ATLANTA (AP) — The participation of Americans and Europeans in Islamist extremist activities in Syria and Iraq is worrisome, but authorities are committed to making sure no attacks occur in the United States, the FBI director said Friday.
Director James Comey spoke to reporters Friday during a visit to the agency’s Atlanta field office. Counterterrorism is the agency’s top priority, he said, adding that thousands of Westerners believed to be in the region along the border between Iraq and Syria present an especially difficult challenge.
“Their going there is really worrisome because in going there they make the worst kind of relationships, they get the worst kind of training. That’s very bad,” he said. “What’s worse is the prospect of their coming back to Western Europe, coming back to North America with that training and those relationships and that awful motivation.”
The United States’ direct targeting of the Islamic State group — also known by the acronyms ISIL and ISIS — could increase the militants’ motivation to hit targets on American soil, he said.
“Obviously, with us taking the fight to ISIL, that increases the chance that they will turn and try to demonstrate their bonafides by striking in the U.S.,” Comey said.
President Barack Obama earlier this month authorized limited airstrikes against the Islamic State group in Iraq and military aid to Iraqi and Kurdish forces. But his deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes on Friday raised the possibility of a broader American military campaign targeting the group’s bases in Syria, saying the U.S. would take any action necessary to protect national security.
The recent execution of American journalist James Foley could be seen as a turning point in a long-running battle against the group, whose origins are in an al-Qaida offshoot that U.S. forces faced in Iraq several years ago, Rhodes said on the Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard, where Obama is on vacation.
Also worrisome, Comey said, are so-called homegrown terrorists who are influenced by propaganda online and can also access guidance for carrying out an attack on the Internet.
“These homegrown violent extremists are troubled souls who find the poisonous propaganda and the specific training available to them in their basement in their pajamas and then convince themselves to go kill innocent people,” he said.
They’re especially dangerous because the window of time between when those people get motivated and when they try to harm people can be very small, Comey said.