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FBI: San Bernardino shooters radicalized before their marriage

FBI: San Bernardino shooters radicalized before their marriage
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The man and woman responsible for last week’s killing of 14 people in San Bernardino, Calif., were radicalized at least two years ago, the head of the FBI said on Wednesday, raising new questions about how they managed to avoid federal detection.

In an appearance on Capitol Hill, FBI Director James ComeyJames Brien ComeyMystery surrounds Justice's pledge on journalist records NYT publisher: DOJ phone records seizure a 'dangerous incursion' on press freedom Trump DOJ seized phone records of New York Times reporters MORE said that Tashfeen Malik and her husband, Syed Rizwan Farook, had adopted extremist ideology and talked about committing violence before they had even met in person.

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“Our investigation to date ... indicates that they were actually radicalized before they started courting or 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 and married and lived together in the United States,” Comey told the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The revelation from Comey raises new questions about how the couple’s communications evaded detection by U.S. intelligence agencies.

It is also sure to increase scrutiny on procedures for the fiancee visa that Malik, who is Pakistani, used to enter the country. The K-1 visa has already come under the microscope on Capitol Hill but is likely to be scrutinized with new vigor now.

“This raises two big questions,” Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), likely the next Senate Democratic leader, told Comey on Wednesday. “The first is how come we didn’t know about these communications before the attacks, and the second is how did she get a visa?

“I think most Americans have the assumption that we’re on top of things like this.”

“The visa program in general is a problem; so is the refugee program,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) said later on Wednesday, sweeping the visa for fiances in along with those for tourists and other travelers to the U.S. “They’ve all got to be fixed.

“We need more checks in there because it’s so easy for people to come into the country.”

The White House on Wednesday dismissed the notion that an intelligence failure occurred in the lead-up to the attacks. 

“I do think it’s still too early to make any grand pronouncements about what could have been done differently to prevent this terrorist attack from occurring,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said. 

In response to repeated questions about the couple’s back story, Comey said he was uncertain whether Malik had been interviewed before receiving her visa to come to the U.S. The couple is believed to have met in person in Saudi Arabia in 2013, but had previously spoken online. Malik came to the U.S. in 2014.

It’s unclear, Comey told lawmakers, whether the couple’s marriage was arranged by an extremist group.

“It would be a very, very important thing to know,” he told the Senate panel.

President Obama ordered a review of the K-1 visa program following last week’s violence, which was the deadliest terror incident on U.S. soil since 9/11. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have also called for a new look at the program, though it is unlikely they will yield any progress until at least January.

“It’s a very rigorous process by which a fiance can come into the country,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said on Tuesday. “That doesn’t mean, though, that there may not be room for improvement.”

Reports indicate that Malik may have attended the conservative Red Mosque in Islamabad, which has heightened concerns that she was indoctrinated long before she met Farook.  

The Red Mosque is “one of the more radical mosques,” House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said earlier on Wednesday, during a breakfast briefing for reporters sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor.

Comey’s revelation that the two attackers had discussed jihad and martyrdom online since at least 2013 is also likely to spur new concerns about federal intelligence powers.

It remains unclear if Malik and Farook conducted their conversation on an open platform such as Twitter or if they were in touch through more private means. The FBI has also not given any indications that the two used encryption technologies to hide their discussions. 

If the digital chats were private, the FBI and federal intelligence agencies need some sort of warning to grab a message, he said. Otherwise, officials would be left in the dark.

Tech companies and civil liberties advocates have so far resisted demands that private companies notify federal officials if they discover material related to extremism.

But Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) — who lead the Senate Intelligence Committee — introduced legislation this week to do just that, which could see new action amid concerns about radicals online.

The San Bernardino shooting has perplexed law enforcement and intelligence officials, who claim that the two suspects appeared to have no direction from a foreign terrorist group such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). 

ISIS leaders have repeatedly urged their adherents across the globe to take up arms in the name of its radical mission. National security officials say that the threat posed by the group is as great as any since Sept. 11, 2001.

However, the FBI’s new timeline would mean that the couple had become radicalized before ISIS established its self-proclaimed caliphate in Syria and Iraq.

Still, both did appear to pledge allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, officials have said, providing the clearest indication yet that they were at least inspired by the extremist group.

“We’re trying to sort out what other contributions there might have been to their motivation,” Comey said.

“At least in part, we see an ISIL inspiration,” he added, using an alternate acronym for ISIS.

Jordan Fabian contributed.

This story was updated at 8:16 p.m.