ISIL Keeps FBI Director Awake At Night

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FBI Director James Comey testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Going Dark and data encryption in Washington, USA on JULY 8, 2015.
The director of the FBI believes that the Islamic State group — known by its acronyms ISIL or ISIS — is now a bigger threat to the United States than any other terrorist group, including al-Qaida.

"I worry very much about what I can't see," FBI chief James Comey said during a talk at the Aspen Security Forum on Wednesday. "If you can imagine a nationwide haystack, we're trying to find needles in that haystack. A lot of those needles are invisible to us either because of the way in which they're communicating or because they haven't communicated or touched a place where we can see them."

Alleged plots inspired by the Islamic State group and al-Qaida have made headlines in the past month. In early July, the FBI announced it had foiled an alleged ISIL plot set for Independence Day by arresting more than 10 individuals, including the son of a Boston police captain.

If you can imagine a nationwide haystack, we're trying to find needles in that haystack.

And, last week, 24-year-old Mohammod Youssuf Abdulazeez drove into a naval recruiting center in Chattanooga, TN, and allegedly shot and killed five servicemembers; Abdulazeez is reputed to have downloaded audio recordings of sermons by Anwar al-Awlaki, an al-Qaida recruiter who was killed in a 2011 drone strike, ABC News reported.

But during Wednesday's talk, Comey declined to comment on the ongoing investigation into Abdulazeez's background.

The sorts of terrorists Comey believes most threaten the United States today are individual actors — marginalized young people who find inconceivable solace in violence. And Comey said that most of them are now drawn to ISIL, not al-Qaida.

"ISIL is not your parents' al-Qaida. It's a very different model," Comey told CNN news anchor Wolf Blitzer during the forum.
"They have invested about the last year in pushing a message — a poison — primarily through Twitter," Comey said. "They are preaching through social media to troubled souls, urging them to join their so-called caliphate, in Syria and Iraq; or if you can't join, kill where you are."

Comey speculated that dozens of Americans have traveled to the Middle East to train with ISIL, though he said he did not have a "'high-confidence read' on the issue" and did not specify a time frame for the trips. He added that Twitter accounts affiliated with the terrorist group count more than 21,000 English-speaking followers worldwide.

Vanda Felbab-Brown, Ph.D., a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute's Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence, agreed that ISIL now represents a larger threat than al-Qaida, but says that threat must be put in perspective.

...You have messaging being concocted by people in their 50s. Young people need to learn how to dissuade other young people from such errors.

Vanda Felbab-Brown, Brookings Institute
"I do not think people should be scared on a daily basis. That would be totally ineffective and unproductive," Felbab-Brown told Refinery29.

Felbab-Brown adds that young people have a responsibility to dissuade their peers from joining terrorist groups. She compares most attempts by the government to discredit ISIL propaganda to ineffective anti-drug campaigns.

"Very often, you have messaging being concocted by people in their 50s," Felbab-Brown says. "Young people need to learn how to dissuade other young people from such errors."

And that means assessing why young Americans would be attracted to such groups in the first place, she adds.

"I think [young people] need to engage with their peers and think about why [ISIL] would appeal to anyone, and what kind of messaging would be effective in exposing the true brutality and awfulness of the group," Felbab-Brown says.

To put that fear in perspective, nearly twice as many people have been killed on American soil by right-wing extremists since 9/11 than by Muslim terrorist groups, according to a report by the New America Foundation.

Since September 11, 2001, 28 people have died from "deadly jihadist attacks," according to the report. That's less than 0.001% of the number of people killed in car crashes in the United States in 2013.

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