WASHINGTON/SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. (Reuters) - Islamic militant groups ignored contact attempts from Pakistan-born Tashfeen Malik in the months before she and her husband killed 14 people at a California holiday party, probably because they feared getting caught in a U.S. law enforcement sting, U.S. government sources said on Thursday.
Disclosures of her overtures to extremists abroad surfaced as the investigation of the Dec. 2 shooting rampage in San Bernardino, about 60 miles (100 km) east of Los Angeles, appeared to take a new turn with divers searching a small lake near the scene of the massacre.
The number of organizations that Malik, 29, tried to contact and how she sought to reach them was unclear, but the groups almost certainly included al Qaeda’s Syria-based official affiliate, the Nusrah Front, the government sources said.
One source said investigators have little, if any, evidence that Malik or her husband, Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, had any direct contact with Islamic State, which has seized control of large swaths of Syria and Iraq and claimed responsibility for assaults in Paris last month that left 130 people dead.
FBI Director James Comey has said Malik and Farook declared at about the time of their attack that they were acting on behalf of Islamic State, which in turn has embraced the couple as among its followers.
But U.S. government sources have said there was no evidence that the Islamic State even knew of the couple before the killings.
Militant groups sought out by Malik likely ignored her approaches because they have become extremely wary of responding to outsiders they do not know or who have not been introduced to them, sources said.
The husband and wife were killed in a shootout with police hours after they opened fire with assault rifles at a holiday gathering of Farook’s co-workers at the Inland Regional Center social services agency in San Bernardino.
Fourteen people were killed and 21 others were wounded in the assault, which the FBI said it is treating as an act of terrorism. If the massacre proves to have been the work of killers inspired by Islamic militants, it would mark the deadliest such attack on U.S. soil since Sept. 11, 2011.
A spokeswoman for the Los Angeles office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation confirmed on Thursday that a team of divers from the FBI and San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department was searching the waters of Seccombe Lake Park, about 2-1/2 miles (4 km) north of the Inland Regional Center.
A law enforcement declined to specify what the divers were seeking. CNN reported they sought computer hard drive that belonged to the couple. The FBI was due to brief the media about the hunt on Thursday.
The attack by Farook, the U.S.-born son of Pakistani immigrants, and Malik, a Pakistani native he married in Saudi Arabia last year, has heightened security concerns in the United States and become an issue in the U.S. presidential campaign.
Comey, along with U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and John Mulligan, deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center, briefed members of both houses of Congress on Thursday about the investigation in closed, classified sessions.
“The current impression is that these two people were acting alone,” U.S. Senator Angus King of Maine told CNN after the briefing. But he added that he was troubled by the fact that the couple had tried to cover their tracks by destroying their cellphones and other electronic equipment.
“If you weren’t in touch with other people why would you go ahead and do that?,” he said.
Representative Bob Goodlatte, Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, told reporters afterward that there were people in the community who saw suspicious activity at the shooters’ house but decided not to tell authorities “for a variety of reasons.”
The motives of Farook and Malik remain unclear. Authorities say the couple embraced radical Islam before they met online in 2013 and married last year.
A law enforcement source said investigators are focusing on how Malik obtained the K-1 fiancée visa that allowed her to enter the United States with Farook. The K-1 program is now under scrutiny by an interagency committee that includes the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security.
In a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday, Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa said Malik had listed a false address in Pakistan that screeners did not catch.
State Department spokesman John Kirby said on CNN on Thursday that applicants for fiancée visas go through a screening process that includes fingerprinting, a series of background checks and a face-to-face interview while the other future spouse in the United States is checked by Homeland Security.
“We don’t have any indications right now that the screening process for Miss Malik was any different than it is for any fiancée or that there were any things missing inside this very vigorous screening process,” Kirby said. “If we find areas where that process needs to be improved, or mistakes that might have been made, we’ll be accountable for that and make the proper changes.”
Farook and Malik had been in contact with people in Orange County, California, who had been investigated by the FBI for possible ties to terrorism, but nothing arose during that investigation to draw attention to either shooter, a U.S. government source said. The source added that there is currently no evidence that the shooters had plotted with anyone who had come under FBI scrutiny.
Investigators also have been looking into the relationship between Farook and Enrique Marquez, a boyhood friend and Muslim convert who purchased the two rifles used in the attack. Another federal law enforcement source said Marquez and Farook had plotted some sort of attack around 2012 but abandoned it.
Marquez, who is related to Farook’s family by marriage - his wife and the wife of Farook’s older brother are sisters - has not been charged with any crime.
A funeral for Yvette Velasco, the first victim of the shooting spree to be buried, was scheduled for Thursday in West Covina, California.
(This version of the story was refiled to insert the word “overtures” in paragraph two.)
Additional reporting by Bill Trott in Washington and Alexandria Sage in San Bernardino; Writing by Bill Trott; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Cynthia Osterman