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Spy head: ‘Lone wolves’ bigger threat than al Qaeda

The threat from “lone wolf” extremists who have the ability to carry out isolated attacks across the U.S. is more of a concern than fears about al Qaeda, the nation’s top spy said on Tuesday.

“I think our more proximate threat are the so-called lone wolves,” Director of National Intelligence James ClapperJames Robert ClapperDomestic security is in disarray: We need a manager, now more than ever Will Biden provide strategic clarity or further ambiguity on Taiwan? 140 national security leaders call for 9/11-style panel to review Jan. 6 attack MORE said on MSNBC’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports."

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U.S. tools to fight those lone wolves are “declining,” Clapper added, making it more difficult for spies to detect possible radicalization and more important for friends and family members to warn officials about their fears.

The comments on Tuesday largely mirror FBI Director James Comey’s remarks over the weekend, when he said that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) — largely because of their ability to influence lone wolves — poses a greater threat to the U.S. than al Qaeda, the group that has captured Americans’ since the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks. 

ISIS is “very skilled and sophisticated and slick in communicating,” Clapper said on Tuesday.

U.S. intelligence officials have been increasingly vocal in their warnings about the damage that individuals can do after being inspired by ISIS’s Twitter posts, YouTube videos and other online propaganda.  

The FBI has said that it has opened investigations into ISIS-related plots in all 50 states, and has made multiple arrests in recent weeks. 

Among the plots that the government claims to have disrupted are a plan to behead the anti-Muslim activist behind the “Draw Muhammad” event in Texas earlier this year and one to broadcast college students’ executions live over the Internet. 

Other attacks — such as the recent killings of five service members in Chattanooga, Tenn. and of nine people at an African-American church in Charleston, S.C. — are further cause for concern about lone wolves of all ideologies, government officials say.

Some critics accuse the government of being too aggressive in arresting people who appear mentally ill and could never actually carry out their attack.

Comey said on Tuesday that the government’s ability to track down people who may commit acts of violence has been made more complicated by the rise of encrypted communications, which protect people’s messages even from government agents who have obtained a court order.

“This is a very serious problem for us, particularly in light of the growing use of encryption,” Clapper said on MSNBC. “When an overseas recruiter gets a promising prospect here in the United States on the line and then directs them to go to an encryption system, and then we kind of lose the continuity.”

Tech companies have so far resisted the idea of creating a “backdoor” into their encryption protections to allow the government in. Privacy advocates agree with the decision, and say that any move to grant the government extraordinary access will only weaken digital security for everyone.