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The terrorism question looming over the San Bernardino attack

There are many unknowns in the San Bernardino mass shooting, including what motive propelled the suspects to unleash their deadly force at a social services center. So far, several reports have suggested that the FBI is treating it as a terrorist case. Judy Woodruff talks to Michael Leiter, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, and Seamus Hughes of George Washington University.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now, let's return to some of the questions out there about the murders in San Bernardino. Several news reports suggested the FBI is treating the shooting as a terrorist case. There's also been speculation as to whether the suspects could have been radicalized. Again, there are many details still unclear, including motive.

    But let's discuss what we know with two who are familiar with these issues. Michael Leiter is the former director of the National Counterterrorism Center. He's now with the technology company Leidos. And, Seamus Hughes, deputy director of the program on extremism at George Washington University.

    Michael Leiter, Seamus Hughes, welcome.

    So Michael, let me start with you. As we just said, we don't know the motive. We don't know if there was some workplace friction involved in this. But we do know they had a lot of ammunition in their home, in the vehicle. We know they had traveled overseas, but he — they were not on any watch list. Why not? What would have put them on a watch list?

  • MICHAEL LEITER, Former Director, National Counterterrorism Center:

    Well, usually to be on a watch list there has to be reasonable suspicion of people being involved in terrorist activity. In this case, you have individuals who were Muslim — that is obviously not enough. You have people who have traveled to the Middle East, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia — that in and of itself is not enough. And potentially you had individuals who were communicating with others who were on the watch list.

    Now if you have details about that and it's particularly probative, that could get someone on a watch list, but I don't think we yet have enough information to know whether or not they were inappropriately or appropriately not on watch lists.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Seamus Hughes, you study people who are — I guess the classification is extremists — people who are radicalized. What happens in that classification? What — changes someone from being not radicalized to being radicalized?

  • SEAMUS HUGHES, George Washington University:

    It's a very highly individualized process and each person is different. And it can range from a few weeks to a few months. And we've seen in each one of the cases that family members see something concerning every time. They see something – they see a train wreck happening in slow motion, but they don't know what they're seeing. They don't know who to talk to in these situations.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    When we heard, I think it was the brother-in-law, of the man, the suspect here, saying the family, in essence, was shocked. He had no idea this was going on.

  • SEAMUS HUGHES:

    Yeah. And that's usually a general reaction. I would be surprised if other friends and family didn't see something, also, though. I would think that someone saw something at some point and said, this seems a little bit off, and they just didn't know what to do after that. JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael Leiter, how do authorities go about piecing information together? If he — they were in touch with people who were being watched, if they were buying weapons, you know, when does that become critical mass?

  • MICHAEL LEITER:

    Well, you know, a lot of that information authorities may not actually know at the time. They may see calls going from someone who is on a watch list to someone else. They really don't have any indication at that point to look at these two individuals. What they'll do now, of course, is that forensic analysis. And what is so hard for authorities is after the fact, the Monday morning quarterbacking, you can look at all those dots of information and say, ah, of course, this is what happened.

    But before, this is disparate pieces of information. The fact that someone goes and buys a weapon in the United States, there's nothing illegal. So — But it will now be, I think, the exploitation of the electronic media, their footprints online, their phone conversations, all of those pieces will give authorities the best indication of whether or not there was an element of radicalization going on here.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Seamus Hughes, as you have looked at this population, I mean, how many people are — are you studying out there who may have the characteristics of someone who would be prepared to pull off something like this?

  • SEAMUS HUGHES:

    It's an ongoing investigation. We're still figuring out the exact motive and it may be a mix between workplace violence and terrorism. But in terms of ISIS recruits, we looked at cases of 71 individuals in the legal system, they tended to be younger. So the average age was 26, one-third of the cases they were 21. The vast majority were male, but we saw a number of females in the study. So we see that the demographic changes.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    That's what I wanted to ask you about, because this a couple. We understand they were married. They had a young baby. They had been married just recently. They're both in their mid-20s. My question is, does this fit the profile?

  • SEAMUS HUGHES:

    I mean, that's the exact question. There's not a typical profile when we look at these cases. We've seen old and young, rich and poor, you could be a — 40 percent of them are converts, but the general population is 23. It runs the gamut on these type of things. In terms of the role of women in these type of activities, it's not necessarily a novel thing. We've seen women play a prominent role as propagandists and recruiters. What is novel in this is the fact that she was a mass shooter, and that's unlikely.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Michael Leiter, that makes the work of the authorities a lot harder, doesn't it?

  • MICHAEL LEITER:

    This is very, very hard. This is the counterterrorism and law enforcement official's worst nightmare. One or two individuals with weapons who are either radicalized or motivated by anything, it's very hard to detect. We have some advantages over our European counterparts and some disadvantages. What we saw in Paris is open borders produced by the Schengen initiative makes it very hard for Europeans. The isolated Muslim communities makes it very hard for Europeans. But here in the United States, the terrorists have a real advantage and that is easy access to weapons. It makes actually going to that step of violence that much easier in the U.S. and hence, that much harder for counterterrorism officials to ultimately stop.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So you're saying that's a contrast with Europe; that it's harder there to get the weapons than it is here?

  • MICHAEL LEITER:

    It absolutely is. Again, I think in most European countries, the U.K. and France, issues of radicalization are more problematic. There's a higher percentage of those who are radicalized, they are more isolated and, again, the open borders of Europe make it harder to detect. So we have some advantages there, but the ready access to weapons makes it harder for officials here.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And again we want to stress, we don't have all the information. In fact, we really just have bits and pieces at this point. But Seamus Hughes, how — when you're looking at these individuals, is this something that happens gradually over a period of time? Or does — is there one incident that tends to make them snap and decide, I'm going to go in that direction?

  • SEAMUS HUGHES:

    Again, it's a highly individualized process. We've seen months. But with the advent of social media, that radicalization process has shrunk considerably and usually there is some sort of trigger event, something that pushes someone over the edge. They already have this world view and just one more thing just kind of triggers them to action.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Michael Leiter, I think the question on a lot of people's minds tonight is what more can be done to identify individuals who may be at risk of doing something like this?

  • MICHAEL LEITER:

    Well, I don't want to say it's impossible to stop these, but it's very, very difficult. I do think that making sure that individuals who are on the watch list — not this case — are checked when they buy weapons. I think that's a critical step.

    We then have to have really deep engagement with Muslim communities in the United States so those communities feel that they are a partner. It is not adversarial between law enforcement and them. And they will identify these individuals, they will report them. We're not always going to have indicators, so what intelligence can do is find those places where we have indicators, whether it's travel or online activity, and then rely on those communities to partner with government officials and make clear that this is not a war of the U.S. versus Islam, but in fact it is a partnership against people who are pursuing violence for any number of reasons.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Michael Leiter, Seamus Hughes, we thank you both.

  • MICHAEL LEITER:

    Thank you.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And for any updates, we will continue our coverage of the story throughout the night online. That's atpbs.org/newshour.

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