Days after Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi, two radicalized Muslims and Phoenix, Arizona roommates killed Sunday in an avowed jihad attack on a civic center in Garland, Texas where an art exhibition and contest was being held for the best cartoon of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad –an act punishable by death under Islamic law — FBI Director James Comey soberly said there are "hundreds, maybe thousands," of Muslims or new converts inclined to accept radical Islam’s call to jihad across the nation. Moreover, they may be receiving recruitment approaches, perhaps even directives, to attack targets in the US from jihadi organizations like the Islamic State (ISIS) and Al Qaeda.
Homeland Security Today reported in August that social media-influenced Islamist jihadism had already taken place on US soil, some successfully, and noted that many others were thwarted. Still, the fear of counterterrorists and intelligence officials today is that so many more Muslims are being radicalized by ISIS and other jihadi groups’ sophisticated social media efforts.
"I know there are other Elton Simpsons out there," Comey said. "But I also know there are Elton Simpsons out there I cannot see."
FBI Counterterrorism Division Assistant Director Michael Steinbach agrees. Referring to the threat to the homeland by Americans who’ve trained or fought with jihadi organizations like ISIS, he told the House Committee on Homeland Security in February that, "It would not be true if I told you that we knew about all of the returnees … We know what we know.”
Moreover, he disturbingly warned, “We don’t have it under control … It’s not even close to being under control.”
National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) Director Nicholas Rasmussen also told the committee it doesn’t know who everyone is who has joined terrorist groups abroad and which ones have left with “training in weapons and explosives” and “access to terror networks that may be ultimately planning attacks” against the West.
This week, Comey described the FBI and Intelligence Community’s problem like this: "The haystack is the entire country now, and here’s the really hard part — We are looking for the needles, but increasingly the needles are invisible 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.”
Bruce Hoffman, director of Georgetown University’s Center for Peace and Security Studies, said in a recent interview that ISIS’ multifaceted outreach through social media threatens to "outpace the government’s capabilities across the intelligence community.”
"It’s like the Dutch boy sticking his fingers in the dike,” Hoffman said.
"Only a few years ago," Comey said, "If someone wanted jihadist propaganda, they would have to go find it on the Internet. So we focused on the places they’d go."
Now he said, “that has changed dramatically, especially with [ISIS] and their use of social media,” through which they can urge followers in Americans and elsewhere “to travel to the so-called caliphate to fight,” or, “If you can’t travel, kill where you are.”
"It’s recruiting and tasking at the same time. The old distinction between inspiration and direction is no longer relevant,” Comey said.
Comey said ISIS’ social media recruitment and radicalization campaign directed to Muslims and jihad sympathizers in the West – even text messages to the smartphones of jihadi candidates who could be encouraged to carry out lone wolf acts of jihad, or, worse, to form covert cells capable of carrying out potentially disastrous and destructive attacks.
"It’s like the devil sitting on their shoulders, saying ‘kill, kill, kill,”’ Comey said, and ISIS is "a very popular fad among a lot of disturbed people."
As have numerous other intelligence and counterterrorism officials said, Comey warned that jihadi groups are singing a "siren’s song" via social media, directing followers that, "if you can’t travel, kill where you are." He disturbingly conceded there may be thousands of followers through social media who are "consuming this poison.”
“The Islamic State’s [IS] leap forward in reaching its various target audiences is of great concern. Through the strength of its communications, IS has helped inspire unprecedented numbers of young Muslims from across the globe to flock to the battlefields of Syria and Iraq to fight on the group’s behalf,” said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies told the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Thursday.
The danger of the jihadi call
Gartenstein-Ross told the committee “IS has provoked a wave of lone wolf terrorist attacks that raises legitimate questions about whether extremists’ savvy use of social media might produce a permanent rise in lone wolf terrorism. Not only has IS eclipsed the communications skills of its predecessors in the jihadist movement, but it is also widely perceived (rightly so) as winning its propaganda war against the United States and other Western powers.”
J.M. Berger, Non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Project on US Relations with the Islamic World, further told the committee Thursday that, “The self-styled Islamic State … is not the first group to employ social media as a tool for recruitment and propaganda, but its innovative and aggressive approach has afforded it an unprecedented level of success, and its activities will likely provide a template for future extremist initiatives.”
“Since the beginning of 2015,” Berger stated, “at least 30 Americans in 13 states have been subject to law enforcement action for attempting to join ISIS or carry out violence inspired by ISIS.” And, “In every case, a significant social media component was found in the radicalization or recruitment process.”
In 2006, the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division issued an intelligence report describing the indicators of a person’s conversion to jihad.
“In cases where a clear trajectory could be determined, about one-third of the suspects appear to have been radicalized by Al Qaeda-affiliated content prior to the rise of ISIS, and only later shifted allegiance to the Islamic State,” Berger stated. “The remainder were reportedly radicalized by ISIS directly. While this points to the growing influence of ISIS among those vulnerable to radicalization, it also highlights the fact that this activity takes place in an evolving context, rather than being an entirely new or different problem.”
Berger said, “While trends can be detected, those radicalized continue to defy generalization. The majority of those charged were males under the age of 30, but almost 20 percent were women and approximately 30 percent were older than 30. About 30 percent of the cases involved some discussion of a violent plot in the United States, with most of the remainder involving efforts to travel to Syria and join ISIS there.”
Clearly, Berger said, “The role of global social media has made it possible for adherents of even the most outlying extremist ideologies to connect and communicate. In addition, the increasing ease of global travel makes it possible for the most committed and fanatical to gather in specific geographical locations.”
“Furthermore,” Berger said, “a proliferation of technologies for inflicting mass casualties empower those who are frustrated in their efforts to travel to Iraq and Syria to act violently at home, often with outsized consequences that echo through the 24-hour news cycle.”
Although “active supporters of ISIS barely register” among a “Twitter monthly active user base of 302 million,” representing only “a fraction of 1 percent of Muslims worldwide, and an even smaller fraction of the world’s population,” Berger said, “when adherents of a violent ideology can connect and communicate swiftly and easily, these tiny percentages add up to hundreds or even thousands of people who can congregate or act in loose concert, exerting a disproportionate impact on global politics and world events. Social media is a critical tool for organizing such activity.”
In February, Steinbach said ISIS’ online efforts are “dangerously competent like no other group before … to both radicalize and recruit.”
Rasmussen said that, at that time, ISIS had published more than 250 pieces of online propaganda in a month, and that its “reach [is] wide and far almost instantaneously, with reposting and regeneration of follow-on links” in “an ever-growing number” of languages.
“With the widespread horizontal distribution of social media, terrorists can identify sympathetic individuals of all ages in the United States – spot, assess, recruit, and radicalize either to travel or conduct a homeland attack,” Steinbach said. "A foreign terrorist now has direct access into the United States like never before."
“One of the most pressing concerns for the Intelligence Community is the ongoing flow of foreign fighters to Syria and the threat they could pose upon return to their home countries,” Rasmussen said. “The battlefields in Iraq and Syria provide foreign fighters with combat experience, weapons and explosives training, and access to terrorist networks that may be planning attacks which target the West.”
“This shared threat,” Rasmussen said, “has prompted even closer cooperation across US federal agencies and with our international partners, particularly in Europe. We are seeing increased international focus on this problem which is resulting in stricter counterterrorism laws overseas, increased border security efforts, and more willingness to share threat information among partner nations.”
He said “the United States and our allies are increasingly concerned with the more than 20,000 foreign fighters who have traveled to Syria from over 90 different countries.”
At that time in Febraury, Rasmussen said, “We assess at least 3,400 of these fighters are from Western countries, including over 150 US persons who have either traveled to the conflict zone, or attempted to do so. It’s very difficult to be precise with these numbers because they come from a variety of sources that vary in quality. But the trend lines are clear and concerning. The rate of foreign fighter travel to Syria is unprecedented. It exceeds the rate of travelers who went to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen or Somalia at any point in the last 20 years.”
“In addition to the foreign fighters who have already traveled, the number of those seeking to go to Syria and Iraq are going up,” he added. “Furthermore, the majority of those getting there right now are fighting for ISI[S] on the battlefield in Syria and Iraq.”
Editor’s note: Also see the Homeland Security Today report, Migration of Radicalized European Muslims to Syria to Engage in Jihad Widespread Problem, Study Shows.
Although lone actor terrorists represent a very small proportion (8 percent) of terrorists, they have been responsible for one-fourth of the terrorism incidents in the United States, according to a report obtained by Homeland Security Today from the University of Maryland-based, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) funded National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism.
Homeland Security Today reported earlier this month that ISIS has been “lethally effective”in targeting the Somali-American community in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, which has been described as a terrorist pipeline to the Middle East.
ISIS’ recruiting success in the Twin Cities presents a grave threat to US security, as radicalized youth continue to travel to Syria and then back home to conduct an attack, according to a report for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate prepared by Erroll Southers and Justin Hienz, both at the University of Southern California-based DHS National Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events.
“What the world is dealing with here is a snowball becoming an avalanche,” Hienz said. “The more people who travel to Syria, the more recruiters ISIS has, in turn expanding its potential to recruit even more people. There is simply no question that ISIS presents an enormous threat to US security.”
“The threat we face is not just from foreign fighters or terrorist groups including ISIL and Al Qaeda,” Rasmussen told lawmakers in February. “Individuals inspired by those and other groups, or simply by violent extremist propaganda, can be motivated to action, with little to no warning. Many of these so-called homegrown violent extremists (HVEs) are lone actors, who can potentially operate undetected and plan and execute a simple attack.”
Indeed. The attack Sunday by jihadi-inspired Islamists was a perfect example. Fortunately, US counterterrorists were able to provide local law enforcement with near real-time actionable intelligence indicating that there might be an attack.
"We developed information before the event [that Elton] Simpson might go," Comey said, but noted that the FBI "didn’t have reason to believe he would attack."
Tuesday, ISIS’ official radio station, Al Byyan, which broadcasts out of Mosul, claimed responsibility for the thwarted May 3 jihad attack in Garland, Texas.
With the threat greater than ever, intelligence collection may be curtailed
All this comes as the 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals, in a landmark decision, unanimously ruled this week that the National Security Agency’s (NSA) phone-records surveillance program is unlawful. The court ruled that the statute the government is relying on to justify the bulk collection of phone records – Section 215 of the Patriot Act – does not permit the gathering of Americans’ sensitive information on such a massive scale.”
The ruling also comes one week before the House is scheduled to vote on the USA Freedom Act, a bill that would end NSA’s bulk data collection and curb other provisions of the Patriot Act that expire June 1. The House Committee on the Judiciary passed the act last week. Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has introduced a bill to reauthorize Section 215 and other expiring Patriot Act provisions – a move that is likely to pit House GOP leaders as well as libertarian members of the Senate against supporters of reauthorizing the Patriot Act.
“The court left little doubt of its distaste for the practice, both in terms of the language of the opinion itself –“the government’s argument relies on bits and shards of inapplicable statutes, inclusive legislative history, and inferences of silence” and its contextual use of the Senate’s Church Committee’s scathing investigation of the CIA’s practices in the 1970’s,” said Robert Cattanach, a partner of Dorsey & Whitney who previously worked as a trial attorney for the United States Department of Justice and was also special counsel to the Secretary of the Navy.
“What remains to be seen is the practical implication of the ruling,” Cattanach said. Although the Appellate Court overruled the District Court’s decision, it did not go so far as to issue an injunction to stop the practice. That issue will have to be addressed by the District Court upon remand – assuming that the Patriot Act is reauthorized in some form,” Cattanach said.
“Also unsettled,” he continued, “is the issue of whether the United States will appeal the ruling to the US Supreme Court – again, the act is due to expire in a few weeks, and absent reauthorization, the NSA’s past practices would not likely trigger an interest by the US Supreme Court to accept the appeal. If it is reauthorized in substantially the same form as it currently exists, however, the similarities of this case to the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Amnesty International v. Clapper make it more likely that the Supreme Court would consider review. In Clapper, the court dismissed a similar challenge because it found that the actual harm threatened by a general collection of telephone records was insufficiently direct and particularized to any individual to justify judicial review.”
Cattanach said, “The DC Court of Appeals avoided that problem by finding that the collection of metadata amounted to a seizure, and thus constituted sufficient injury to justify review. Curiously, however, the court of appeals went on to find that the actual use of the metadata was so extraordinarily rare that it could not be considered ‘relevant’ to any ongoing counterterrorism investigation, and therefore fell outside the intent of the Patriot Act. It is worth noting that the Supreme Court reversed the DC Circuit when it issued the Clapper decision.”
“Perhaps the most immediate affect of the decision,” Cattanach said, “will be its impact on the ongoing congressional debate over whether to authorize the Patriot Act. The court essentially invited Congress to ‘wake up’ and reexamine how the act is being used. It observed: ‘Congress cannot reasonably be said to have ratified a program of which many members of Congress – and all members of the public – were not aware.’ The court, in essence, challenged Congress to vote the practice up or down when it considers whether to reauthorize the act [by opining that] ‘if Congress chooses to authorize such a far‐reaching and unprecedented program, it has every opportunity to do so, and to do so unambiguously.’”
“While the Obama administration has taken steps to scale back the collection of metadata, it clearly wants the practice to continue. Whether Congress is prepared to take a similarly clear stance remains an open question,” Cattanach said. “The government effectively argues that there is only one enormous ‘anti‐terrorism’ investigation, and that any records that might ever be of use in developing any aspect of that investigation are relevant to the overall counterterrorism” effort, Cattanach said.