Dozens of terror plots disrupted in America, FBI claims
WASHINGTON — FBI counterterrorism agents followed dozens of potential terrorists around the United States full time over the summer and disrupted activities pursued by many of them, FBI Director James Comey told a congressional committee Thursday.
Comey told the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs that investigators knew of many U.S.-based Islamic terror suspects who used encrypted communications.
Nick Rasmussen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, speaking to the panel, estimated that about 250 Americans had traveled to fight or train in parts of Iraq and Syria where Islamic State terrorists have declared a caliphate. But he noted this was relatively small given the total of about 5,000 Westerners who the American and allied governments believe have joined the fight in the last three years.
Rasmussen said the United States and its allies estimate that as many as 28,000 foreigners have gone to the region since 2012. A large majority of them came from countries in the region.
He acknowledged that intelligence about the conflict zone was inadequate and said American and allied intelligence officials were not satisfied they had control over the flow of foreign fighters.
European security sources claim about 700 British citizens or residents have traveled to Syria. Of those, around 350 have returned to Britain, and 60 or more have been killed.
Security sources say that to follow someone without being detected government agencies needed crews of up to 36 watchers for a 24-hour shift. This stretches resources even in European countries with strong counter-terrorism agencies.
Comey said the age of Islamic State recruits from the United States is becoming younger, and more women under 18 were seeking to join the group.
“It seems to be drifting younger, with more girls,” Comey said. “By girls I mean women under the age of 18, with whom this message on social media is resonating.”
He said Islamic State terrorists have become expert at attracting potential recruits through social media pitches, and have mastered how to coax promising recruits into using private communications channels.
“When they find a live one, they will move them off Twitter, and move them to an end-to-end encrypted messaging app,” Comey said. He said without a court order, the FBI could not read such encrypted message traffic.
Asked later if other technology could enable access, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson called for help from the private sector.
Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham University, which tracks terrorism arrests and prosecutions, says that ISIS propaganda offers the promise of purpose and belonging — a message tailored for teenagers.
“They are appealing to kids that are often the ones who seem isolated, and who are drawn to the prospect of joining a cause. And this cause is the caliphate,” Greenberg said.
Rasmussen said Islamic State has overtaken al-Qaida as leader of the global violent terrorism movement and has access to a large pool of potential recruits in the West.
He said al-Qaida's Yemen-based affiliate is still seen as a threat because of its interest in attacking the United States and planes.
Meanwhile, Comey decried the absence of official data available on police-involved shootings in the country.
“You can get online today and figure out how many tickets were sold to ‘The Martian,' which I saw this weekend. … The CDC can do the same with the flu,” Comey said. “It's ridiculous — it's embarrassing and ridiculous — that we can't talk about crime in the same way, especially in the high-stakes incidents when your officers have to use force.”
This is not the first time Comey and other public officials have criticized the lack of data. The FBI chief employed the same language to describe the problem to Georgetown University students earlier this year, saying: “It's ridiculous that I can't tell you how many people were shot by police in this country.”
But Comey pointed out that private sources, such as The Guardian and The Washington Post, have begun compiling databases far superior to the official ones.
“It is unacceptable that The Washington Post and the Guardian newspaper from the U.K. are becoming the lead source of information about violent encounters between police and civilians. That is not good for anybody,” he said.
In a project named “The Counted,” the Guardian has tallied 891 people who have been killed by police in America this year. The Post, which has a similar investigation probing those who were fatally shot by police this year, counts 759 people.