SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. (AP) – The FBI said Friday that it is officially investigating the mass shooting in California as an act of terrorism, while a U.S. law enforcement official revealed that the woman who helped her husband carry out the attack had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group and its leader on Facebook under an alias.
David Bowdich, assistant director of the FBI’s Los Angeles office, would not give further details about why the bureau made the determination, saying at a news conference that “there’s a number of pieces of evidence that has pushed us off the cliff.”
Syed Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, killed 14 people at the holiday party for his co-workers. The Muslim couple died hours later in a fierce gunbattle with police.
A Facebook official says Tashfeen Malik praised the leader of the Islamic State group in a post at 11 a.m. Wednesday, when the couple were believed to have stormed a San Bernardino social service center and opened fire.
The Facebook official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the person was not allowed under corporate policy to be quoted by name, said the company discovered the account Thursday. It removed the profile from public view and reported its contents to law enforcement.
Malik, 27, was a Pakistani who grew up in Saudi Arabia and came to the U.S. in 2014 on a fiancée visa. Farook, a 28-year-old restaurant health inspector for the county, was born in Chicago to Pakistani parents and raised in Southern California.
Another U.S. official said Malik expressed “admiration” for the extremist group’s leader on Facebook under the alias account. But the official said there was no sign that anyone affiliated with the Islamic State communicated back with her, and there was no evidence of any operational instructions being conveyed to her.
The two U.S. officials were not authorized to discuss the case publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The FBI has been investigating the shooting at a social service center as a potential act of terrorism but had reached no firm conclusions as of Thursday, with authorities cautioning repeatedly that the violence could have stemmed from a workplace grudge or a combination of motives.
Separately, a U.S. intelligence official said on Thursday that Farook had been in contact with known Islamic extremists on social media.
Law enforcement officials have long warned that Americans acting in sympathy with Islamic extremists – though not on direct orders – could launch an attack inside the U.S. Using slick propaganda, the Islamic State in particular has urged sympathizers worldwide to commit violence in their countries.
Others have done so. In May, just before he attacked a gathering in Texas of people drawing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, a Phoenix man tweeted his hope that Allah would view him as a holy warrior.
Two weeks ago, with Americans on edge over the Islamic State attacks in Paris that left 130 people dead, FBI Director James Comey said that U.S. authorities had no specific or credible intelligence pointing to an attack on American soil.
Seventy-one people have been charged in the U.S. since March 2014 in connection with supporting ISIS, including 56 this year, according to a recent report from the George Washington University Program on Extremism. Though most are men, “women are taking an increasingly prominent role in the jihadist world,” the report said.
It was not immediately clear whether Malik exhibited any support for radical Islamists before she arrived in the U.S. – or, like scores of others arrested by the FBI, became radicalized through online or in-person associations after arriving.
To receive her visa, Malik was subjected to a vetting process the U.S. government describes as vigorous. It includes in-person interviews, fingerprints, checks against terrorist watch lists and reviews of her family members, travel history and places where she lived and worked.
Foreigners applying from countries that are home to Islamic extremists – such as Pakistan – undergo additional scrutiny before the State Department and Homeland Security approve their applications.
Pakistani intelligence officials said Malik moved as a child with her family to Saudi Arabia 25 years ago.
The two officials, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, said that the family is originally from a town in Punjab province and that the father initially moved to Saudi Arabia around three decades ago for work.
Farook had no criminal record and was not under scrutiny by local or federal law enforcement before the attack, authorities said.