Every time there is a terrorist incident friends and acquaintances contact me and tell me “how it actually happened.” God knows as a former intelligence officer I truly do believe that nearly anything is possible given enough planning and good luck in arranging for a misdirection or cover-up, so I am generally speaking receptive to what people are saying and thinking in the belief that even seemingly wild conspiracy theories sometimes can be rooted in reality.
People often embrace conspiracy theories because the government has lost all credibility. Official lying has probably been the norm since the time of Pharaoh Khufu but recent U.S. investigative commissions starting with the Warren Report on the killing of JFK and continuing with the 9/11 report have clearly avoided inquiring into matters that might be regarded as controversial, raising serious questions about their objectivity and veracity. And then there is the question of what is not investigated. Where, for example, is the investigative report on the disastrous U.S. decision to invade Iraq which used fake intelligence and might have amounted to a criminal conspiracy to go to war? If such a review had ever taken place a few neoconservatives might well be hanging out to dry in some federal prison rather than appearing on Sunday morning talk television. Truth, or at least the government version thereof, is clearly selective.
So what am I being told about San Bernardino? Islamic State (ISIS) has declared that Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik were its followers though it has not claimed that it directed the operation. There may also have been some kind of minimal contact, possibly limited to visiting websites, with al-Nusra in Syria and al-Shabab in Somalia. That notwithstanding, the most popular narrative I have been hearing is that it was none of the above, being instead a false flag operation carried out by any one of a number of possible suspects who might have been motivated to advance the “clash of civilizations” between western governments and Islam. The two gunman could have been in touch with someone who they thought to be a friend and co-religionist but who was in reality an agent provocateur hoping to inspire them to some act of violence that would harden U.S. opinion against Muslims. Far fetched? Perhaps, but stranger things have happened.
And then there is a perhaps more plausible variation on the false flag, which is an FBI sting operation gone rogue or at least spinning out of control. The FBI’s counter-terrorism effort has largely consisted of identifying disaffected young Muslims through intercepts of internet messages and phone calls prior to placing them on a list for more intrusive investigation. There are reported to be something like 1,000 terrorist suspects who are currently being watch listed, though there are many more who do not quite meet the threshold requirements for active and ongoing investigation. The shooters in California, for example, reportedly had visited some terrorist related sites but had not actively engaged with them so they did not cross the redline that would have mandated further action by the Bureau.
Those disgruntled young Muslims who do meet the FBI requirements for more intensive handling frequently find that they have a new friend who is someone just like themselves who is really unhappy about what the United States is doing in the Middle East and to Muslims worldwide. That friend is usually an FBI informant who is not supposed to encourage any criminal act, which would be entrapment. But who knows what actually goes on behind closed doors in conversations that are not being recorded? The new friend sometimes claims to have access to bombs and weapons. The bombs don’t work and the weapons don’t fire but even before they can be used an arrest is made and everyone involved in the sting gets promoted.
In the case of San Bernardino, the FBI claims that it was completely unaware of the potential threat posed by Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik. But it is being suggested by some who are suspicious of such disclaimers that they might have indeed known enough about them to insert an informant. After that point the game possibly went a little bit too far with the targets coming up with their own weapons probably unbeknownst to their new friend and deciding to act. Or maybe the informant himself was in the loop but playing a double game against his FBI paymasters, who is to say? But the end result could possibly have been the same, with the attack taking place killing fourteen innocent people and also the two shooters who will never be able to talk about what motivated them to do what they did.
A good friend of mine has advanced yet another theory that is definitely outside the box. Syed Rizwan Farook met his future wife through an Islamic matrimony website. It was an arranged marriage though he did meet her once or twice before they were wed. By one estimate, 15% of young Muslims who are being radicalized and joining ISIS are women. If one were set up an ISIS-linked marriage agency intended to entice lonely young men who have western passports it might be relatively easy to staff. And once the couple is actually married and in place in Europe or the U.S. there comes the indoctrination phase and you wind up with a radicalized agent in place who is at least somewhat above suspicion and carrying a passport that can be used to travel worldwide. And if he is in the United States his “mission” is much easier in that he can easily acquire all kinds of weapons and bomb making material.
And using a woman to trap a prospective agent is not exactly that unusual in clandestine operations. The Soviets had their “sparrows” and western intelligence exploited “honeypot” operations. So I am actually kind of inclined towards the viability of the marriage agency idea and I will explain why. Last week’s newspapers quite understandably explored Tashfeen Malik’s background in great detail. Relying on government sources they have explained how Malik was checked on terrorism data bases, against criminal records and also interviewed several times by consular officers before she was issued her a K-1 visa, commonly referred to as a “fiancé” visa.
My response to that is “So what?” If someone has not lived or traveled in the U.S. or Europe he or she will, with rare exceptions, not have come to the attention of anyone who actually compiles and shares such information. She would not be in any general terrorism related data bases that American officials would normally have access to without going to the local intelligence liaison service, which they would only rarely do if there were definite red flag concerns. Nor would the U.S. Embassy Consular Section, which issues visas, have any ability to access local criminal records in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia under normal circumstances, where Malik reportedly lived and grew up. All of which means that nothing would come to the surface even if Tashfeen Malik had been a raving militant, which just might have been the case.
The inability of the U.S. government to “vet” immigrants and those who have entry permission by right through marriage or family is at the heart of the problem in keeping out the bad people while still allowing ordinary travelers and genuine refugees to enter the United States. It is a dilemma rendered even more complicated by the lack of any local government in parts of Syria and Iraq where many of the refugees claim to originate from. If someone speaking Arabic produces a tattered passport that could be fake or identifies himself using a name and address in bombed out Aleppo or Mosul how do you confirm it? And if a U.S. government official claims that someone has been thoroughly checked and investigated, should you believe it?