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Fear after San Bernadino
(David Horsey/LA Times)

Since the terror attacks on September 11, 2001, I have thought that, if I were a terrorist interested in generating the highest level of fear among Americans, I would not go after high profile targets in New York City or Washington, D.C. I'd seek out random soft targets in unexpected places far from the centers of power.

Welcome to San Bernardino, Calif.

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On Sunday, President Obama declared Wednesday's horrific assault at the Inland Regional Center that took the lives of 14 people and left another 21 wounded an act of terrorism; it was near impossible to imagine any other characterization. The initial theory that the shooting might be explained as a disgruntled employee taking out his anger on coworkers seems increasingly unlikely. Yes, Sayed Farook, one of two alleged shooters in the incident, was a county health worker and the scene of his crime was a staff holiday party hosted by his employer at which Farook was in brief attendance. But, when he stalked out of the gathering early, Farook did not just go pull a pistol out of his car and walk back inside to impulsively act out his anger. He returned with his wife, both dressed in combat gear, and they were armed with assault rifles, pipe bombs, handguns and hundreds of rounds of ammunition.

The 28-year-old Farook and his 27-year-old wife, Tashfeen Malik, were clearly prepared for slaughter. The fact that they dropped off their baby girl with a grandmother earlier in the morning suggests they knew that, later in the day, they would either be on the run or dead. After killing the pair in a shootout in the middle of a residential street, police found a huge cache of weapons, ammunition and bombs inside the couple's Redlands house. They also found computers and cell phones destroyed, leaving the clear implication that Farook did not want authorities to track his communications. This was not just a guy "going postal"; this was someone with a long-simmering plan.

Farook, the Chicago-born son of Pakistani immigrants, brought his fiancee, Malik, into the U.S. from Pakistan on a temporary visa in 2014. After they married, she passed a security check and was issued a provisional green card. Farook had traveled to Saudi Arabia twice, in 2013 and 2014 and also to Pakistan. Federal law enforcement officials say they have uncovered suspicious contacts between Farook and persons with ties to radical Islamists. None of this activity had put him on any terror watch list.

In a weird way, it would be reassuring if a strong link to a jihadi extremist is proven. If Farook and his wife could be identified as members of a terrorist sleeper cell, like those imagined in Hollywood thrillers, we would have a familiar scenario to explain their actions. We could make sense of what we are dealing with. What is disturbing, though, is that no one who claims to know Farook has said there was the slightest hint about what was going on in his head. His surviving coworkers were shocked. They said he was a quiet but likable guy who had not shown any dissatisfaction with his job. People who knew him at his mosque said he never expressed any radical ideas. His family said he was a young father who seemed content with life.

What made him turn to evil? His wife? What if their connection to a group like the Islamic State or al-Qaida turns out to be tenuous or nonexistent? What if they radicalized themselves through a few brief conversations with Muslim radicals and careful study of jihadi websites? What if it is easier than we have ever imagined to flip a switch in some people's heads and transform them from mild-mannered young people to merciless killers almost overnight?

In that case, we face a threat that could go undetected and manifest itself on any day in any place on the map. How do we defend ourselves against an enemy like that?

Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David Horsey is a political commentator for the Los Angeles Times. Go tolatimes.com/news/politics/topoftheticket/ to see more of his work.

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