US counterterrorism intelligence officials have told Homeland Security Today they “have every reason to believe” small cells of Islamist jihadists – all Muslims or individuals who recently converted to the Muslim faith who’ve been radicalized by online jihadist propaganda — or recruiters at the Mosques they attend – are believed to be planning “far more spectacular attacks in the US” than the attempted attack in Texas a week ago, at which time officials acknowledged there may be hundreds, if not thousands of radicalized individuals in the US — some undoubtedly in direct contact with jihadists overseas.
According to senior government officials interviewed on condition of anonymity because they aren’t authorized to discuss classified intelligence, there’s been “a very significant uptick in the kinds of ‘chatter’ we typically see when something big is about to happen – we haven’t seen this kind of chatter in a while,” as one explained.
“I think there’s been an uptick in the threat streams out there. The level of chatter, Internet calls to arms, if you will, to light up potential ISIS followers in the United States and attack military installations,” House Committee on Homeland Security Chairman Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) told “Fox News Sunday. “We’re seeing these directives almost like on a daily basis. It’s very concerning.”
This chatter, officials told Homeland Security Today, comes from intercepted, near-real time communications in recent weeks that’s been “pinpointed taking place between ISIS and allied jihadi groups and Western recruits under these organizations’ direction residing in the US."
Counterterrorism intelligence analysts whose job is to analyze this intelligence are working countless hours to decipher and translate the sudden surge in chatter as they receive it, officials explained, noting that “it has been a grueling non-stop effort, especially since the jihadi attack in Garland, Texas in which you had two clearly radicalized Muslims influenced by ISIS,” one of the officials said.
The officials also said the FBI almost immediately ordered 24/7 surveillance of specific, known jihadi-leaning suspects in the US in response to analysts’ deconstruction of the intelligence chatter obtained via signal and human intelligence that the Intelligence Community has been collecting and funneling to them which indicated to the analysts that there’s “strong enough reason to believe” small, but coordinated cells are planning attacks across the nation.
“And it could be anything – we just don’t know … all we know is that it appears more attacks seem rather imminent,” one of the officials stressed.
Kill where you are!
FBI Director James Comey noted that jihadist propaganda has shifted in recent weeks from a message of urging jihadists to join ISIS in its jihad in Syria and Iraq, to telling followers to kill infidels where ever they live.
One seasoned counterterrorism intelligence analyst Homeland Security Today interviewed on background said he fears the “new message to stay in place and carry out attacks here could, in my estimation, mean Americans — and other Westerners – we don’t know about who already have been trained and fought overseas may be being sent back to the states with specific directions to hook up with specific jihadi-inclined persons ISIS — or even Al Qaeda recruiters — have been communicating with in order to surreptitiously form cells whose members can be trained here, then sent on pre-planned targets in the US.”
“Think it’s far-fetched? Well, it’s not, I can damn well assure you of that,” another one of the officials Homeland Security Today interviewed stated.
But what’s more disturbing, officials acknowledged, is veteran members of jihadist groups – including, in particular, Al Shabaab, “we know have managed” to get into the United States in recent years – “sleepers,” you might say, “just awaiting their orders,” an official said.
Days after Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi, the two self-radicalized Muslims and Phoenix, Arizona roommates killed a week ago 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 — 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.
They’re out there
Homeland Security Today reported in August that social media-influenced Islamist jihadism has already taken place on US soil, some successfully, and noted that other planned attacks were thwarted. Still, the fear of counterterrorists and intelligence officials today is that so many more Muslims and the newly converted are being radicalized by ISIS and other jihadi groups through their sophisticated social media efforts, which includes slick, professionally prepared magazines that have a very distinctive Western visual messaging appeal, officials pointed out.
"I know there are other Elton Simpsons out there," Comey said. "But I also know there are Elton Simpsons out there I cannot see."
For example, authorities know ISIS has been “lethally effective” in targeting the Somali-American community in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, Homeland Security Today reported.
FBI Counterterrorism Division Assistant Director Michael Steinbach agreed. 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, Steinbach 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 the center 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.
In 2011, though, NCTC refuted the notion there are visible signs, or indicators, of a person’s radicalization, such as religious behavior. Today, counterterrorism authorities are singing a much different tune.
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.”
In classic intelligence parlance, the most feared threat is the one you don’t know you don’t know.
Consequently, counterterrorism surveillance now taking place is focused on persons previously considered “marginal” or “borderline” suspects. Elton Simpson, for example — one of the jihadists thwarted from successfully attacking the civic center in Garland, Texas where a best illustration of the Prophet Muhammad contest was taking place — was considered a “marginal” threat by the FBI — In fact, he reportedly was considered to be “more talk than action.” But investigators didn’t look close enough to see he was expressing indicators of radicalization until it was almost too late to warn the Garland, Texas police.
‘We can’t be politically correct anymore’
Counterterrorism officials echoed that sentiment, saying, “too many times the FBI has missed the mark on the deadly threat ‘marginal’ and ‘borderline’ suspects actually pose, even when we know who they are.” Others have simply slipped through the cracks, despite the glaring indicators of their radicalization which the FBI’s own Counterterrorism Division warned field agents to be aware during their investigations.
“[Army Major Nidal Malik] Hasan and the Tsarnaev brothers immediately come to mind,” one of the officials said, warning that there’d been a politically correct mindset [within the FBI] – or at least there had been – to not take seriously theories of radicalization put forward by certain law enforcement agencies that the road to terrorism is marked by easily identifiable indicators.
Yet, On May 10, 2006, the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division issued the "For Official Use Only" intelligence assessment, The Radicalization Process: From Conversion to Jihad, which provided for law enforcement investigators and analysts a distinctive profile of the “indicators” of someone undergoing Islamist radicalization. Since its issuance, its underlying assessments have been buttressed by a variety of authorities studying the problem, even though at the time it was poo-pooed by civil rights advocates.
“This assessment provides a working model of the radicalization process for a legal US person who is a convert to Islam, utilizing FBI case examples that illustrate the process … derived from open and closed FBI investigations” and “academic literature,” the FBI’s report stated.
Then, in 2007, the New York City Police Department released its own radicalization profile, Radicalization in the West, which also comported with the FBI’s indicators of the phases through which homegrown Muslim jihadists progress on their way to radicalization, which, is actually the belief that jihad is mandated for believers in order to establish Islam worldwide and the establishment of a Caliphate.
With the worrisome rise in jihadists’ chatter and the attack in Texas, the FBI has been ordered to re-review the intelligence on individuals known to embrace jihad to determine if they should be put under closer, if not 24/7, surveillance. But there’s a problem. The FBI just doesn’t have the manpower or the resources to shadow all the “borderline” and “marginal” suspects they know about – not to mention the networks of each of these suspects that likely will be uncovered uncovered through such surveillance. To do so would severely stress the FBI’s capabilities.
As unpalatable as civil rights and privacy advocates would find it, intelligence sources said the National Security Agency (NSA) can play “perhaps a game-changing role by feeding into its communications collection programs the names of people in the US we know or suspect of having direct communications with jihadists overseas – it’d be a huge start given the circumstances we find ourselves in right now,” one of the sources said, noting that the “NSA’s capabilities are perfectly ideal for this very sort of problem we find ourselves facing.”
As an FBI official told ABC News, “We do not want to risk another marginal, homegrown extremist who was viewed as dangerous going active.”
Indeed. In one Twitter message to Simpson from an ISIS recruiter known as “Miski,” Simpson was told he could just as easily meet Allah by staying in the US and plot an attack against the unbelievers.
“If you can’t travel, kill where you are,” Comey said is the new directive from ISIS recruiters, confirming that there’s recently been a shift in the messaging that counterterrorism intelligence analysts find extremely troubling.
“These radically converted now no longer have to travel half way around the world to receive specialized training; all they have to do is follow the bomb-making and other explosives construction instructions ISIS and Al Qaeda have made available online to achieve their personal acts of jihad,” one of the counterterrorism officials stressed.
Meanwhile, the Department of Defense – not just a few of whose senior leaders are named in a recent ISIS “hit list” – ordered all military installations to “Force Protection Condition (FPCON) Bravo,” which means “an increased and more Predictable Terrorist Threat Activity exists. Specific information suggests probable violence,” and that “extra precaution is appropriate to deter terrorist planning.”
"We have a general concern, obviously, that ISIL is focusing on the uniformed military and law enforcement," Comey told reporters.
US Northern Command (NORTHCOM) Commander Admiral William Gortney, who oversees all US military installations in the United States, ordered the FPCON.
NORTHCOM spokesman Captain Jeff Davis said, "We have the same concern about the potential threat posed by violent homegrown extremists.”
Although government officials reportedly have described a situation of “panic” and “crisis” at the FBI and other agencies with counterterrorism responsibilities, Comey assured such reports aren’t completely accurate, telling ABC News no one is yet in “crisis” or “panic” mode yet. But he did concede the FBI is facing what other officials said are close to insurmountable “challenges” because the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division is overextended to near its breaking point – which one counterterrorism agent said “may be exactly what ISIS, Al Qaeda … all the foreign-based jihadi groups want …”
The FBI is being “overwhelmed” by the exponential growth of recruitment activities in cyberspace, ABC News reported.
“The problem is there are so many new platforms and new media forums it’s trying to catch up on that,” an FBI official told ABC News. “The threats are moving a hundred miles an hour and the difficulty is differentiating between kids who are just tweeting and guys that are for real.”
“It’s back to the unknown, like post 9/11,” the official added.