December 14, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: In the Wake of San Bernardino

• The vetting of U.S. visa applicants’ social media accounts is being discussed amid reports that San Bernardino terrorist Tashfeen Malik had several pro-jihadist postings before she traveled to the United States

• While some postings will be obvious alerts—such as openly supporting terrorism—others will seem significant only in hindsight

• There is no current system capable of effectively, accurately, and efficiently assessing the social media accounts of the millions of U.S. visa applicants

• As more people divulge more of their personal lives on social media, governments will need to develop some practical way to incorporate this data into a workable vetting system.


Tashfeen Malik, one of the two people who killed 14 and wounded 22 during the December 2, 2015 terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, reportedly had several online postings espousing pro-jihadist sentiments. These postings were reportedly made before she applied for and received a K-1 visa to enter the United States and marry Syed Farook, the other perpetrator of the attack. Some question why her social media accounts were not looked at for possible derogatory information. It might appear to be simple common sense to use social media and publicly available information to determine whether or not to approve a visa application. The reality, however, is far more complicated.

To begin with, even a cursory look at the social media accounts belonging to the millions of visa applicants would bring the entire system to a halt. The process is already understandably lengthy; a relatively static number of U.S. government personnel deal with a growing number of applications. It would not be difficult to ask for the information—visa applications are already intrusive—but accessing, reading, translating, and assessing specific social media postings is an enormous undertaking. It would require substantial increases in personnel and infrastructure, the cost of which could be offset by an increase in the application fee. Still, the slowdown of the process would be substantial, even as vetting becomes all the more important.

Yet the issue is more complicated than simply hiring more people to read and analyze social media. Again, the role of hindsight in investigations is far too often overlooked, making what once appeared innocuous or meaningless suddenly appear significant or obvious. Some social media postings are obvious red flags: threats, openly supporting terrorist organizations, and promoting violent imagery. However, the social media accounts of academics or terrorism researchers would superficially meet some criteria at first glance; it takes more in-depth reading to determine the intention behind any given post. Properly assessing tone and sentiment of short tweets and postings is difficult. Understanding which posts are made in earnest is a task for which governments are poorly suited. Still, obvious threats could be detected, which is no small matter.

There does not currently exist a workable system for accurately and efficiently incorporating social media accounts into the visa application review process, for the reasons listed above and many others. That said, as more people divulge so much of their personal lives on social media, governments will indeed have to construct and operate such a system. The ideology of hatred—be it of the so-called Islamic State or the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups—exists across social media. How people interact with these messages on public forums is valuable information that should be incorporated into visa applications as it is in employment and college applications. Such a program would be problematic and cumbersome, and would be prone to error like any program. People applying could delete their accounts or sanitize them before submitting their applications; not all terrorists flout their intentions online. Still, given the widespread use of social media in both regular and extremist lives, it is worth considering how to incorporate it into the process.


For tailored research and analysis, please contact:


Subscribe to IB