At a press conference in New York on Wednesday, FBI Director James Comey said that no evidence had been found to indicate that the couple who massacred 14 people in San Bernardino, California, on December 2 were members of a terrorist cell or had any contact with overseas militant groups. Most notably, he said that Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, and his 29-year-old wife, Tashfeen Malik, had expressed support for "jihad and martyrdom" in private communications but never did so on social media.
The statement appeared to relate to a report that appeared in the Los Angeles Times citing two unnamed federal law enforcement officials who said that Malik "sent at least two private messages on Facebook to a small group of Pakistani friends in 2012 and 2014, pledging her support for Islamic jihad and saying she hoped to join the fight one day." The messages were reportedly written in Urdu, a common language in Pakistan. One of the officials was quoted as saying the messages were "her private communications."
"We have found no evidence of a posting on social media by either of them at that period of time or thereafter reflecting their commitment to jihad or to martyrdom," Comey said. "I've seen some reporting on that. That's a garble. Alright? The investigation continues, but we have not found that kind of thing. These communications are private, direct messages, not social media messages."
Comey's reference to "that period of time or thereafter" also seemed to cast doubt on whether Malik had declared loyalty to the Islamic State on Facebook on the morning that she and Farook killed 14 people who were attending an employee holiday party at a state-run facility for individuals with developmental disabilities. The FBI said afterward that the post is still being investigated.
A report first appeared on CNN and later circulated elsewhere citing unnamed US officials who said that Malik had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State using a Facebook account that was registered under a different name. The sources did not say how they knew for certain that Malik made the post.
A Facebook spokesperson confirmed that the post was made around the time of the mass shooting. A source close to the investigation told Wired that the pledge was posted at 11:15am on Wednesday, just minutes after the first shots were fired, on an account belonging to Larki Zaat — a name that was presumed to be an alias of Malik.
Comments made by David Bowdich, the assistant director of the FBI's Los Angeles office, following the attack appeared to lend credence to this account.
"I know it was in a general timeline where that post was made, and yes, there was a pledge of allegiance," Bowdich told a news conference on December, though it was uncertain whether the comments were posted by Malik herself or someone else who had access to the Facebook account.
US government sources said that Malik and Farook might have been inspired by IS, but noted that there was no evidence the attack was directed by the militant group or that the organization even knew who they were. The party the couple attacked was for workers with the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health, which also employed Farook. The two died hours later in a shootout with police.
Laura Eimiller, a spokeswoman with the FBI's Los Angeles office, told VICE News on Wednesday that she believed Comey's comments about social media referred to "the time period before the shooting, and describing how direct private messages between the subjects would not have been apparent to a wider audience."
"The reported Facebook post on day of shooting remains under investigation," Eimiller said.
Eimiller did not directly respond to questions about Bowdich's comments about the alleged post on Facebook. The FBI also rejected a VICE News request for a copy of the post.
Comey had previously said that the pair had been discussing martyrdom online a year before they met in person and married.
"They were actually radicalized before they started… dating each other online, and as early as the end of 2013 they were talking to each other about jihad and martyrdom before they became engaged," Comey said at a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Days after the attack, IS declared in an online radio broadcast that the couple, whose deadly attack is being investigated by the FBI as an "act of terrorism," were its followers.
A US government source confirmed to Reuters that Farook might have been plotting an attack as early as 2011. The new information diminished the likelihood of early theories that Malik, an immigrant from Pakistan, had radicalized her husband, who was a US citizen.
The allegations of an Islamic State link to the couple have played a part in presidential candidate Donald Trump's call for Muslims to be banned from immigrating to the US, and law enforcement officials' controversial requests for more power to use surveillance and electronic communications monitoring as part of their counter-terrorism efforts. Critics say that the government's powers of surveillance already encroach on Americans' civil liberties and should be curtailed, not expanded.
This article has been updated.