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FBI Unable To Find Direct Link To Terror Group In San Bernardino Shooting


ISIS claims to have had a hand in the San Bernardino attack earlier this month and the shootings in Chattanooga in July. But FBI Director James Comey says investigators looking into the two cases have not been able to find a direct link to ISIS. Comey spoke today at a police conference in New York City, and NPR's Dina Temple-Raston was there.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Every year, several hundred security professionals from the private sector descend on police headquarters in New York to talk about counterterrorism.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: At this time, would everyone please rise for the presentation of the colors and the signing of our national anthem by police officer Nakia Brown (ph).

NAKIA BROWN: (Singing) Oh, say, can you see by the dawn's...

TEMPLE-RASTON: The annual event is known as the Shield Conference, but it took on a greater sense of urgency this year because it convened just weeks after the terrorist attack on a holiday party in San Bernardino, Calif.

JAMES COMEY: I think everybody in this room knows this, but it's worth reminding folks that your parent's al-Qaida was a very different model than the threat we face today.

TEMPLE-RASTON: FBI Director James Comey outlined the difference. Al-Qaida, he says, focused on spectacular attacks.

COMEY: For bin Laden and his successor, al-Zawahiri, at least in the 10 years following 9/11, to do something small would be a confession of weakness. Two years ago, the model changed.

TEMPLE-RASTON: ISIS has an entirely different approach to terrorism. It wants to attract fighters to the swath of land it controls in Syria and Iraq. And if its followers don't want to join them on the ground, then ISIS has a role for them at home - to kill anyone wherever they are. ISIS has sent this message through social media. The FBI director said it's starting to show up in the United States.

COMEY: It is the reason that the FBI has hundreds of investigations in all 50 states trying to evaluate where people are on the spectrum between consuming this poison and acting on these poison.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The problem, Comey told reporters later, is that pinning a particular attack on a specific group is getting more and more difficult. For the first time, Comey revealed that in the Chattanooga and San Bernardino attacks, investigators have yet to find any direct connection to a terrorist group. ISIS has claimed some responsibility for both. Comey says radicalization played a role but it's unclear how.

COMEY: It's often difficult, as it is with San Bernardino, to untangle so which particular source, alright? There's competing foreign terrorists' poison out there.

TEMPLE-RASTON: So, for example, in the case of Chattanooga, there was some indication that the shooter had watched the videos of a radical imam linked to al-Qaida. In San Bernardino, the woman shooter, Tashfeen Malik, is thought to have posted a pledge of allegiance to ISIS just minutes before the attack. U.S. officials say they haven't found any other ISIS connection aside from that single posting. The discussion inevitably turned to trying to stop the radicalization in the first place.

BILL BRATTON: To prevent terrorism, we must go where it begins.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton.

BRATTON: It begins in the minds of those who feel humiliated or perceive injustice. It begins with hate, the hate of the us versus the them. And these beginnings are rarely invisible. Other people see these beginnings, particularly people close to the one who's setting off on that path.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Comey wouldn't talk about the people close to the San Bernardino killers or whether Farook's family might have seen signs that he and his wife were planning something, nor would the FBI director discuss a man named Enrique Marquez, the friend of Syed Farook's who owned the assault-type weapons used in the attacks. All Comey would say was that the investigation was continuing. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dina Temple-Raston is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories and national security, technology and social justice.