FBI director: Shooting of Philadelphia cop new model of 'terrorist attack'

| Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016, 4:14 p.m.

The FBI is investigating the recent shooting of a Philadelphia police officer as “a terrorist attack,” FBI Director James Comey said Wednesday at the agency's field office in the South Side.

FBI investigators want to know whether Edward Archer, the alleged shooter, worked with or was inspired by anyone linked to the Islamic State, Comey said. Police say Archer, 30, pledged allegiance to the terror group before opening fire on Jesse Hartnett on Thursday night, hitting him three times.

Law enforcement agencies are struggling to combat the changing model of terrorist attacks in the United States, the prevention of which Comey said is the bureau's top priority. Al Qaida's high-profile, well-orchestrated attacks are giving way to individuals or small groups who are inspired and radicalized through online conversations with Islamic State supporters, he said.

Last month, the FBI arrested a Harrisburg teenager for allegedly helping recruits travel to Islamic State-held territory in Syria and Iraq. The bureau has similar terror investigations in every state, Comey said. Often, someone close to the person being radicalized could have tipped off authorities but did not, he said.

People convicted of aiding or attempting to aid a terrorist organization face 15 years or more in prison.

“That's a choice no parent would want to make, but the choice is not a hard one. If you think your child is on a path toward violence, for that child's sake, for your family's sake and for the community, you've got to talk to us about it. Because what will come later will be unspeakably painful for a whole lot of people,” Comey said.

FBI counterterrorism investigations hit roadblocks when they try to decode encrypted communications, Comey said. Built as a tool to keep people's personal information secure against cyberattacks, the technology enables terrorists and criminals to hide their communications, Comey said.

Lawmakers have debated requiring technology companies to build into their products a way for law enforcement to gain access to messages, but such proposals stalled because of a backlash from some technology companies, privacy advocates and others.

Comey said he does not want a “back door” to read Americans' emails and Internet communications — but he does want access to those records if a judge agrees the FBI is entitled to a court order. Some online communications services, such as Apple's iMessage, encrypt messages so that not even the company can see what's being said, making a court order ineffective.

“I don't want a back door, and I couldn't even define a back door. I'm not a technologist,” Comey said. “The world I hope to have is not that we have access to anybody's systems but that when a judge issues an order, the company is able to comply with it.”

Comey traveled to the FBI's Pittsburgh office as part of his second round of visits to each of the bureau's 56 field offices, he said.

Pittsburgh serves as the “point of our spear” for fighting cyber crime, Comey said.

“We're trying to send messages of deterrence to state actors and to criminal actors that cyber is not a freebie,” he said. “Just because you're in your pajamas halfway around the world or you're in a military uniform in China, that doesn't mean it's OK for you to steal that which matters most to Americans, especially our innovation.”

Comey praised a training program being tested at Norwin High School that prepares students to work eventually with the FBI in fighting cyber-crime. He said the agency wants to spread the program across the country.

“We're trying to energize and educate the next generation of FBI people,” Comey said.

Andrew Conte and Mike Wereschagin are Tribune-Review staff writers. Reach Conte at andrewconte@tribweb.com. Reach Wereschagin mwereschagin@tribweb.com.

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