Feds get aggressive on terror threats

Feds get aggressive on terror threats
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Law enforcement officials are taking a more aggressive stance against suspected would-be terrorists, with the rise of “lone wolves” spurring a change in mentality.

Federal officials say a string of recent arrests is a sign of the need to be constantly on guard for plots against the nation that are inspired — but not orchestrated — by the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS).

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“This is not your grandfather's al Qaeda,” FBI Director James Comey told lawmakers in the Senate Intelligence Committee this week. “This is a very new threat that we face.”

“Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden would never have dreamed that he could speak simultaneously to hundreds of Americans, find them and task them in ways the American law enforcement could not see, and do it at the speed of light,” Comey added.

“The golden age of communication is posing enormous challenges for us.”

On the one hand, the proliferation of encrypted communications has enabled people to speak with each other in ways so protected that government agents cannot access the messages, even with a court order. That can lead to secret plots, law enforcement officials say, that stay beyond their reach.

While Comey this week pleaded for companies to provide access to that information, technologists and privacy advocates warn that it would degrade computer security for everyone.

But the rise of social media has also led to the rise of the “lone wolf” extremist.

Whether inspired by the ISIS or other extremist groups, isolated individuals can grow radicalized through Twitter streams and online message boards, even without direction from a core organization.

From there, plots can develop, like the one to behead anti-Muslim activist Pamela Geller that three men in New England allegedly discussed earlier this year.

It’s “dramatically different” than fighting al Qaeda, according to Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), the head of the House Homeland Security subcommittee on counterterrorism.

“Al Qaeda was much more controlling,” he told The Hill. “There was some inspiring [of followers], but for the most part they wanted to deal with operatives that they knew, that they controlled and that they vetted.”

“ISIS is coming at us in many different ways.”

In response to the changing landscape, law enforcement officials have stepped up their game.

As evidence of the new posture, FBI Director Comey this week told reporters that 10 people had been arrested in recent weeks for having ties to ISIS and plotting attacks against the U.S. Some of those planned attacks were scheduled to occur over the July 4 holiday weekend, he said. 

While not all of those people will likely end up being charged with terrorist crimes, the government maintained that the unpredictability of the new terror landscape should inspire them to take all possible precautions.

"It's actually hard to figure out when they're trying to kill somebody," Comey told reporters this week.

The aggressive response comes after a string of deadline attacks in Tunisia, Kuwait and France last month, which killed at least 66 people across three continents.

ISIS either claimed responsibility or had links to people carrying out all three attacks. American officials had been warning that the extremist group would likely ramp up its activity level during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which lasts through July 17.

“I don’t think there’s any question that we ought to be as aggressive as we possibly can,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson (Miss.), the top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee.

“I can only go by what they say, and they say there’s more chatter.”

Some of the people recently arrested by federal agents have been charged with providing "material support” to ISIS, even if that support appears to be little more than communicating with an undercover officer.

Last month, a North Carolina teenager was charged with weapons offenses and attempting to provide material support to ISIS after he talked with an undercover FBI officer about buying a military-style AR-15 assault rifle and launching a “big attack” to kill as many as 1,000 people. He was arrested before he bought the gun, though he did have the undercover officer send him a homemade silencer.

The teenager later told officials that he "didn't mean it."

Just as the avenues for violence have increased, so has the government's watchfulness.

“[I]t is clear that we have entered a period of enhanced emphasis on what I call preventive prosecution,” Bobby Chesney, a law professor at the University of Texas, wrote in a blog post on Thursday.

It’s an “Al Capone” strategy, he added, in which federal officials use “aggressive employment of the material support and conspiracy laws to enable arrests without having to await the emergence of specific plots (let alone attempts or completed acts).”