SAN BERNARDINO, California — It’s a miracle that Anies Kondoker survived. She had already been shot three times — once in each arm, another time in the stomach. Two more shots could have easily ended her life.
Instead, the bullets whizzed above her head, sinking deep into the wall behind her.
Kondoker survived what has been deemed the deadliest shooting since 20 schoolchildren and seven adults were murdered in cold blood in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012. But what makes Kondoker unique isn’t just that she shared the same workplace as one of the alleged gunmen in the San Bernardino shooting, Syed Rizwan Farook — they shared the same prayer space, too.
Religion is now getting drawn into the mystery behind the motive in the attack as federal authorities have come forward with new information that Farook had recently become “radicalized,” and his new wife, Tashfeen Malik, had pledged her support to ISIS.
Muslim leaders have fiercely condemned the massacre and reaffirmed that Islam does not profess violence. And they’re well-aware that pre-existing fears and stereotypes in the U.S. don’t help that cause. They’re left now with the same burning question that all Americans are asking: How could this have happened here?
Standing in the same mosque where the alleged shooter was known to pray, Kondoker’s husband, Salihin, expressed little doubt over how to both define the horrific slayings and differentiate them from the traditional teachings of Islam.
“This is definitely [an] act of terrorism — killing innocent human beings,” he told the congregation after prayer at the Islamic Center of Riverside on Friday afternoon.
Like many in the mosque who said they knew Farook, Kondoker described his wife’s shock that the alleged killer was seemingly an extremist hiding in plain sight. Farook and Malik were both killed in a shoot-out with police after their violent rampage left 14 dead and 21 wounded.
“There were no signs from this fellow worker he would do this heinous crime,” he said. “Nobody from the office ever noticed this person’s behavior, demeanor, that could lead into violent act.”
With many questions still unanswered that could speak to how the newlywed couple believed to have perpetrated Wednesday’s attack could turn so swiftly to violence, having turned their garage into a bomb-making factory, community members are still grappling over whether they missed any warning signs.
“We’re still coming to grips with how this could happen here,” said Omar Zaki, spokesperson for the Islamic Center.
Arab-Americans were already on high alert after a series of horrific terrorist attacks in Paris worked to shatter a global sense of security. With ISIS claiming credit for that massacre, Islamophobia escalated to new heights in the U.S., stoked in part by politicians whose campaigns built on the general public’s fear of terrorism on American soil.
“There is always a blaming on our faith so when this happens to us, we have more to lose, we have more at stake,” Zaki said.
Instances of violence against Arab-Americans in the wake of the Paris attacks have cropped up across the country. In San Bernardino County, law enforcement authorities are well aware of the potential threat that angry backlash could have on the Muslim community.
“There are some communities that are especially at risk. In our town, the Islamic Center is of great concern to us,” Riverside Police Chief Sergio Diaz said on Friday.
Konkoker, the husband of the shooting survivor, says that despite the terror and the threat, he still remains devout. “My faith has not been shaken at all, with all of these things,” Konkoker later told MSNBC. “You have to look at the crime one way and the religion another way. But it’s easy to just blame a religion.”
Thursday night was the first time in 48 hours that Kondoker was finally able to close his eyes and sleep. His wife is still struggling to do the same. She only has a single bandage left on her arm from where the bullet pierced her skin, but the wounds of trauma will linger for some time.
In rapid flashes of gunfire, she watched 12 of her colleagues die. One of the assailants who pulled the trigger, she says, was another fellow co-worker that she knew fairly well.
And yet Anies survived.
“She is more emotionally disturbed than physically,” Kondoker said of his wife. “This is unbelievable to imagine.”