A Pakistani woman’s role as a shooter in the San Bernardino massacre is raising fears that foreign-born brides who support the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group could marry Americans to come to the U.S. to carry out extremist missions.
Experts in Islamist militancy, immigration lawyers and former U.S. diplomats say there’s no sign other foreign brides have sought Western marriages to launch attacks, and it’s still not clear if 29-year-old Tashfeen Malik did so. But, they warn, that could change, especially if ISIS militants begin actively encouraging women to join men in attacks in the West.
While the group currently bars women from taking up arms for combat or other attacks, its commanders are pragmatic and adaptable and could drop their ban at any time, security experts say.
“When they see an opportunity to do damage, and the best man for the job is a woman, they will use the woman,” said Sasha Havlicek, a founder of the British-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue, whose work includes monitoring the flow of female extremist recruits.
“We will see women more active in terror plots,” Havlicek predicted. “We already know they are radicalizing in unprecedented numbers.”
The flow of ISIS supporters can also go the other way. Up to 30 women have left America to try to join the group since it rose to prominence, according to a recent estimate from the Department of Homeland Security.
The numbers are higher in Europe, where more than 600 women have left to join extremists over that same period, Havlicek said.
A religious conservative who lived previously in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, Malik joined her American-born husband of less than two years, Syed Farook, on Dec. 2 in donning tactical gear, grabbing assault weapons and slaughtering 14 people at his office holiday party in Southern California.
While women previously have served as suicide bombers for violent Islamist groups, experts describe Malik’s role as a breach of current IS limits on the role of women, and the group has been muted in its public responses to the killings.
Farook and his family, like many traditional families in South Asia and elsewhere, used regional matchmaking websites to search for a suitable bride, although it’s not clear if that’s how he met Malik.
An Associated Press review of matrimonial websites showed many families in Pakistan seeking grooms with passports to more prosperous countries, including the United States and Canada, but also in the Middle East.
There were no obvious extremist views on the profiles of would-be brides and grooms. Some Pakistan families, however, told The Associated Press they avoided online matchmaking for just that fear.
“After the incident in California, we should be extremely careful,” said Munir Anwar, a poet in the deeply conservative town of Liaqatpur, in Malik’s home region of Punjab, Pakistan.
People meeting friends or matches online “play with fire,” declared Azim Khalid, a university teacher in the Punjab town of Vehari.
Unlike Malik, who was a university graduate, most of the Pakistan brides being sought by Pakistani-origin families in the West tend to be less educated and thus presumed to be better housewives, said Eric T. Dean Jr., a Connecticut-based immigration lawyer who specializes in fiance visas for brides and grooms from abroad, like the visa on which Malik arrived.
Dean said he’s noticed one particularity on fiance visas: The United States appears to give almost all would-be grooms from Pakistan seeking fiance visas an extra layer of security checks known as “administrative processing.”
But he couldn’t recall a would-be Pakistani bride getting that extra scrutiny.
The State Department, which last year denied no more than 618 out of more than 36,500 fiance visas sought globally, declined to say how many of those denials were for security concerns.
The Islamic State group, meanwhile, has avidly sought female recruits to serve as brides for fighters in its territory in Syria.
While lawmakers including Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, voiced worry, after the San Bernardino shootings, of foreign brides marrying American citizens specifically to launch attacks here, there’s no evidence to date that’s ever happened, security experts and others said.
The prohibition on women taking the offense in jihad is one key reason. Only if imams issue a fatwa, or ruling, that women are needed for the fight can they join it, the ISIS group declared earlier this year in an online manifesto.
If Malik’s marriage to Farook were arranged by an extremist organization or operative, Graham described that as a “game changer” during a hearing this week in Washington.
In response to a question from Graham, FBI Director James Comey testified that any involvement in the marriage by extremist groups would be “a very, very important thing to know.”
So far, IS has noted the husband-and-wife team publicly only as “supporters.” Malik went on Facebook at the time of the attack to swear the couple’s allegiance to the group.
Perhaps because of Malik’s role, female IS recruits who’ve been quick to crow online about other beheadings, bombings and shootings have been hushed about this attack, said Melanie Smith, another researcher at Havlicek’s Center for Strategic Dialogue.
“I think they want to be kind of celebratory about it,” Smith said. “But it kind of goes against what they are told is necessary and authorized for them.”