WASHINGTON (CN) - The couple responsible for the San Bernardino massacre had radicalized as early as 2013, before the two started dating, FBI director James Comey told the Senate on Wednesday.
At this morning's hearing before the Senate Judiciary committee, Comey confirmed that Tashfeen Malik and Syed Farook had been talking about "jihad and martyrdom" in online chats before Malik came to the United States.
"We also believe they were inspired by foreign terrorist organizations," Comey elaborated. "We're working very hard understanding exactly their association and the source of their inspiration."
The FBI is also investigating whether another person helped or equipped the couple, either on the day of the shooting or in the lead-up to it.
"To find homegrown violent extremists, to find those that are radicalizing and being inspired by these terrorist groups is a very, very hard thing," Comey said.
The FBI director also urged citizens to channel their reactions to the San Bernardino and Paris attacks as vigilance for signs of radicalization.
"My hope is that people will not allow themselves to be paralyzed by fear, but instead to channel that fear into something healthy, which is an awareness of your surroundings," Comey said in his opening.
Noting that the bureau tends to get tips like these from within Muslim communities, Comey emphasized the importance of rejecting proposals that could damage the government's relationship with the Muslim community.
"ISIL is trying to recruit in Muslim communities," Comey said, abbreviating one of the longer names for the Islamic State. "They are trying to motivate people who may be of Muslim faith who are unmoored in some way to become part of their poisonous endeavor.
"The people who so often tell us about people like that are other Muslims, who help us," Comey added. "So, we've worked so hard in the last 15 years to build relationships of trust that allow us to find out who might be trouble and to stop it. That's in everybody's interest and anything that gets in the way, that erodes that relationship of trust, is not a good thing."
The remark represented one of two instances at the hearing in which Comey indirectly condemned Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump, who last week said the United States should ban any Muslims from entering the country.
When Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., asked if the FBI could have intercepted the messages between Malik and Farook, Comey said laws prevent the agency from intercepting private messages, even those between a U.S. citizen and a noncitizen.
The only way the agency could know about private messages like these is if it has reason to look for them, like if a community member reported their neighbor's actions, Comey added.
Comey also used the hearing to lament the problems that online encryption poses to FBI investigations of suspected terrorists.
"What changed over the last two years is that encryption went from available to being the default," Comey said.
Some of the most popular phones in the United States are encrypted by default, making it hard for law enforcement to obtain some information useful in stopping terror attacks, the FBI director said.
Comey assured the committee that the FBI and the White House are succeeding in protecting against terrorist attacks, but President Barack Obama's strategy against the Islamic State faced criticism from the committee chair.
"The president has been hoping that ISIS will go away, because its existence doesn't fit a preferred political narrative," Sen. Chuck Grassley said, using another abbreviation for the Islamic State. "But hope is not strategy. Hope is not a plan. And hope is not action."
The Iowa senator and other Republicans on the committee challenged Comey about the focus of the Obama administration on gun control after the San Bernardino shootings.
Grassley said Democrats are misleading the American people by saying a person on the No Fly List can buy a gun without issue, when in fact the FBI is alerted to the sale.
Authorities gunned down the San Bernardino terrorists on Dec. 2 in a dramatic shootout that capped off the deadliest mass shooting in the United States since Adam Lanza fatally shot 20 children and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., three years ago.
The couple had fled to a residential neighborhood in Redlands after killing 14 and injuring 21 others during a holiday party at the Inland Regional Center, a social services office in San Bernardino.
Comey said he has no reason to believe that the Islamic State has an active cell in the United States, but acknowledged it would be "very, very important" to know whether a terrorist organization helped arrange Malik and Farook's marriage.
Malik came into the country on a fiance visa, which some members of the committee used to criticize the administration's continued commitment to accepting refugees into the United States.
Comey said Malik made public comments about radicalization before coming to the United States on this visa, but that he did not know how or if the comment slipped through the cracks in her application.
Comey mentioned there is an "indication" the suspected shooters also were attempting to turn semi-automatic weapons fully automatic.
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