WASHINGTON – As ISIS spreads its influence and rule not only in its caliphate of portions of Syria and Iraq but also in non-contiguous areas of North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, the FBI is opening up cases of suspects who may be tied to ISIS in 49 states of the United States.
“We are focused keenly on who would be looking to travel to join this band of murderers who will have come back from Iraq and Syria and to the United States,” said FBI Director James Comey in a recent speech to law enforcement officers in Mississippi.
“We have opened cases all over the place focused on this threat, so it is not … a Washington thing – it is something we focus on throughout the FBI,” Comey said.
The FBI director’s latest comment on the ISIS threat to the U.S. has evoked sharp criticism from Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Graham criticized the Obama administration’s limited air strikes against ISIS positions in Iraq and Syria in the face of the Sunni jihadist group’s “existential threat” to the U.S.
“Do you really want to let America be attacked? Graham asked in a Fox News interview. “What is going on in Washington when the FBI director, when the head of national intelligence, the CIA, the Homeland Security secretary, tells every member of Congress, including the president, we’re about to be attacked in a serious way because of the threat emanating from Syria and Iraq?
“If he does not go on the offensive against ISIS, ISIL, whatever you want to call these guys, they are coming here,” Graham said. “This is not just about Baghdad. That is not just about Syria. It is about our homeland.”
In his comments to law enforcement officials in Mississippi, Comey said that there are “troubled souls” in all 50 states who “might look to find meaning in this sick, misguided way,” referring to adherents to ISIS ideology.
“The challenge that we face in law enforcement is that they may be getting exposed to that poison and that training in their basement,” he said. “They’re sitting there consuming and may emerge from the basement to kill people of any sort, which is the call of ISIS, just kill somebody.”
Comey said the targets not only could be law enforcement, the military or media – to whom the FBI has issued warnings already – but also ordinary citizens.
“If you can videotape [the murder], all the better; if it’s law enforcement, all the better; if you can cut somebody’s head off and get it on tape, what a wonderful thing in their view of the world,” Comey said. “That’s the challenge we face everywhere.”
Comey was especially concerned about recent restrictions on information-gathering stemming from intelligence leaks by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden that he believes have put up barriers for law enforcement and the intelligence community.
“I’m very worried about where we’re drifting as a country in respect to law enforcement’s ability to, with lawful process, intercept communications,” Comey said. “I’m not talking about sneaky stuff. I’m talking about situations where we have probable cause to believe that somebody is communicating with a terrorist group.
“We’re drifting into a place where there are going to be large swaths of this country beyond the reach of the law.”
U.S. officials have estimated that up to 100 American citizens have been going in and out of Syria to fight on behalf of ISIS. Not all of their identities are known to law enforcement authorities.
Comey has admitted to knowing the identities of a dozen U.S. citizens who have gone to Syria to fight.
“Ultimately, an American citizen, unless their passport’s revoked, is entitled to come back,” Comey told CBS’ “60 Minutes.” So, someone who’s fought with ISIS, with an American passport, wants to come back, we will track them very carefully.”
Provided the intelligence is available, the FBI is trying to track Americans who want to go to Syria.
Last year, the FBI arrested a 19-year old Colorado woman who attempted to get on a flight to Turkey, which is a gateway for jihadists into Syria. She later pleaded guilty to conspiracy to provide support to a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, which includes ISIS.
The woman, Shannon Conley, met a man on the Internet and became engaged to him. He admitted that he was an active member of ISIS.
The increasing number of cases point to Comey’s warning of “lone wolves,” whom he sees as the biggest threat to the U.S. homeland.
“These homegrown violent extremists are troubled souls, who are seeking meaning in some misguided way,” Comey said. “And so they come across the propaganda and they become radicalized on their own, independent study, and they’re also able to equip themselves with training again on the Internet, and then engage in jihad after emerging from their basement.”