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Visa program questioned in wake of San Bernardino shooting

LOS ANGELES — Investigators worked today to determine if Wednesday’s San Bernardino shooting rampage was a case of terrorism or workplace violence, and an obscure visa program that apparently benefited one of the attackers was coming under scrutiny amid indications of an international terrorism connection.

The attack, which killed 17 and wounded 21, was blamed on Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, and Tashfeen Malik, 27, who had been married two years and who had a 6-month-old daughter, whom Farook left with his mother early Wednesday morning, claiming he was taking his wife to a doctor’s visit and didn’t want to bring the baby along, according to Hussam Ayloush, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations-Los Angeles.

Farook was born in the United States to Pakistani parents and was a five-year employee of the San Bernardino County public health agency, which was holding a holiday party when the shooting erupted. The Los Angeles Times reported that Farook traveled to Saudi Arabia last year, spent nine days there, and returned with a new wife, a Pakistani, he met online.

The Times also reported that a senior government official who spoke on condition of anonymity said Farook was in contact with a number of extremists and at least one person being monitored by federal officials, a Pakistani named Roshan Zamir Abbassi, who is an assistant Imam in San Bernardino, where Farook worshipped.

However, Abassi told The Times he barely knew Farook and only exchanged occasional hellos and goodbyes.

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Burbank, the ranking minority member on the House Intelligence Committee, told the Times he had been briefed on the investigation and federal agents have not turned up any evidence that Farook had been “radicalized.”

But law enforcement sources told NBC News that Malik pledged allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a statement on Facebook just before she and her husband carried out Wednesday’s rampage. Investigators are reported to be looking into whether the Pakistan-born Malik radicalized her husband.

At a news conference Thursday morning, David Bowdich of the FBI said Malik came to the United States with the U.S-born Farook in July 2014 on a work visa and had a Pakistani passport. The couple married after arriving in the U.S., which enabled her to gain legal permanent resident status last year.

The attack has brought new attention to the previously obscure K1 visa program, which is reserved for the fiances of U.S. citizens. Some advocates for stricter immigration enforcement are calling for investigations into the nation’s visa screening process and for the U.S. to halt its Syrian refugee program.

“New information coming to light regarding Tashfeen Malik’s citizenship reaffirms the fact that proper screening and vetting those coming into our country, whether with a visa or as a refugee, is not always possible,” Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates for stricter immigration laws, said in remarks quoted by The Times.

Also on Thursday, U.S. Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama, released a letter demanding that the Obama administration make available the immigration histories of Malik, her husband and their families in advance of a congressional vote on a bill that includes funding for the Syrian refugee and other immigration programs.

The K1 visa permits the foreign-citizen fiance of a U.S. citizen to travel to the U.S. and marry his or her sponsor within 90 days of arrival. It is one of dozens of visas that allow foreigners to enter the U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Thursday that K1 applicants, like other visa applicants, undergo an extensive counterterrorism screening that includes checks based on fingerprints and facial recognition software.

A 45-year-old Los Angeles man was among those who died in the shooting rampage at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino.

Shannon Johnson
Shannon Johnson

Shannon Johnson of Koreatown worked for nearly 11 years as an environmental health specialist at the San Bernardino County Public Health Department, according to his page on the LinkedIn networking website. He graduated from Cal State San Bernardino with a degree in health science in 2004.

“Shannon rose before dawn each morning to get to his job,” Mayor Eric Garcetti said in a statement.

Johnson lived with his girlfriend Mandy Pfifer, a longtime member of the Mayor’s Crisis Response Team, whose volunteers offer residents various forms of assistance, including support for victims and survivors of tragedies and other devastating incidents.

“We offer our full support to Mandy in this unimaginably difficult time, and I send my deepest condolences to Shannon’s family and all who are grieving loved ones in the aftermath of this senseless tragedy,” Garcetti said.