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FBI chief: San Bernardino shooters did not publicly promote jihad on social media

Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik did not make open posts on social media regarding radical Islamic jihad or martyrdom before the Dec. 2 terror attack in San Bernardino, FBI Director James B. Comey said Wednesday, attempting to knock down criticism that U.S. officials had missed the growing radicalism of the couple and could have prevented her from moving to the U.S. last year.

Speaking in New York, Comey also revealed for the first time that the shooting deaths last July of five people after attacks on two military installations in Chattanooga, Tenn., have now officially been classified as a terrorist attack. The assailant in that attack, Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez, a naturalized U.S. citizen living in Hixson, Tenn., was killed by police gunfire after he shot and killed four Marines and a sailor and wounded three other people.

“In Chattanooga we’ve concluded the killer was inspired by a foreign terror group’s propaganda,” Comey said. “It’s often difficult, as it is with San Bernardino, to untangle what particular sources’ competing foreign terror poison is out there. But there’s no doubt the Chattanooga killer was inspired and motivated by foreign terrorist propaganda.”

The classification of the Tennessee attack as a terrorist incident brings to three the number of such assaults in the U.S. this year, starting with an attempted attack in Garland, Texas, in May. In that assault, a security officer was wounded, and the two assailants, radicalized individuals from Phoenix, were shot dead.

In the San Bernardino case, Comey said, some news reports about Farook and Malik’s social media use had been a “garble.” He emphasized the distinction between postings on social media and private messages using social media platforms.

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“We can see from our investigation that in late 2013 — before there is a physical meeting of these two people, resulting in their engagement and journey to the United States — they are communicating online, showing signs in that communication their joint commitment to jihad and to martyrdom. Those communications are direct private messages,” he said.

“So far in this investigation we have found no evidence of the posting on social media by either of them at that period of time and thereafter reflecting their commitment to jihad or to martyrdom. I’ve seen some reporting on that. That’s a garble. All right?

“The investigation continues, but we have not found that kind of thing. These communications are private, direct messages, not social media messages,” he added.

An article Tuesday in the Los Angeles Times was consistent with Comey’s characterization. The article reported that federal law enforcement officials had said that Malik had sent at least “two private messages” on Facebook to a small group of Pakistani friends in 2012 and 2014 pledging support for jihad.

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Those private messages were sent before she entered the U.S. on a K-1 fiancee visa in July 2014. One of the officials characterized the messages as “her private communications ... to a small group of her friends” that “went only to a small group.”

In an article Sunday, the New York Times reported that Malik had “talked openly on social media about her views on violent jihad.”

The two articles prompted critics of the Obama administration to say that officials had not done enough to catch potential terrorists and safeguard the U.S.

Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas echoed those complaints during the Republican presidential debate Tuesday night in Las Vegas.

Last week in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Comey revealed that the couple had posted a message on social media on the day of the shootings pledging allegiance to the Islamic State, before they were killed in a police shootout in San Bernardino. Afterward, Islamic State leaders praised the couple as “martyrs” but did not claim any involvement in the plot.

Facebook has said it discovered the post after the shooting and took it down after notifying the FBI.

The attacks in San Bernardino and Chattanooga both "involved people consuming poison on the Internet" and becoming radicalized, Comey said. “But in San Bernardino, as I’ve said before, we see in the killers Malik and Farook two people who are radicalized before the emergence of ISIL [the Islamic State], and so untangling the motivation [and] which particular terrorist propaganda motivated them and in what way remains a challenge in these investigations. And our work is ongoing there.”

The FBI is continuing to investigate whether Farook and Malik also may have communicated with foreign terror groups through encrypted devices that would have prevented the FBI and other law enforcement and intelligence agencies from following their trail, as happened in the Garland case.

Comey and other law enforcement officials have long sought the ability to get around encryption and listen in on potential terror suspects after obtaining a court order. On Wednesday he called the issue of encryption a “collision” between public and Internet security and basic law enforcement tools.

“That,” he said, is something “we as a democracy must solve together.”

Comey said it was becoming increasingly difficult to track efforts by foreign terror groups to recruit people in this country or abroad intent on sponsoring or carrying out attacks in the U.S. or elsewhere.

“Your parents' Al Qaeda was a very different model than the threat we face today,” he said, noting that hundreds of investigations of potential terror plots were underway around the U.S. And he said that social media platforms like Twitter often were used to radicalize young adults.

“Twitter works as a way to sell books, as a way to promote movies,” he said, “and it works as a way to crowd-source terrorism -- to sell murder.”

Twitter: @RickSerranoLAT

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