Searching for Motives in the San Bernardino Shooting

  • December 3, 2015

Investigators at the scene of the shooting in San Bernardino

Investigators at the scene of the shooting in San Bernardino

The motive for yesterday’s shooting in San Bernardino, CA remains unknown. In the speculation for causes, though, several details stand out.

That one of the alleged shooters, Syed Rizwan Farooq, apparently targeted his professional colleagues, might indicate an instance of workplace violence, as does the relatively nondescript, apolitical and private nature of the location targeted. However, the degree of preparation that went into the shooting appears more in line with politically or ideologically motivated violence. Moreover, incidents of workplace shootings rarely ever involve multiple perpetrators but there were apparently two shooters in San Bernardino.

Future evidence will be necessary to understand whether or not extremism, or extremist propaganda may have played any role in the San Bernardino shootings; at this time, it is entirely possible that there is no link at all, although investigators are indicating that Farooq had links to suspected extremists abroad.

A combination of workplace violence and extremist-inspired violence has played out in the U.S. in the past.

In September 2014, Oklahoma resident Alton Nolen was suspended from his workplace, a food processing plant. Nolen, who had a prior criminal record that included violent incidents, went home and then returned to the food processing plant with “a large bladed knife,” with which he beheaded a former colleague and attacked a second.

Nolen’s social media feed indicated an interest in violent extremist propaganda, and particularly the violence associated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), even as it became clear that he had no actual links to extremist organizations or comprehensive adherence to extremist ideology.

His online activity suggested that his interest in extremist violence may have informed his decision to undertake a beheading, rather than another form of violence, and spoke to a secondary effect of violent extremist propaganda. His activity did not appear to be politically motivated and he was not responding to terrorist calls for violence, but he was nonetheless influenced by violent extremist content that he found online.

A similar case indicating secondary effects of terrorist propaganda took place in New Jersey in August 2014. The accused per­pe­tra­tor in that case, Ali Muhammed Brown, had a pre­vi­ous crim­i­nal record and is also accused of killing three indi­vid­u­als in Cal­i­for­nia in June. In August, he was allegedly engaged in a rob­bery when he shot a man in a car. When appre­hended, Brown claimed that the mur­der was revenge for U.S. actions in the Mid­dle East.

President Obama has suggested that there may be a combination of motives in yesterday's shooting although, again, more evidence needs to be found to uncover the perpetrators’ actual rationales.

But the Nolen case teaches that violence and rationale are not singularly-faceted issues, and that violent propaganda online has the potential to influence people who may not themselves be extremists.