San Bernardino shooters began plotting attack before their marriage, FBI chief says

San Bernardino killers Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik began scheming to carry out a terrorist attack long before they were engaged or he moved her to the United States on a fiancee visa in July 2014, a widening and increasingly complex FBI investigation has found.

Testifying to the Senate Judiciary Committee, FBI Director James Comey said Wednesday that the FBI has determined “they were radicalized before they started courting or dating each other online, and as early
as the end of 2013 were talking to each other about jihad and martyrdom.”

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The couple thus evaded scrutiny by federal law enforcement, intelligence and counterterrorism agencies for two years before they shot and killed 14 people and wounded 21 others at a holiday party on Dec. 2. It also means they began communicating before the rise of Islamic State.

The couple jointly pledged allegiance to Islamic State on social media shortly before they were killed in a shootout with police, Comey said. Previous reports had indicated that only Malik had done so.

Comey said the FBI is “working very hard to see if anyone else was involved in assisting, equipping or helping them, and did they have other plans.”

Although evidence is still murky, it's possible the seeds of the San Bernardino plot were planted far earlier.

Farook and possibly others may have planned a terrorist act as early as 2011 or 2012 but dropped it after four men were arrested — three of them in Chino — and ultimately convicted in a plot to kill Americans in Afghanistan, according to a government official briefed on the matter.

The official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said the FBI has developed information that Farook told at least one associate in 2011 or 2012 that he was considering a terrorist plot.

“Farook was interested in guns then,” the source said FBI agents have learned. “He was going to gun ranges.”

Around that time, Farook's friend and neighbor, Enrique Marquez, legally purchased the two semiautomatic rifles that Farook and his wife used in their rampage at the Inland Regional Center.

Farook, 28, and Marquez, 24, were next-door neighbors in Riverside until a few months ago. In November 2014, Marquez married the sister of Farook's sister-in-law. The sisters came separately to the U.S. from Russia on J-1 visas, which allow foreigners to enter for work-study cultural exchange programs, said a federal official speaking on the condition of anonymity because the inquiry is ongoing.

The circumstances of the marriage are now under investigation, the official said. Marquez was interviewed by investigators after he checked himself in to a mental health facility following the shooting.

The FBI director's comments suggest Farook, a U.S. citizen born in Illinois, may have specifically sought a confederate long before
Islamic State gained international attention in 2014 to help him plan and conduct the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil since Sept. 11, 2001.

Malik, 29, who was born in Pakistan but lived for some time in Saudi Arabia, was “radicalized” before she met her future husband, Comey said, although it's still unclear who was the driving force behind the plot.

Asked whether the marriage might have been purposely arranged by a foreign terrorist organization to sneak them into the United States to conduct an attack, Comey said, “I don't know the answer to that yet.”

If it turns out a terrorist group had sent them that far in advance and had carefully kept them undercover for two years, “that would be a very, very important thing to know,” he acknowledged.

Malik's role came under additional scrutiny as investigators found a false address on part of her K-1 visa application, the so-called fiancee visa, that allowed her to enter the United States to marry Farook and become a U.S. resident.

“Our government apparently didn't catch the false address in Pakistan she listed on her application or other possible signs that she was radicalized or an operative,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who chaired the Senate hearing.

Two government sources told The Times that Malik used the name of a neighborhood or street near her home in Pakistan, rather than her family's home address. Investigators speculate that she sought to deflect any investigation of her family's reputed ties to Islamic militants in Punjab.

Pakistani security officials questioned teachers and students at an Islamic seminary she had attended in 2013. They also searched the house where she apparently had lived in Multan, a small city in central Pakistan, where she attended a university from 2007 to 2013.

The Bush and Obama administrations used drones to conduct hundreds of lethal airstrikes against militant groups in northwest Pakistan during those years, stoking widespread public anger. The 2011 killing of Osama Bin Laden by U.S. Navy SEALs in Abbottabad, close to the capital city of Islamabad, led to furious anti-American protests.

But security officials in Islamabad said Wednesday that they have found no evidence showing that Malik had contact with Al Qaeda or other militant organizations.

Her ability to obtain the K-1 visa — which required her to give fingerprints and other information that was checked against U.S. immigration, terrorism and criminal databases — sparked concern in Congress.

The Senate Homeland Security Committee demanded more information on how her visa application was handled and whether Farook's background was checked as well.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), the committee chairman, and the ranking Democrat, Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, suggested the process was tilted toward approvals. The State Department processed 36,542 K-1 visas in fiscal year 2014 and denied only 618, they said.

For now, the FBI is focusing on how they missed the secret radicalization of Farook and his wife, and Farook's apparent comments as early as 2011 that he was considering a terrorist attack.

The FBI believes Farook abandoned that plan after the arrests of three men in November 2012 as they left an apartment in Chino. They had allegedly planned to drive to Mexico, fly to Afghanistan and join radical Islamic militants. A fourth suspect was taken into custody by U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan.

Soheil Omar Kabir, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Afghanistan and living in Pomona, and Ralph Deleon of Ontario, a legal permanent resident and citizen of the Philippines, were convicted in 2014 on charges related to providing material support to terrorists and plotting to kill Americans in Afghanistan.

The other two defendants, Miguel Alejandro Santana Vidriales and Arifeen David Gojali, previously had pleaded guilty.

In announcing the convictions last year, U.S. Atty. Stephanie Yonekura said the case showed the danger of local residents being influenced by foreign terror groups — precisely what appears to have happened in the San Bernardino massacre.

“Extremist ideologies can reach from Afghanistan to America,” Yonekura said, “demonstrating the clear need for continued vigilance in rooting out homegrown violent extremists.”

richard.serrano@latimes.com

brian.bennett@latimes.com

Contributing to this report were Times staff writers Christi Parsons in Washington, Kate Mather in Riverside and Shashank Bengali in Mumbai, and special correspondent Aoun Sahi in Islamabad.

MORE ON SAN BERNARDINO

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One brother hatched a terrorist massacre, the other served his country in the U.S. Navy

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATES

10:45 p.m.: This article was updated with additional reporting.

9:18 a.m.: The article was updated with Comey's comments about the couple being self-radicalized.

8:40 a.m.: The article was updated with details from Comey about how long the couple had communicated and possible efforts to make their weapons more deadly.

8:14 a.m.: This article was updated with more information about Malik's visa application.

7:47 a.m.: This article was updated with additional quotes from the hearing.

This article was originally published at 7:44 a.m.

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