09.17.14

FBI, DHS, NCTC Heads Agree: ISIS Recruitment and Radicalization of Americans Dangerous and Difficult to Track

Media Contact: Lauren Claffey; April Ward (202) 226-8477

Today, U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security, held a hearing entitled “Worldwide Threats to the Homeland,” which focused on the government’s efforts to combat the terrorist group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s (ISIS) threat both at home and abroad, as well as cybersecurity threats. 

FBI Director James Comey, DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson and NCTC Director Matt Olsen testified on the challenges the government faces in tracking terrorist travel to and from the region, and the danger radicalized Americans pose. The U.S. estimates that about 15,000 foreign fighters have flown to Syria, up from a previous estimate of 12,000. Over 100 of these are Americans.

In the United States, the FBI has arrested more than half a dozen individuals seeking to travel from the U.S. to Syria to join the fighting there, possibly with ISIS. However, more needs to be done to gain intelligence on these foreign fighters. “These radicalized Westerners represent an exceptionally grave threat to the U.S. homeland because of their militant training, extremist connections, ease of travel, and intimate knowledge of the West,” said McCaul.

“In February, I said that Syria had become a matter of homeland security. Principally, because of this issue of foreign fighters. And so, monitoring, interdicting the travel of those who might want to leave this country and go there is an area of top concern right now,” said Johnson. “I think we have a reasonable degree of confidence – not a high degree of confidence, but a reasonable degree of confidence – that we know the numbers [of foreign fighters with Western passports] and we know who’s attempting to travel.”

Comey added “There’s thousands of ways to get from the United States to Syria and there are tens of thousands of American who travel for legitimate purposes every single day. So, sorting among that group to find the bad guys is something we spend every single day focused on. We’ve had good success, but I’m not overconfident, given the nature of the challenge.”

“Once in Syria, it's very difficult to discern what happens there,” confirmed Olsen.

McCaul also expressed his concerns regarding the government’s efforts to stop ISIS’s recruitment of Americans: “The ideological struggle against violent Islamist extremists is taking place not just overseas, but also here at home. There have been more than 70 homegrown violent Jihadist plots or attacks in the United States since 9/11. More than two thirds of them have been uncovered or have taken place in only the past five years. Many of the suspects were radicalized, at least in part, by online Islamist propaganda, including the Boston Marathon bombers and the Fort Hood attacker, a tool ISIS excels at and utilizes. Additionally, federal authorities just yesterday indicted a U.S. citizen from Rochester for raising money, recruiting and facilitating training for ISIS.”

“These are the home-grown violent extremists that we worry about, who can get all the poison they need and the training they need to kill Americans, and in a way that's very hard for us to spot between the time they emerge from their basements and maybe kill innocent Americans,” said Comey.

The witnesses detailed DHS’s outreach programs for at-risk communities and the FBI’s joint terrorism task forces that work with state and local partners to identify and arrest individuals before they carry out attacks.

“A fundamental tenet of the strategy that we all work on together with respect to countering violent extremism is that the neighborhoods and communities that are at risk, they're in the best position to identify someone who's on the path to radicalization. So, an important part of this effort is to give them the tools, the education, the knowledge, the information to understand how magazines like the ones you just showed can influence an individual, and then be able to work with their state and local law enforcement community and federal law enforcement community to intervene when someone is on that path,” said Olsen.

For video of the hearing and the written testimonies click HERE.

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