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FBI: California Shooters Radicalized Years Ago, Encryption Is a ‘Business Model’ Question

The director of the FBI says the San Bernardino shooters were radicalized before they met.

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The married couple that shot and killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California, last week had each been radicalized long before they met, and may have begun planning violence years ago, FBI Director James Comey told lawmakers Wednesday.

“[These] two killers … were radicalized for quite a long time,” Comey said of U.S. citizen Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, his Pakistan-born wife. He said the FBI’s investigation “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 then married.”  

In the aftermath of attacks in San Bernardino and Paris, law enforcement officials have warned the growing availability of encrypted communications tools has made it more difficult to uncover terrorist plots. On Wednesday, Comey, who has emerged as the Obama administration’s most vocal advocate on the issue, renewed his call for American technology companies to be able to unlock encrypted devices at the request of a court order. His comments came during a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Comey also offered the most concrete example yet of the dangers involved when companies like Apple and WhatsApp cannot give officials information sought in terrorism investigations: On the morning of the May attack on a cartoon exhibit in Garland, Texas, one of the gunmen exchanged 109 messages with an “overseas terrorist,” Comey said. Because those messages were encrypted, the FBI still does not know what was said in that conversation.

“Use of encryption is part of terrorist tradecraft now, because they understand the problems we have getting court orders to be effective,” Comey said. He specifically referred to an encryption method in which only a user can unscramble the content of a message.

In the San Bernardino shootings, Malik pledged allegiance to the Islamic State on Facebook just as the attacks were beginning, but whether she used encrypted messaging to contact anyone abroad remains unclear.

The FBI believes both Malik and Farook were inspired by foreign extremist groups, including the Islamic State. “We are working very hard to see if anyone else was involved in assisting, equipping, or helping them. And did they have other plans?” Comey said.

That the two shooters held extremist views — and potentially posed a threat — sparked questions about why Malik was allowed to enter the United States. Malik immigrated to the United States in 2014 on a so-called “fiancée” visa, which grants entry to foreigners who intend to marry Americans.

“Here, we have somebody who was talking about jihad, probably for years,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). “I think most Americans think we’re on top of things like this.”

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) signaled Malik provided false information on her visa application, calling it “yet another example of the failure of the screening process for those entering the United States.”

“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,” Grassley said.

When asked if Farook and Malik’s marriage might have been arranged by an extremist group, Comey said he did not know. But if so, he said, it would mark a new phase of terrorism by groups like the Islamic State in finding new ways to get foreign attackers on American shores. “That would be a very, very important thing to know,” Comey said.

However, he cautioned that each of the attackers began to be radicalized before the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

The Islamic State has long emphasized to its members the importance of proper communications security, including the use of encryption. That is what has led American officials to urge U.S. technology companies to make their users’ data more easily accessible.

Comey said the government is not seeking a so-called “backdoor to encryption and called access to secret communications a “business model question” for Silicon Valley.

In the aftermath of the Edward Snowden revelations, which shed light on the tremendous scope and ability of American intelligence collection, Silicon Valley stepped up encryption in response to customer fears that their devices and apps were vulnerable to spying.

Apple CEO Tim Cook has described privacy as a fundamental human right and encryption as “a must in today’s world.” By contrast, full disk encryption on the iPhone and end-to-end encryption on Apple’s popular iMessage app has prompted John Escalante, chief of detectives for Chicago’s police department, to call it “the phone of choice for the pedophile.”

Comey noted “plenty of companies today that provide secure services to their customers and still comply with court orders” and highlighted Apple’s recent embrace of encryption. His hawkish views have spawned frustrated responses from technologists and computer security experts that decryption would fatally undermine security products that ordinary companies and individuals — and not just terrorists — use to keep data safe.

Comey has gradually softened his rhetoric since last summer, but his message to Silicon Valley remains very much the same: Encryption keeps law enforcement in the dark at a time of heightened risk. He said Wednesday that he is not seeking legislation to force tech companies to unlock products.

Tech executives have warned that forcing them to abandon or undermine encryption could put Silicon Valley at a potential competitive disadvantage when their overseas rivals do not face the same requirements.

That’s an argument Comey does not appear to be particularly sympathetic toward. “There are costs to being an American business,” he said. “Do what’s right for America first and then try to reduce the harm that might come competitively.”

Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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