NEW YORK (AP) — The task of identifying every American who travels to Syria in response to recruitment efforts by the Islamic State group remains “extremely difficult,” FBI Director James Comey said Monday.
Speaking at a counterterrorism conference at Fordham Law School, Comey told the audience of law enforcement and private security officials that the FBI has identified some potential suspects who have gone overseas and come back. But he also said he worries others will go undetected.
“There are literally thousands of ways to get from the United States to Syria, and the same number of ways to return,” Comey said. “And we have tens of thousands of Americans traveling for all manner of good and legitimate reasons out of this country and in the direction of Syria every single day. And so finding among that group, those who are responding to the call of a group like (the Islamic State) is extremely difficult.”
The director also cited a persistent threat from sophisticated online propaganda and extremist rhetoric by Islamic State and other terror groups that aim to incite would-be terrorists to kill in their name inside the United States without exposure to radical views at local mosques.
“I actually don’t see religious institutions as a central feature of recruitment in the United States,” he said. “I see it increasingly as an online phenomenon without center, which makes it very difficult for us.”
Comey repeated his concerns that plans by Apple and Google to encrypt their latest smartphones could hinder investigations into domestic terrorism.
Absent the ability to access information on the devices, “We’re going to miss out on people who are using social media to plan and plot terrorist acts,” he said. “This worries me as a citizen and as a law enforcement officer. I am a big believer in the rule of law, but I believe that means that there should be no one in the United States who is above the law. I also think it means there should be no places in the United States that should be beyond the law.”
The remarks came on the same day Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced new restrictions for travelers from Europe and other countries for which a visa is not required for U.S. entry.
Now passengers from the 38 Visa Waiver Program countries, which include Australia and most of Europe, will have to provide information about aliases, other passports they hold, their parents’ names, employment information, city of birth and a national identification number if they have one.
Associated Press writer Alicia A. Caldwell in Washington contributed to this report.
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