(USA Today) – In a dramatic assessment of the domestic threat posed by the Islamic State, FBI Director James Comey said Thursday there are “hundreds, maybe thousands” of people across the country who are receiving recruitment overtures from the terrorist group or directives to attack the U.S.
Comey said the Islamic State, also known as ISIL, is leveraging social media in unprecedented ways through Twitter and other platforms, directing messages to the smartphones of “disturbed people” who could be pushed to launch assaults on U.S. targets.
“It’s like the devil sitting on their shoulders, saying ‘kill, kill, kill,”’ Comey said in a meeting with reporters.
The FBI director’s comments come in the midst of a federal investigation into a foiled attack in Garland, Texas, involving two ISIL sympathizers, one of whom, Elton Simpson, was long known to federal authorities.
Comey said Thursday that hours before the attempted Garland attack, FBI agents sent a bulletin to local authorities indicating that Simpson may have been interested in traveling there from Phoenix to attend the conference featuring controversial cartoon depictions of the prophet Mohammed. At the time, Comey said, agents did not have specific information that Simpson had targeted the meeting.
The 30-year-old Simpson and associate Nadir Soofi, 34, were fatally shot by a police officer Sunday night after the pair launched a bungled attack on the conference.
Simpson had been known to authorities since 2006 when he surfaced in a separate terror investigation. He was subsequently convicted in 2011 and sentenced to three years probation. A new investigation into Simpson’s activities was opened in March after he posted suspicious statements on social media, Comey said Thursday.
The FBI director declined to elaborate on why agents alerted Garland authorities to Simpson’s possible interest in the local event, though he said there was “no reason to believe he would attack or that he had left” his home in Phoenix.
Comey also said there was no information to suggest that police in Garland connected the information provided in the bulletin to Simpson at the time Simpson and Soofi were shot.
The director said the Texas case is emblematic of a larger concern facing counter-terrorism authorities related to ISIL’s aggressive pursuit of U.S.-based and other converts.
Authorities have said that ISIL’s recruiting strategy — its personal outreach efforts through Twitter and slick application of other social media — represents an unmatched level of sophistication demonstrated by terrorist organizations in the aftermath of 9/11.
Unlike al-Qaeda, for example, ISIL does not attempt to exert authority to vet attack plans proposed by its followers.
Bruce Hoffman, a longtime terrorism analyst and director of Georgetown University’s Center for Peace and Security Studies, said in a recent interview that ISIL’s multifaceted outreach and leveraging of social media is threatening to “outpace the government’s capabilities across the intelligence community.”
“It’s like the Dutch boy sticking his fingers in the dike,” Hoffman said.
Indeed, Comey said that ISIL recruiters operating from safe havens in Syria are making initial contacts with recruits, mostly on Twitter, and are then “steering” them into encrypted venues where their subsequent communications are “lost to us.”
“The haystack is the entire country,” Comey said. “We are looking for the needles, but increasingly the needles are unavailable to us. … This is the ‘going dark’ problem in living color. There are Elton Simpsons out there that I have not found and I cannot see.”
Comey said agents are working hundreds of investigations around the country involving suspected homegrown violent extremists.The director said the inquiries are open in all 56 of the FBI’s field divisions.
“ISIL is a very popular fad among a lot of disturbed people,” he said.