- - Sunday, December 6, 2015

LAHORE, Pakistan — When Pakistani-born Tashfeen Malik, 29, swore allegiance to the Islamic State on Facebook in the final moments of her life last week and went on a deadly shooting rampage with her husband in San Bernardino, California, it was the culmination of years of exposure to radical Islam.

Malik’s father, Haji Gulzar Ahmed Malik, had become explicitly more religious after moving to Saudi Arabia to pursue his engineering career 25 years ago, said Javed Rabbani, brother of Haji Gulzar Ahmed Malik and Malik’s paternal uncle.

But few outsiders here suspected the depth of the family’s extremism, either in Saudi Arabia and her native Pakistan.

“We heard from the other relatives who visited and came back with stories of Tashfeen’s father, Gulzar, becoming a staunch believer,” said Mr. Rabbani, who lives in Layyah, a small city in the north-central province of Punjab in Pakistan. “What has happened is shocking for us. We never imagined that young Tashfeen would get involved in militant activities.”

The veil-wearing wife was a mystery to many of the friends of her husband, Syed Rizwan Farook, despite her time in the U.S. But she is emerging as a central focus of the investigation into the horrific shooting that left 14 dead and 21 wounded. The victims were mostly co-workers and associates of Farook, but even they said they knew little about the Pakistan-born Malik.

“There’s a serious investigation ongoing into what she was doing in Pakistan and Saudi [Arabia],” Rep. Michael T. McCaul, Texas Republican and chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said Sunday on Fox News. “We think that she had a lot to do with the radicalization process and perhaps with Mr. Farook’s radicalization within in the United States.”

The basic outlines of her life have become well-known, but it is the details investigators in the U.S. and here in Pakistan are still trying to uncover.

In 2007, Malik returned from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan to study for a pharmacy degree at Bahauddin Zakaria University in Multan in southern Punjab. Syed Nisar, one of Malik’s professors in the pharmacy department at the university, remembered her as a pious, hardworking student.

“She was amongst the finest students in her class,” he said. “Yes, she was religious and used to wear a veil. But there were not any alarming signs or activities of radicalization. She lived in girls’ hostel and wouldn’t mingle with other students much. She usually kept to herself.”

But Arif Jamal, an independent U.S.-based journalist and Islamism analyst, said Bahauddin Zakariya University is known as one of the most conservative educational institutions in Pakistan. The region where it is located is replete with Islamist and jihadi organizations, he said.

“Many teachers are also known to be affiliated with jihadist organizations,” he said. “Jihadist leaders regularly visit and hold conferences and give lectures to students on jihad. Many students at the university are already recruited by the jihadist organization when they enter the university. It is very difficult for students to escape jihadists’ influence even when you were not affiliated with any jihadist organization at the time of entering the university.”

In 2012, after finishing her pharmacy course, Tashfeen Malik moved back to Saudi Arabia. A year later, reportedly through iMilap.com, an online marriage website that caters to Indians suffering from blindness, deafness and other disabilities, she met her soon-to-be-husband, Farook. The couple married in 2014, moved to the U.S. and gave birth to a baby who is now 6 months old.

U.S. officials reportedly held talks recently with Shahbaz Sharif, Punjab’s chief minister and the brother of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, at the Pakistani Embassy in London. During the talks, reports said, the U.S. handed over evidence of Malik’s links to radical cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz of the Red Mosque in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad.

Shahbaz Sharif vowed to use the information to crack down on extremism in the country.

“There is no soft corner for [the] Taliban left in Pakistan,” he said during a press conference in London. “In Punjab, we have taken huge steps for counterterrorism: changed laws and curbs on hate speech and hate material. We have told [Sunni and Shiite mosques] that no hate will be tolerated.”

Mr. Aziz garnered headlines in 2007 when he led violent demonstrations in favor of Shariah law in Pakistan and in support of the Taliban in Afghanistan. The fundamentalists clashed with security forces, resulting in a bloody siege. Then-President Pervez Musharraf ordered an assault on the jihadis around the Red Mosque and its adjoining madrassa, an Islamic religious school.

In March last year, Mr. Aziz expressed support for Islamic State chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, saying, “Soon ISIS will unfurl the flag of victory on the whole world.”

Months later, female students from the Red Mosque’s madrassa released a video in Arabic declaring their support for the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, and al-Baghdadi and asking the Pakistani militants to join hands with Islamic State fighters.

Mr. Aziz remains in charge of the Red Mosque. On Saturday, he issued a statement to the local press condemning the California attacks and rejecting charges that he was connected to Tashfeen Malik.

“I swear, I do not know Tashfeen Malik and have never been photographed with her,” he said in the statement. “I have never even been photographed with my wife and daughters. How can you imagine me being photographed with a na-mahram [unrelated woman]?”

Spotlight on Pakistan

The renewed focus on Islamic terrorism in Pakistan hopefully will spur officials to more aggressively pursue extremists in the country, said Ahmed Rashid, a Lahore-based author of books on extremism in South Asia.

Pakistan needs a comprehensive counterterrorism policy,” said Mr. Rashid. “Even though its present campaign has made giant strides compared to the past, it is still a selective campaign with many large groups, such as the Afghan Taliban and the Lashkar-e-Taiba, being let off the hook. We need to chase down all these groups while at the same time improving education and going after militant madrassas.”

The al-Qaeda-linked Lashkar-e-Taiba staged attacks in Mumbai in 2008 and on the Indian Parliament building in New Delhi in 2001.

But there were also reports over the weekend that Pakistani officials were trying to limit coverage of Malik’s activities in the country for fear it would prove another embarrassment for the government over its inability to identify and control jihadi movements within its borders.

The Reuters news agency reported Sunday that three professors at Bahauddin Zakariya University had been told to stop talking to the international media that have flocked to Pakistan trying to trace Malik’s background. One professor, who declined to be named, told the wire service that security officials had visited the school Saturday and removed pictures and records of the former pharmacy student.

Pakistani security officials reportedly told reporters to drop their investigations of the story or face arrest, although an Interior Ministry official later said it was “not our policy” to restrict journalists.

Pakistani officials have privately expressed concerns that the California shooting would be used to “malign” Pakistan. Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar said Sunday that the country was willing to aid investigators but expressed concern about what the case would do for the image of Pakistan and Islam.

“Such acts of terrorism which take place across the world bring a bad name to Islam,” he said. “You cannot blame the religion and the nation due to the personal actions of one person.”

But Mr. Jamal was not optimistic that Pakistani officials would crack down on terrorism despite the focus on Malik’s ties to radicals in the country and the carnage in San Bernardino.

“It is likely to increase pressure on Pakistan to rein in jihadist groups and close the jihad factories, but it is highly unlikely it will change anything in the absence of some sort of economic and military sanctions,” he said. “International pressure, including from the United Nations, has not worked in the last 15 to 25 years, and it will not work now.”

Islamabad has an incentive to at least condone terrorism as long as it remains committed to destabilizing its neighbors in a bid to balance power in the region. Critics have long accused Pakistan of supporting the Taliban and fighters in the disputed territory of Kashmir in a decades-long clash with neighboring India.

“We will see many statements of good intent coming from Pakistani political and military leaders,” said Mr. Jamal. “Unless Pakistan is made to discontinue its policy of using jihad as an instrument of its defense policy in Kashmir and Afghanistan, Pakistan will not close its jihad factories.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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