizens. They had no apparent connection to any larger group. In 2011, according to a NPR report:
“…they had these two AR-15 rifles along with pistols and pipe bombs to attack a local community college and also a local interstate. They wanted to throw these bombs in the road and stop traffic and also shoot as many people as they could, including police officers and other first responders. That actually didn’t happen. They decided not to launch the attack …”
Marquez has now been charged with conspiring to commit crimes of terrorism in 2011 and 2012, as well as with buying the guns used in the San Bernardino shooting for Farook.
ISIS emerged in Syria and Iraq in 2013. That’s two years after the first attack planned by Farook and Marquez. While other radical groups predated ISIS, there’s no evidence that Farook and Marquez had links to any of them. Their plotting also predated Farook’s 2014 marriage to Tashfeen Malik.
Muslim terrorists and Christian terrorists
Farook and Marquez were homegrown U.S. terrorists, like Eric Rudolph and John Salvi and Robert Dear. Farook and Marquez are Muslims. Rudolph and Salvi and Dear are Christians. All of them claimed a connection between their faith and their terrorism.
In the United States, over years since 9/11, right-wing terrorists, including explicitly Christian terrorists, have killed far more people than Muslim terrorists. These include people like Robert Dear, who killed three people at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, and Dylan Roof, who killed nine people in a black church in Charleston, South Carolina. They also include what one police officer characterized as “militias, neo-Nazis and sovereign citizens.”
Two professors who have studied terrorism in the United States wrote in the New York Times in June:
“The main terrorist threat in the United States is not from violent Muslim extremists, but from right-wing extremists. Just ask the police.
“In a survey we conducted with the Police Executive Research Forum last year of 382 law enforcement agencies, 74 percent reported anti-government extremism as one of the top three terrorist threats in their jurisdiction; 39 percent listed extremism connected with Al Qaeda or like-minded terrorist organizations.”
Advocating terrorism on social media? No.
On December 13, the New York Times said Tashfeen Malik supported “violent jihad” on social media, and that U.S. immigration officials should have known about it:
“Ms. Malik had made little effort to hide — that she talked openly on social media about her views on violent jihad.
“She said she supported it. And she said she wanted to be a part of it.”
By December 18, the New York Times apologized for making a huge factual error.
“It involved a failure of sufficient skepticism at every level of the reporting and editing process — especially since the story in question relied on anonymous government sources, as too many Times articles do. …
“Ms. Malik had not posted ‘openly’ on social media. She had written emails; she had written private messages, not visible to the public; and she had written on a dating site.”
FBI director James Comey confirmed that the initial report was wrong:
“So far in this investigation, we have found no evidence of posting on social media by either of them at that period of time and thereafter reflecting their commitment to jihad or to martyrdom. I’ve seen some reporting on that and that’s a garble.”
Moreover, as the Times article conceded:
“Social media comments, by themselves, however, are not always definitive evidence. In Pakistan — as in the United States — there is no shortage of crass and inflammatory language. And it is often difficult to distinguish Islamist sentiments and those driven by political hostility toward the United States.”
Counter fear with facts
Shootings and terror — in San Bernardino, in Paris, in Colorado Springs, in Charleston — make us all afraid. We look for explanations, for enemies to blame, for someone to fight. Politicians, social media, and the mainstream media rush to offer information and explanations, often in the service of some agenda. Dramatic accusations get headlines, clicks, and lots of attention. Corrections get almost none.
Fear, fed by misinformation, poisons public discourse with racism, Islamophobia and xenophobia. Facts are the antidote for that poison.