WASHINGTON — The two San Bernardino shooters were radicalized at least two years ago, well before one of them came to the U.S. on a fiancée visa, FBI James Comey said Wednesday. Comey said the couple discussed jihad and martyrdom as early as 2013.
Comey’s comments to the Senate Judiciary Committee were the most specific to date on the path toward extremism that Syed Rizwan Farook took with his wife, Tashfeen Malik.
Comey said the two embraced radical Islamic ideology even before they began their online relationship and that Malik held extremist views before she arrived in the U.S. last year.
Though the FBI believes the pair was inspired in part by Islamic State ideology — Malik pledged allegiance to the group’s leader in a Facebook post around the time of last week’s massacre — agents are still looking for other motivations and sources of radicalization. That search continues because the couple’s interest in extremism predates the terror group’s emergence as a household name, Comey told the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“ISIL inspiration may well have been part of this, but these two killers were staring to radicalize towards martyrdom and jihad as early as 2013,” said the FBI director, using an acronym for the Islamic State. “And so that’s really before ISIL became the global jihad leader that it is.”
The latest disclosure also suggests that the government’s vetting process failed to detect Malik’s radicalization when she applied for the visa.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat and member of the committee, said that “after this hearing today, every American will be asking the question, how did this woman come in on a fiancée visa?”
Comey said he didn’t know enough to say whether weaknesses in the visa process enabled her to enter the U.S.
Malik came to the United States in July 2014 from Pakistan after being approved for a K-1, or fiancée visa, and married Farook the following month. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson has said the Obama administration is now reviewing the program. He did not say what changes were being considered.
Malik’s father, reached in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, condemned his daughter’s actions and said he is “very, very sad... I am in such pain that I cannot even describe it.”
The father, Gulzar Ahmed Malik, has been a resident in the kingdom since the early 1980s, the Saudi Interior Ministry says. His daughter was from Pakistan but traveled to Saudi Arabia. A former classmate, Afsheen Butt, said Malik showed drastic changes after a trip to Saudi Arabia in late 2008 or early 2009.
Comey described the couple as an example of homegrown violent extremists who appear to have radicalized “in place,” drawing a distinction between the San Bernardino attack and the one last month in Paris that officials suspect involved planning and training in Syria.
The FBI has revealed little else of what it’s learned about Farook and Malik and their planning, except for details about the weaponry they had, materials they had to make more pipe bombs and that both had been taking target practice.
A U.S. official said Tuesday authorities are looking into a deposit made to Farook’s bank account before the shooting. The official, who had been briefed on the investigation but was not authorized to discuss it by name and spoke on condition of anonymity, would not characterize further the nature of the deposit or why it had caught the attention of investigators.
Though Comey declined to answer questions about whether encrypted communication had been used before the attack, he did use the appearance to reiterate his longstanding concerns that criminals, terrorists and spies can use encryption applications on their smartphones to evade detection by law enforcement.
“Increasingly, we are unable to see what they say, which gives them a tremendous advantage,” he said.
He said one of the gunmen in last May’s shooting outside a Prophet Mohammed cartoon contest in Garland, Texas, had exchanged more than 100 messages with an overseas suspected terrorist prior to the attack that investigators still had been unable to access. Investigators were concerned that the location might be targeted, and ensured that law enforcement officers were ready. The two gunmen were shot dead by police.
“We have no idea what he said because those messages were encrypted,” Comey said. “And to this day, I can’t tell you what he said with that terrorist 109 times the morning of that attack. That is a big problem. We have to grapple with it.”
America’s counterterrorism infrastructure has had success flagging individuals who try to travel abroad to fight alongside militants, fund operations overseas or who communicate online with overseas terrorists. But it’s been far more challenging for law enforcement to identify each individual who self-radicalizes online.