FBI Director: “ISIL is not your parents’ al Qaeda”
CNN’s Wolf Blitzer sits down with FBI Director James Comey at the Aspen Security Forum, to discuss a range of threats to the homeland.
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BLITZER: Mr. Director, what keeps you up at night?
COMEY: What keeps me up at night is, probably, these days, the ISIL threat in the homeland. And I worry very much about what I can’t see. You know, that’s what keeps me up.
If you imagine a nationwide haystack, we’re trying to find needles in that haystack. And a lot of those needles are invisible to us, either because of the way in which they’re communicating or just because they haven’t communicated or touched a place where we could see them.
BLITZER: Is that now a bigger threat to the U.S. homeland than al Qaeda?
COMEY: Yes. Yes. The — the threat that ISIL presents, poses to the United States, is very different in kind, in type, in degree than al Qaeda. ISIL is not your — your parents’ al Qaeda. It’s a very different model.
BLITZER: Why is ISIS so powerful?
COMEY: Well, they have adopted a model that takes advantage of social media in a way to crowd source terrorism. They have invested about the last year in pushing a message of poison, primarily through Twitter, but other parts of social media, that is a siren song with two dimensions.
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. And Twitter is a valuable enterprise, because it works to sell shoes or to sell ideas. It works to sell this message to troubled souls.
With al Qaeda, if you wanted to consume their propaganda, you had to go find it somewhere on the Web. You’d read their magazine. If you wanted to talk to a terrorist, you might send an e-mail in to their magazine and hope that somebody answers you.
ISIL has changed that model entirely, because ISIL is buzzing on your hip, right. That message is being pushed all day long.
And if you want to talk to a terrorist, they’re right there on Twitter direct messaging for you to communicate with.
It’s the reason we have these investigations all across the United States, that year of investment is producing a warped view of the world.
And the people that ISIL’s trying to reach are people that Al Qaeda would never use as an operative.
BLITZER: Why is that?
COMEY: Because they are often unstable, troubled, drug users and — and ISIL also does something that Al Qaeda would never do. They’ll vet an operative by tasking them. Right? Give them as assignment, go kill somebody, as a way of checking out whether they are a real person or an informant of some kind.
BLITZER: So when ISIS publicly puts out there on social media, if you can’t come over to Iraq and Syria and fight with us, go out there and kill U.S. military personnel or law enforcement officers, you take that seriously.
BLITZER: You told us recently that you and your colleagues thwarted a July 4th attack or attacks, right?
BLITZER: What can you tell us about that?
COMEY: Not much.
COMEY: There were a number of — what’s interesting about the ISIL model there too is the normal terms inspired, directed or enabled blend together with ISIL. Because they just push it — they’re like a devil on somebody’s shoulders saying kill, kill, kill all day long. So to figure out whether someone was directed or inspired or enabled is actually a waste of time in many cases. There were a number of people who were bent on engaging in attacks in the United States, killing innocent people, timed to the July 4th holiday. And thanks to great work, not just by the FBI, but by our partners, State, local and Federal law enforcement, it was disrupted.
BLITZER: And that’s why you concluded now that ISIS represents the major threat to the U.S. homeland as far as terrorism is concerned?
COMEY: Right. And one of the reasons I say that is the sheer volume. Again I have investigations — the FBI has investigations related to this threat all across the country. There are hundreds of investigations. We’re trying to understand where somebody is on the spectrum of a consumer of this poison on Twitter, to an actor who’s about to try and murder innocent people, and evaluate where are they on that spectrum. We have hundreds of people we’re looking at on that spectrum. The ISIL Tweeters in theory have 21,000 English language followers. Hundreds of those people, probably thousands, are in the United States.
And the other challenge that we face, again, totally unlike your typical Al Qaeda model, is what we call the flash to bang, is both short and unpredictable with ISIL, that is often an operative will have an idea to do something, say on July 4th and wake up on June 2nd and say, you know, I’m not waiting. Today’s the day I’m going to go kill people. Which poses an additional challenge for us conducting investigations.
BLITZER: You think you have a pretty good appreciation of how many Americans have actually gone over there and trained with ISIS?
COMEY: I think we have a reasonable idea. It’s not a high confidence read, because there’s lots of ways to get to Syria. But I think we have a pretty good sense.
BLITZER: How many?
COMEY: I’ll — I’ll give you dozens of people have gone with ISIL, to ISIL. Again, it’s hard phenomenon to track, because they range in age from 18 to 62.
BLITZER: What’s the biggest stumbling block you have right now, because we were talking about the encrypted communications, the dark side?
COMEY: I’d say one of two stumbling blocks in these cases. The first is the technological one. ISIL’s MO is, they’ll broadcast on Twitter, get people to follow them, then move them to Twitter direct messaging while they evaluate whether they’re a potential live one, either to travel or to kill where they are.
Then they’ll move them to an encrypted mobile messaging app where they go dark to us. And so that’s what I mean by the needle becoming invisible. We can, with court authority, get access to the Twitter contacts, but we don’t have the ability to break strong encryption.
So if they move to the mobile messaging app, we’re going to lose them.
BLITZER: What do you need now, legally, in order to get access to that?
Because as you know, there’s a big controversy. A lot of people who don’t want their privacy infringed on. They don’t want you to have access to that.
COMEY: They — we need what the FBI needs in all of our investigations, right, we want to listen to that communication or intercept the content flowing back and forth. We’ve got to get a court order.
So we go to a judge or, if it’s sitting on a device, we go to a judge for a search warrant. But the problem we’re facing is, even with judicial orders, which is at the core of our work, we are unable to find out what people are talking about when we’ve demonstrated probable cause to believe they are terrorists or they are serious criminals.
BLITZER: Why is that?
COMEY: Because of the nature of the encryption. We don’t have the ability to break the strong encryption.
The way in which the, the mobile messaging app for example has been designed, stops it by virtue of its design. It is end-to-end encrypted so, without the key of one of the two devices at the user end, you have no ability with a court order to intercept and look at that communication.
BLITZER: So do you want the software manufacturer to allow some sort of key that would give you that kind of access, once you get a court order?
COMEY: The answer is, I don’t know exactly. I can picture the end state we need. We need judges’ orders to be complied with. Now how to figure that out? Lots of people, smart people, tell me, oh, it’s too hard. I don’t buy that. I don’t think we’ve tried hard enough yet. If we recognize that we all share the same values, I think smart people can figure out how to do it.