FBI director reveals hidden threat of ISIS at Aspen Security Forum

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
FBI Director James Comey (left) discusses terrorist threats in the U.S. during an interview in Aspen Wednesday with CNN's Wolf Blitzer.
Jeremy Wallace/The Aspen Times |

The Islamic State group poses a more challenging terror threat within the U.S. than al-Qaida because it’s so effective at recruiting impressionable and “troubled souls” through social media, the director of the FBI told an Aspen audience Wednesday night.

Director James Comey credited the U.S. military with “significantly diminishing” threats within America by killing Mushin al Fadhli in a targeted strike in Syria earlier this month. He was the leader of the Khorasan Group of al-Qaida, which was allegedly plotting attacks on the West.

But Comey said ISIS “is not your parents’ al-Qaida. It’s a very different model.” He referred to the terror network by one of its other names, ISIL. It’s also referred to as the Islamic State.

“What worries me most is that ISIL’s investment in social media — which has been blossoming in the last six to eight weeks in particular — will cause a significant increase in the number of incidents that we will see,” Comey said. “That’s what I worry about all day long.”

He said ISIL has invested major efforts in the past year in “pushing a message of poison” on social media. They are urging followers to join them in Syria and Iraq, and if that’s not possible they urge people “to kill where you are.”

Followers of al-Qaida have to seek out information on the Internet, make contact via email and see if there was a response, Comey said. “ISIL is changing that model entirely because ISIL is buzzing on your hip,” he continued, referring to smartphones. It’s pushing its message “all day long” on Twitter.

“If you want to talk to a terrorist, they’re right there on Twitter Direct Messaging for you to communicate with,” Comey said. That message resonates with troubled souls, he said. The FBI’s job is to locate the people in the 50 states that are receptive to the ISIL message and stop them from committing domestic terrorism.

He said “dozens” of U.S. citizens between ages 18 to 62 have traveled to the Middle East to join ISIL. “We have a reasonable handle on it,” he said.

Comey made his comments in a joint presentation through the Hurst Lecture Series and Aspen Security Forum at the Aspen Institute. He was questioned by veteran CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer before a sold-out crowd at the Greenwald Pavilion.

Comey dodged a lot of Blitzer’s questions on a variety of terror topics, saying he couldn’t offer the kind of details being sought. But Comey stressed how savvy ISIL is on social media and how the terror organization is taking advantage of encrypted communication, also known as the dark side.

“ISIL’s M.O. is to broadcast on Twitter, get people to follow them, then move them to Twitter Direct Messaging” to evaluate if they are a legitimate recruit, he said. “Then they’ll move them to an encrypted mobile-messaging app so they go dark to us.”

The ISIL tweeters in Syria have 21,000 English language followers, according to Comey. Hundreds of people, and probably more like in the thousands, are in the United States, he said. The FBI and its partners in federal and local governments have the job of figuring out who they are and if they are in the stage of consuming or acting.

The FBI can get court-approved access to Twitter exchanges, but not to encrypted communication, Comey said. Even when the FBI demonstrates probable cause and gets a judicial order to intercept that communication, it cannot break the encryption for technological reasons, according to Comey.

“We don’t have the ability to break the strong encryption,” he said.

He said the situation poses a dilemma. Everybody supports safety and privacy on the Internet, but everybody also expects public safety. “We have to, as a country, figure out how to solve this,” he said. “We need judges’ orders to be complied with.”

“Smart people” in government and the software companies should be able to figure out how to comply when probable cause is demonstrated, without compromising the privacy of the vast majority of Americans, he said.

Comey said the FBI hasn’t determined yet if Muhammad Youssef Abdelazeez was influenced by ISIL or al-Qaida. Abdelazeez is accused of killing four U.S. Marines and a Navy sailor, when he opened fire on two military centers in Chattanooga, Tennessee, earlier this month. He was killed during a shootout.

The Aspen Security Forum will examine leading national security issues through Saturday.