The number of Americans trying to leave the U.S. to join the Islamic State in Syria has dried up, with just 6 identified over the last three and a half months, FBI Director James B. Comey told Congress Wednesday.
That’s down substantially from the average of nine a month at the beginning of the year — though Mr. Comey said it’s not clear why the change has happened. He said it could be that efforts by overseas partners such as Turkey are helping, that American efforts to lock up potential travelers has helped, that fewer people may be trying to join the fight, or that U.S. officials aren’t spotting those that are.
“We’re starting to notice that curve, which was going up like a hockey stick, flatten a little bit,” the FBI chief told the House Homeland Security Committee, as he testified along with Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and National Counterterrorism Center Director Nicholas J. Rasmussen.
The three men found themselves on the defensive over President Obama’s new policy calling for the U.S. to accept up to 10,000 Syrian refugees for resettlement in 2016, with the expectation that number could increase again in 2017.
While admitting there is a security risk, the three officials said they’re checking all of the databases they can and have built up substantial expertise to know what questions to ask when officers interview would-be refugees.
“I’ve committed that each one would receive careful security vetting,” Mr. Johnson said.
The officials said the government got a test-run when it took thousands of refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade, building up the kind of expertise needed to weed out would-be terrorists.
But the U.S., because it had troops on the ground in both locations, was able to access some of those governments’ databases, where that’s not the case in Syria.
Mr. Rasmussen also said there have been indications that terrorist groups have expressed an interest in using the refugee system to get their operatives into the U.S. and other western European countries.
More broadly, the three officials said the terrorist threat to the U.S. has grown more complex with the rise of the Islamic State, which has harnessed social media to recruit fighters to come to Iraq and Syria, and also to spur lone-wolf attacks across the globe.
“Starting in the summer of 2014, they really invested in this and it works,” Mr. Comey said. “It led to troubled souls convincing themselves that there was meaning for them in Syria and Iraq or that they should engage in acts of violence in the United States.”
That spurred a wave of recruits attempting to enter Syria — a surge that has only declined in the last few months.
Mr. Rasmussen said that the focus on the Islamic State should not distract from al Qaeda, which he said is still intent on launching attacks.
“Right now we’re closely watching for signs that core al Qaeda’s attack capability is potentially being restored ahead of the U.S. military’s drawdown in Afghanistan,” the counterterrorism director said. “While the ability of al Qaeda to train, recruit and deploy operatives from their safe haven in South Asia has been degraded, we continue to watch for and track indications that core al Qaeda is, in fact, engaged in plotting activity aimed at the homeland.”