San Bernardino shooters ‘radicalized before they started dating online’ ‒ FBI director

FBI Director James Comey Jr. testifies at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington December 9, 2015. © Joshua Roberts
Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, the Muslim couple who carried out the San Bernardino, California terror attack, were each radicalized before they met online, the FBI now believes. The agency director blamed encryption for not catching them beforehand.

"Our investigation to date shows that they were radicalized before they started courting or dating each other online," FBI Director James Comey told the Senate Judiciary Committee during a hearing on Wednesday.

READ MORE: San Bernardino shooting (LIVE UPDATES)

The couple attacked a holiday party at the Inland Regional Center for the department where Farook worked on December 2, killing 14 people and injuring 21 more in the worst terrorist attack on American soil since September 11, 2001.

Farook, who was born in Chicago, Illinois and raised in Southern California, and Malik, who was born in Pakistan and raised in Saudi Arabia, were "homegrown violent extremists" who were inspired by foreign terror groups, said Comey.

“We’re trying to sort out what other contributions there may have been to their motivation. At least in part, we see an ISIL inspiration,” he said, referring to Islamic State (IS, formerly known as ISIS/ISIL).

Before Comey’s appearance on Capitol Hill, the FBI had only said that the couple had been radicalized“for some time,” but declined to give more detail about their progression to extremism.

“As early as the end of 2013 [they] were talking to each other about jihad and martyrdom before they became engaged and married and were living in the US,” Comey told the senators, adding that investigators did not yet know whether their online courtship was arranged by any sort of foreign terror organization or if it developed naturally on its own.

“It would be a very, very important thing to know,” he said.

"We're working very hard to understand exactly their association and the source of their inspiration," Comey said. "We're also working very hard to understand whether there was anybody else involved with assisting them, with supporting them, with equipping them. And we're working very, very hard to understand, did they have other plans? Either for that day or earlier, and that work continues."

So far it appears that Farook and Malik were homegrown terrorists who radicalized “in place,” Comey said, as opposed to the mid-November coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris, France, where officials believe the suspects planned and trained in Syria.

Evidence, such as a declaration of allegiance to IS Malik is believed to have posted on Facebook immediately before the attack, shows  that the couple was “at least in part inspired” by IS, Comey said, noting that the terrorist group may not have been their only inspiration, especially because their individual radicalization processes began before IS declared its caliphate across the Middle East.

Malik’s radicalization process also began before she entered the United States on a K-1 (fiancée) visa in July 2014, but was not detected by the American government. Comey told lawmakers that he couldn’t say whether weaknesses in the visa process enabled her to enter the country. The Obama administration is now reviewing the visa program, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson has said, according to AP. He did not say what changes the government is considering.

Comey also took the opportunity to raise a frequent theme of his, complaining that criminals, terrorists and spies are using technology to evade detection. He declined to say what role, if any,  encrypted communications played in the planning of the San Bernardino massacre.

“Increasingly, we are unable to see what they say, which gives them a tremendous advantage,” he said.

Once Malik arrived in the US, she and her husband spent at least a year preparing for their terror attack, NBC News reported, citing law enforcement officials. The two practiced shooting guns at a local gun range, with Farook spending time at the range with assault rifles in the two days before the attack.

Farook, though, may have been planning an attack even earlier than that, in 2012, Enrique Marquez Jr., the man believed to have supplied the couple with the assault rifles, told authorities, according to Fox News. Farook and an unidentified partner considered a specific target, but “got spooked” before carrying it out after a round of terror-related arrests in the San Bernardino area, two US officials told CNN on Tuesday. The sources could not say how serious the two conspirators were about that planned attack.

READ MORE: ‘We wish to respond to evil with good’: Muslims raise funds for San Bernardino victims

The couple also appears to have made financial plans for their family after their deaths, with investigators discovering that about $28,000 was deposited into Farook’s bank account two weeks before he and his wife carried out the attack. It is believed to have been from an online lending company, federal authorities said. Some of the money ‒ $10,000 ‒ may have gone to reimburse Marquez for the use of his weapons so that Farook’s name would not be on file in connection with the rifles. Withdrawals totalling $15,000 appear to have gone to Farook’s mother, Fox News reported.

Farook's mother has been placed on the FBI's terrorist watch list, while his 66-year-old father was placed on that list on Monday, WABC reported. Authorities say their additions are a precautionary measure to make sure Farook's parents don't leave the country.