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As FBI links shooting to terrorism, questions arise about women in ISIS

Information about life inside ISIS itself remains spotty, but Tashfeen Malik does not fit the better-known profile of so-called “ISIS brides."

What we know about Tashfeen Malik, which is very little, does not fit any known script. The female half of the couple that authorities say went on a shooting rampage in San Bernardino, California, killing 14, was not a typical mass shooter. Nor do her actions make her a typical female adherent of ISIS — if that is what she was. The FBI is now investigating the couple's actions as terrorism. Officials have noted the existence of a Facebook post on the day of the attack, attributed to Malik and declaring support for ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Information about life inside ISIS itself remains spotty, with analyses often drawn from public social media accounts. But Malik also does not fit the better-known profile of so-called “ISIS brides,” women from Europe and the United States, often recent converts to Islam, who have traveled to Syria with the intention of marrying fighters, apparently drawn to the ideal of a purely Islamic state.

RELATED: What makes the San Bernardino shooting so unusual

"Women have always played an active role in terror," said Farhana Qazi, a security analyst who has studied women and terror. "What surprises me is that it happened in America." She also said it was unusual for a woman within ISIS to take an "active operational role" as Malik apparently did. Although there has been no evidence presented so far that Malik was directly involved in terrorist groups, "Women don’t rise in the ranks of these organizations," Qazi said.

Malik was born in Pakistan and grew up mostly in Saudi Arabia. Reuters reported that she returned to Multan, Pakistan, to study pharmacy. She entered the United States on a K-1 visa, intended for foreign fiances who intend to become a resident through marriage, and the two married in August 2014. Asked if she had radicalized her husband, David Bowdich of the FBI's Los Angeles office told reporters Friday, "I don't know the answer ... We did not have her under investigation."

If Malik was indeed actively involved with or allied with ISIS, she would not be the first female terrorist on the international stage. As early as 1956, during Algeria's war of independence, Zohra Drif blew herself up in a cafe. Female terrorists have since joined the ranks of Germany's Baader-Meinhof gang, the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, al Qaeda in Iraq, and Hamas in Israel and the Palestinian territories. 

Syria has an all-female brigade, known as Al-Khanssaa, that reportedly functions as a morality police. But a document identified by a think tank as an ISIS manifesto, translated in March, laid out a highly traditional role for women. "It is considered legitimate for a girl to be married at the age of nine," the manifesto says, according to The Atlantic. "Most pure girls will be married by sixteen or seventeen, while they are still young and active."

The document adds, "Women gain nothing from the idea of their equality with men apart from thorns," and it states "Under 'equality' they have to work and rest on the same days as men even though they have ‘monthly complications’ and pregnancies and so on, in spite of the nature of her life and responsibilities to their husband, sons and religion."

RELATED: For gays under IS rule, isolation and fear of a cruel death

Margaret Gonzalez-Perez, a professor of political science at Southeastern Louisiana University and the author of several works on women and terrorism, said ISIS is more sophisticated than earlier extremist groups in using social media to recruit young people, including young women. "A lot of the women, particularly the young girls, don’t believe the accounts that women are being raped or used as prostitutes," she told MSNBC. The New York Times, after interviewing 21 women and girls who escaped ISIS, concluded the group "has made sex slavery a pillar of its self-proclaimed caliphate."

"A lot of times they are rebels looking for a cause," she continued. "They’re young, alienated people who are looking to identify with something larger than themselves."  

Mia Bloom, a professor at the University of Massachusetts’ Center for Terrorism and Security Studies, told ABC News of the Western women joining ISIS, “Most of the girls are drawn by a combination of fantasy and the feeling that by joining ISIS, they will be empowered, have an exciting life, and do something meaningful with their lives.”

A study analyzing the social media accounts of Western women who had migrated to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS found that not only did some of them “celebrate violence; they also indicate a desire to inflict violence themselves.” But the majority of the women examined in the study publicly embraced what they said was their divinely ordained domestic role.

Some were struck by the fact that Farook and Malik left behind a six month old daughter. But it’s not unprecedented, said Gonzalez-Perez. There has even been at least one known case of a pregnant suicide bomber: Diana Ramazova, a Russian citizen who blew herself up in Istanbul in January. Ramazova had been married to a Norwegian citizen of Chechen origin who was said to have been killed fighting for ISIS the month before. She was two months pregnant.