The couple who massacred 14 people at a California holiday party were discussing martyrdom online a year before they met in person and married, FBI Director James Comey said on Wednesday.
"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. Ever since Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, and Tashfeen Malik, 29 opened fire at the Inland Regional Center of San Bernardino on December 2, investigators have been racing to uncover the motive for the crime.
A US government source confirmed to Reuters that Farook may have been plotting an attack as early as 2011.
The new information diminishes the likelihood of early theories that Malik, an immigrant from Pakistan, had radicalized her husband, who was a US citizen.
Classifying the massacre as a terrorist act, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had said it believes that the couple, who were killed in a shootout with police a few hours after they opened fire, were inspired by foreign terrorist organizations. FBI Director Comey said it would be "very, very important to know" if their marriage had been arranged by a militant group as a way to carry out attacks in the United States, although he said there was no evidence yet indicating that.
In a Facebook posting before the attack, Malik pledged loyalty to Islamic State, the militant group that has taken over parts of Iraq and Syria.
In the weeks after the attack, investigators have zeroed in on Farook's relationship with his boyhood friend Enrique Marquez. Marquez had converted to Islam a few years ago and was connected to Farook's family by marriage. The FBI said that in 2011 or 2012 Marquez legally bought the AR-15 assault-style rifles that Farook and Malik used in their attack on the San Bernardino party.
A government source familiar with the investigation said authorities were trying to determine if Farook had asked Marquez to buy the weapons so as not to draw attention to himself.
Marquez, who worked at a Walmart Supercenter in Corona, California, has not been arrested in the case, but he was questioned by the FBI on Tuesday and his family home was raided over the weekend. Marquez checked himself into a Los Angeles-area psychiatric facility soon after the shooting. Public documents showed that last year Marquez married Mariya Chernykh, whose sister is married to Farook's brother, Syed Raheel Farook, a US Navy veteran.
After Comey revealed to the Senate Judiciary commitee that Malik and Farook had been radicalized for some time before the attack, GOP members of the committee criticized the Obama administration's immigration policies. The committee's chairman, Republican Senator Charles Grassley, said the San Bernardino shootings had shown Obama to be "spectacularly wrong" about the security of the US visa screening process since Malik arrived in the United States on a K-1 fiancée visa. She had listed a false address on her visa application.
"Our government apparently didn't catch the false address in Pakistan that she listed on her application," Grassley said.
Comey countered that immigration policy would do little to protect the US against such attack in the future. "They [The Islamic State] are trying to motivate people already in the United States to become killers on their behalf," he said.