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From pharmacy student to suspected San Bernardino terrorist: The baffling journey of Tashfeen Malik

by Tim Craig



MULTAN, Pakistan — Syed Rizwan Farook, Chicago-born, a college graduate working steadily in Southern California, was a quiet and devout man who went in search of a wife. He eventually found one, a woman named Tashfeen Malik who lived in a distant land and had never been to America.

What happened next — and the question of how and why a suburban couple with a new baby decided to become mass murderers — is the subject of a frantic global terrorism investigation that includes Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and San Bernardino, Calif.

The FBI is looking at the dynamic between Farook and Malik, who a couple of years ago did not even know each other but wound up dead on a San Bernardino street, riddled with bullets after they had killed 14 people at a holiday party and wounded 21 others.

Did he lead her down the path of radicalization? Or did she lead him? Did they have direct ties with the Islamic State or other international terrorists, acting as part of an elaborate conspiracy, or were they a freelance operation drawing only inspiration from abroad?

A senior U.S. law enforcement official said one possibility is that Malik was already radicalized before she came to the United States last year as Farook’s new bride.

“Was she the hit, or was he already headed down that road?” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation.

Farook’s profile is relatively robust. He was 28, born to parents who had immigrated to the United States from Pakistan. He attended high school in San Bernardino and graduated from the state university there. He had a good job as a county health inspector, making sure restaurant counters were clean, food service workers had properly washed their hands, and public pools were safe for swimming. Although he was something of a loner, plenty of people knew him at the office and at the two mosques where he often prayed.

Much about the 29-year-old Malik, however, remains a mystery. More than three days after Wednesday’s massacre, no one had surfaced as a friend — or even an acquaintance — of Malik’s in San Bernardino.
She was always veiled, wearing a niqab, a covering that left only her eyes exposed. She did not drive. She was known to stay in the car when her husband prayed at the mosque.

But new details about Malik surfaced Saturday during interviews in Pakistan. She came from a prosperous Pakistani family and grew up in Saudi Arabia. She returned to Multan, Pakistan, about 100 miles from her ancestral village, in 2007, pursuing a pharmacy degree at Bahauddin Zakariya University.

One of her closest friends, Abida Rani, said Malik changed around 2009, suddenly paying more attention to Islamic studies than to pharmacology. Malik would travel across town, nearly every day, to a madrassa, where she would spend her evenings, Rani said. Rani added that she thinks the madrassa belongs to the Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam, a particularly conservative interpretation of the faith that is widely practiced in Saudi Arabia.

“We were like, ‘What happened to Malik?’ ” said Rani, who attended school with Malik all six years. “She became so religious, so serious and so focused on Islamic teachings, and she lost her interest in her studies.”

While students at the university were busy socializing, Rani said Malik would watch one of Pakistan’s 24-hour Islamic television channels.

She always wore a burqa. She never sat in the front row in class. She would not interact with young men.

“She was conservative but calm,” said Atif Nisar Ahmad, a professor at the school.

During her final year at the university, Malik became so rigid in her conservative Islamic religious beliefs that she refused a staple of college life: getting photographed. When Malik graduated from pharmacy school, she tried to remove all of her pictures from university databases. She collected all of her university identification and library cards and destroyed them.

“I don’t want any pictures without the veil,” Malik said, according to Rani.

Malik’s religious conservatism did not carry any hints of radicalization, though, according to people who knew her. Her conservative attire was not unusual; about half of the female students at the school were fully veiled, according to local residents.

Khalid Janbaz, one of Malik’s pharmacology professors, said Malik never discussed her personal beliefs, even though professors often tried to engage students in freewheeling discussions about science, philosophy and medical ethics.


“She never said to others: ‘You should do this or you should that,’ ” Janbaz said. “I don’t see any evidence how she could move from that into a shooter.”

According to relatives, Malik’s parents moved from the Layyah district of Pakistan’s southern Punjab province to Saudi Arabia 25 to 30 years ago after a family dispute over property. Malik Anwar, who is Malik’s uncle, said the family was estranged from the rest of the family that still lives in the Layyah area.

Some of Anwar’s distant relatives did travel to Saudi Arabia over the years to visit Gulzar Malik, Tashfeen’s father, Anwar said. They reported back over the years that Gulzar Malik had become increasingly religious while in Saudi Arabia.

After Malik graduated in 2013, she moved back to Saudi Arabia. It was apparently there that she connected with Farook, who had been searching for a wife on Internet marriage sites.

They were legally married in the United States in August 2014 in Riverside, Calif., although a lawyer for Farook’s sister said they were married at an earlier ceremony in Saudi Arabia.

Amir Abdul-Jalil, 50, who knew Farook and prayed with him regularly at a San Bernardino mosque, said Farook told him that his family and Malik’s family had arranged the marriage.

“After he got married, I didn’t have the same connection with him,” said Abdul-Jalil, who was visibly upset after learning that Farook had been the shooter in San Bernardino.

Another friend, Rashid Thompson, said Farook had become more distant recently.

“Once he got married, it was just him and his family,” said Thompson, who last saw him at the mosque two months ago.

Farook, Malik, the baby and Farook’s mother lived together in a two-story townhouse on a residential street in Redlands. The interior of the rented apartment, which the landlord opened to reporters on Friday, revealed what appeared to be the elements of an ordinary life: baby formula, books, personal documents. A tub of laundry detergent and a partially eaten plate of food sat on top of an appliance in the kitchen.

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