ISIS in America

News that Tashfeen Malik pledged allegiance to ISIS likely explains what motivated the San Bernardino attackers—but it raises other questions.

Authorities say ISIS has made it to America.

Multiple news organizations reported Friday morning that Tashfeen Malik, one of the two shooters in Wednesday’s massacre in San Bernardino, California, pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, on Facebook in the midst of the attack.

Assuming the report holds true, it likely answers one central question about what motivated the attackers, Malik and her husband Syed Rizwan Farook: an allegiance to the fanatical Islamist group. But it raises many more questions. What does it mean for ISIS to take action in the United States? Is this different from other lone-wolf-style attacks in the United States? Who counts as part of ISIS? Did the couple have any material ties or instructions to the self-proclaimed Islamic State? And can attacks like this ever be stopped?

While the investigation is still in its early stages, officials said they didn’t think that any ISIS leaders had instructed Farook and Malik to conduct the massacre, which killed 14. “At this point we believe they were more self-radicalized and inspired by the group than actually told to do the shooting,” a federal law-enforcement official told The New York Times.

That means this attack is different in kind from the Paris attacks. In that case, officials believe the killings were carefully orchestrated by Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a Belgian who had traveled to and from Syria at least twice, rising from foot soldier to leader in ISIS’s ranks. Even if Abaaoud’s planning was independent, he was in contact with leaders and seems to have returned to Europe with an eye toward conducting attacks there.

If Malik and Farook were acting on their own accord, it would perhaps provide some reassurance that American counterterrorism hadn’t missed communication that could have foretold the attack. The bleak side of that is that it’s very difficult to detect self-radicalizing individuals—even ones, like Malik and Farook, who had stockpiled thousands of rounds of ammunition.