Was her baby just a prop, a pawn in a long con?
Because there’s growing evidence that the mysterious Tashfeen Malik, the shy, veiled bride-turned mass murderer, handled a gun as well as she did the Pampers she left behind with the infant girl she was still nursing to go kill 14 people in Southern California with her husband last week.
“She was a very good shot,” a senior law enforcement official in San Bernardino told The Daily Beast on Sunday about Malik’s last stand with Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, when they faced off against police from inside their black SUV, firing 76 rounds, on a city street.
“I’m quoting one of our guys who was in the gun battle with her and her husband. That’s all he said and he was dead serious,” the official said.
Malik, 29, may have gotten some of her steeliness from attending the ultra-conservative Al-Huda religious institute for affluent women in Pakistan, one of a chain of Al-Huda schools that has spread like a social movement to the United States, Canada, and around the world since its inception in 1994.
The FBI said last week that Malik swore an allegiance to the self-proclaimed Islamic State on Facebook around the time of last Wednesday’s attack. But The Daily Beast has learned her real inspiration, ideologically speaking, might have come from another woman, a devout Islamic scholar who always wears the full burqa, as Malik did, and advocates a Saudi-like Wahabism dogma for the rich women who attend her seminars, who reportedly often turn into pious conservatives overnight.
Al-Huda International was founded by 57-year-old Farhat Hashmi, a woman so controversial that Canadian officials asked her to leave the country in 2006 after she had immigrated there with her family, Maclean’s magazine reported at the time.
The Los Angeles Times reported Sunday that former classmates of Malik’s at Bahauddin Zakariya University in Multan, where she was a pharmacy student, said she went to nearby Al-Huda classes every day.
Farhat reportedly calls herself an “Islamic feminist” yet tells “sisters” they must obey their husbands at all times, permit them to take second wives, and wear gloves when touching the Quran when they are menstruating.
When Farhat opened a new center in London last year, her critics complained that she was promoting a “medieval view of human rights and women’s place in society.”
Then again, according to Syed Rizwan Farook’s family and what he reportedly wrote on Muslim dating websites, a Muslim woman more medieval than modern might have been what he wanted.
Investigators still don’t have any hard evidence that Malik radicalized her husband or vice versa, or whether they came to a meeting of the minds together. Law enforcement officials have said Farook had been in contact with the terrorist groups al-Shabab in Somalia and Jabhat al Nusra, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.
“There’s a serious investigation ongoing into what she was doing in Pakistan and in Saudi,” Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said on Fox News Sunday. “We think that she had a lot to do with the radicalization process and perhaps with Mr. Farook’s radicalization from within in the United States.”
Malik, born to a well-off family in Pakistan and raised in Saudi Arabia, apparently won over her Chicago-born husband by a dour expression, a penchant for veiling her face when out in public, a refusal to drive or work outside the home, an alleged difficulty speaking English—and possibly her ability to impressively lock and load.
“If what we’re hearing about this woman is true, she wasn’t a passive player,” Nada Bakos, a former CIA analyst and counterterrorism expert, told The Daily Beast. “She turned them into a sleeper cell of two.”
Malik’s Redlands-area sister-in-law repeatedly insisted during a long interview with NBC News that Malik and her husband were “quiet and shy,” and Malik seemed to cherish motherhood.
But the 29-year-old woman originally came from an area of Pakistan in the Punjab district long known as a hotbed for militancy. Her family was well-educated and politically influential. One of her uncles on her father’s side, Malik Ahmad Ali Aulakh, was a provincial minister from 2008-13.
Malik’s father, Gulzar Malik, packed up his family and moved to Jidda, Saudi Arabia, in 1985 after some murderous sectarian skirmishes between families in the area when Malik was just a toddler.
“Her family includes a lot of cousins and uncles, and some of them definitely have ties to extremism,” said Zahid Gishkori, 32, who grew up near Malik’s family in the village of Karor in the Layyah district. “That can have an effect on a child raised in a family and an environment like that.”
Gishkori, who has been identified as a “local resident” in Western media accounts, is also a well-known investigative reporter in Pakistan and has found himself in the awkward position of trying to grill people from his hometown—as well as Malik’s university professors—about an international terrorist attack.
“They talked more at first, and now nobody wants to share anything,” Gishkori told The Daily Beast via Skype. “Her family was surprised, but not in the same way her teachers and her former classmates were. They were truly shocked. They said she was religious and she took the veil, but nothing more than that. They saw no signs of extremism. Her family’s reaction is harder to read.”
One of Malik’s two sisters is a doctor in London, and two brothers are engineers believed to be living in Riyadh. Malik’s mother has been ill during the last few years, and her health took a turn for the worse after her daughter’s name was broadcast around the world as one half of the worst terrorist attack involving fatalities on U.S. soil since the 9/11 attacks.
According to a source in Riyadh, near where the Malik family now lives, the mother has been hospitalized since Friday. Neither of Malik’s parents has spoken to the media yet.
“Her life in Saudi Arabia is still a bit of a black hole,” Gishkori said. “The family was isolated there and they were estranged from some of their relatives back in Pakistan, though the father has a house here. Everyone is very tight-lipped about Tashfeen’s life in Saudi.”
Pakistani officials began abruptly clamping down on foreign reporters covering the story in Pakistan this weekend and warned Malik’s former teachers at the university to stop talking to the media.
But a close friend of Malik’s, Abida Rani, who attended school with her for six years, told The Washington Post on Sunday that she noticed a change in her friend in 2009, right around the time she began studying at Al-Huda.
“We were like, ‘What happened to Malik?’” said Rani. “She became so religious, so serious, and so focused on Islamic teachings, and she lost her interest in her studies.”
The Post reported that Malik had become so rigid and conservative by her final year at the university that she was never seen without the burqa, refused to be photographed, and tried to delete all her pictures from university databases.
“‘I don’t want any pictures without the veil,’” Rani recalled her friend saying.
After Malik graduated in 2013, she moved back to Saudi Arabia and shortly thereafter met Farook online. They were legally married in Riverside, California, in August 2014.