California shooter attended female madrassa in Pakistan

Multan (Pakistan) (AFP) - The woman who along with her husband shot dead 14 people in California last week attended one of Pakistan's most high-profile religious seminaries for women, the madrassa confirmed to AFP Monday.

Tashfeen Malik, 29, was enrolled in 2013 at the Al-Huda Institute in Multan, which targets middle-class women seeking to come closer to Islam and also has offices in the US, the UAE, India and the UK, said Imran Amir, an administration official at the seminary.

The institute has no known extremist links, though it has come under fire in the past from critics who say its ideology echoes that of the Taliban.

But her attendance offers fresh insight into Malik's journey towards Islamic extremism.

This likely began with her upbringing in Saudi Arabia, continued during her time as a student in Pakistan and culminated with her swearing allegiance to the Islamic State group shortly before embarking on her killing spree.

Malik and her husband Syed Farook, 28, were hailed as "soldiers" of the self-proclaimed caliphate following the massacre on Wednesday at a social services centre in San Bernardino.

Investigators suspect that Malik, who went to the United States on a fiancee's visa and spent extended periods of time in both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, may have radicalised her husband.

The probe is trying to establish if she had contact with Islamic radicals in either country.

On Monday evening counter-terror and intelligence officials based in Multan visited the Al-Huda school there briefly. As they left, one senior security official told AFP the organisation was a peaceful institution that had no links to jihadi groups.

Malik was enrolled in classes including translation of the Koran in 2013, said Amir, the administration official. "But she did not complete her course and was here only for a short time," he added.

A teacher who gave her name only as Muqadas told AFP that Malik was "a good girl".

"I don't know why she left and what happened to her," Muqadas said.

Malik did not travel to the US with her husband until 2014.

Farrukh Saleem, a Karachi-based spokeswoman for Al-Huda, told AFP the organisation preaches "the peaceful teachings of Islam", adding that government and law enforcement agencies have "never suspected us of spreading extremism".

- 'More susceptible' -

Al-Huda, founded in 1994 by Farhat Hashmi, is one of the best-known female madrassas in the country, where religious seminaries are thought to teach hundreds of thousands of students each year.

Unlike other such seminaries, it mainly targets Pakistan's influential middle and upper classes, often holding religious study circles inside members' houses.

Fellow classmates at the Bahauddin Zakariya University in Multan, where Malik studied pharmacology from 2007-2012, said she also went to the madrassa after classes during her final two years at the university, though her attendance at that time may have been informal.

One said Malik drastically changed during her time there.

"Gradually she became more serious and strict," the student said, requesting anonymity.

Malik became withdrawn and stopped participating in classes, the student said, adding that while she had been religious previously, during her time at Al-Huda she "became hardline and different".

Arif Rafiq, an analyst at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, said her attendance "suggests that she had embraced a more modern yet austere variant of Islam".

"It may have made her more susceptible to the ideology of a transnational terrorist group like IS," he added.

But he cautioned that Al-Huda's graduates rarely become militants. "Al-Huda attendance alone doesn't answer the question of how she may have made the leap from being a conservative or even Salafi Muslim into a jihadist."

- Educated and radical -

Badar Alam, editor of the prestigious Herald magazine, said Malik appeared to have become radicalised gradually.

"She was raised in Saudi Arabia so she became a Salafi. She joined Al-Huda. She married a US Muslim who was influenced by events in the Middle East -- this is the making of an international terrorist in today's world."

Malik is the latest in a string of high-profile college-educated militants of Pakistani origin, including would-be Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, 9/11 planner Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and "Lady Al-Qaeda" -- neuroscientist Aafia Siddiqui, jailed in the US for attacking American soldiers in Afghanistan.

Pakistan has pledged to crack down on religious seminaries suspected of being breeding grounds for intolerance or even fostering extremism.

However the government's efforts to rein in madrassas have prompted anger from many clerics who accuse the authorities of maligning religious leaders.