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Southern California terror attack has region on edge

Members of the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force

Members of the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force stand outside a press conference regarding the shooting that occurred at the Inland Regional Center on December 2, 2015 in San Bernardino, California. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Sean M. Haffey

SAN BERNARDINO, CALIF. — In recent days, authorities in and around San Bernardino have had to swat away a steady stream of rumors, hoaxes and false alarms based off a singular sentiment — fear of another terror attack.

There were social media posts that a movie theater was targeted; that the region’s largest shopping mall had been locked down; that law enforcement was telling people to stay away from public spaces.

There was also a UPS facility that halted business due to a suspicious package.

All of the threats were untrue or unfounded, but the fact that a holiday party for civil servants — inside a rented room at a suburban social services center — could be the site of the deadliest terror attack on American soil since Sept. 11, 2001, has many in this region on edge.

“I think everyone is really freaked out,” Stephen Tibbets, a criminology professor at California State University, San Bernardino, said in an interview Saturday. “The fear factor is huge.”

Fourteen people were killed and 21 injured when Syed Farook, who worked with many of the victims as a county health inspector, and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, opened fire inside a conference room at the Inland Regional Center.

Farook had contact with people linked to overseas terrorist groups while Malik used a Facebook alias to pledge her allegiance to an Islamic State leader, authorities have said.

Had the attack Wednesday yielded the same number of dead and wounded, but been attributed solely to a workplace grievance, Tibbets said the community’s larger anxiety may have been less palpable.

“But people can’t believe this cache of guns and bombs were here in their community,” he said, referring to what the FBI seized from the suspects’ rented Redlands town home.

The San Bernardino police force has been on “heightened alert” status since the attacks, meaning all officers work 12 hour shifts, get 12 hours off, and must return again. Police Chief Jarrod Burguan told Newsday that he had initially considered returning his officers to normal shifts Friday.

“That’s until this stuff exploded about people being terrified,” Burguan said. “And if there’s any indication that people are terrified, I’ve got a need to probably continue that increased presence.”

Still, Burguan and the county sheriff, John McMahon, have repeatedly reiterated that there are “no credible threats.”

After all of the online hysteria, McMahon put out statements on social media that said authorities have not asked residents to stay away from any public places, and warned them to only trust verified law enforcement accounts.

On Saturday, groups of residents from the region flocked to the outskirts of the attack site, setting up various memorials crowded with balloons, flowers and candles, dotted with signs of support for both victims and law enforcement.

Standing outside of one of those memorials, Allen Harris, 76, of Los Angeles, said the specter of another attack is something now on the forefront of his mind.

“I think it could happen anytime,” said Harris, a retired shipyard worker who traveled more than an hour to San Bernardino to pay his respects to the victims. “I don’t think this could be the last — and you never know what can pop up.”

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