WASHINGTON — With Al Qaeda militants surging in the Middle East and North Africa, top U.S. law enforcement officials are increasingly concerned about efforts to recruit and radicalize American citizens by drawing them to the restive region and sending them back to this country to carry out terrorist attacks.
FBI Director James B. Comey calls the threat one of the bureau's top priorities and said the agency is working to identify and track U.S. residents who travel overseas, embrace Al Qaeda ideology and return to the United States.
"We are focused on trying to figure out what our people are up to — who should be spoken to, who should be followed, who should be charged," Comey said in a recent meeting with reporters at FBI headquarters. "It's something we are intensely focused on."
Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, says that Al Qaeda, which has turned into a number of splinter groups, is just as ominous a threat as it was on Sept. 11, 2001. "Al Qaeda is not on the run, but is in fact growing in strength at an alarming rate across the Middle East and North Africa," he said at a committee hearing Wednesday.
In a reminder of Al Qaeda's resurgence, fighters associated with the network seized control this month over parts of the Iraqi city of Fallouja and continue to play a key role in opposition groups seeking to overthrow the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), who has closely studied the threat of Americans radicalized abroad, agrees that Al Qaeda remains far from defeated, although it is less centralized. "In many ways the threat is more dangerous than it was before," he said. "And we have to deal with it in a more intelligent way."
Two cases of radicalized Americans surfaced last year.
Nicole Lynn Mansfield, a nurse from Flint, Mich., died while fighting alongside anti-government militants in northern Syria. Thirty-three years old, she was among three killed in May after she reportedly tossed a grenade from a passing car at Syrian government soldiers, who then opened fire on the vehicle.
Mansfield was still carrying her Michigan driver's license. Also found in her vehicle was a banner for one of the Al Qaeda-linked rebel fronts fighting in Syria. She had married a man from Dubai and converted to Islam. The pair had participated in a Washington rally in support of Egypt's "Arab Spring."
The other radicalized American is Eric Harroun, a former U.S. Army private from Tucson, who pleaded guilty in September to conspiracy to violate arms-control laws after fighting in Syria alongside Al Nusra Front, a branch of Al Qaeda that the U.S. has designated a terrorist organization.
Harroun, 31, was never deployed by the Army to the region. He went to Syria on his own last January, and began posting images and videos on the Internet showing the fighting and complaining about Assad.
He initially faced a sentence of up to 30 years for firing a rocket-propelled grenade during a clash in Syria. He was arrested in March, and then released upon his guilty plea in September, having served six months in jail.
In a "statement of facts" unsealed Jan. 9 in his federal court case, which Harroun signed, prosecutors said he "acted unlawfully and knowingly and not because of mistake, accident or other innocent reason," making clear the U.S. government believes he joined the militants on purpose and was radicalized into their ideology.
Two others in recent years were radicalized in Pakistan, then returned to the U.S. and came dangerously close to carrying out bombings in New York. Najibullah Zazi, an Afghan American, schemed to blow up the subway with backpack bombs, and Faisal Shahzad, an American born in Pakistan, attempted to detonate a car bomb in Times Square.
Zazi, 28, was arrested in 2009 and admitted he was "recruited" by Pakistani militants to hit the crowded transit system with a series of suicide bombs. He pleaded guilty and was facing life in prison, but his sentence was postponed and he was later reportedly moved to a secret location.
Shahzad, 34, was arrested in 2010 after trying to detonate a car bomb in Times Square. He, too, pleaded guilty and admitted he had received bomb-making training in Pakistan. He was sentenced to life in prison with no parole.
Federal law enforcement officials say they have been tracing other U.S. residents traveling abroad, specifically Somali Americans from Minnesota who have gone to fight in that country. They are also watching several individuals identified soon after the Sept. 11 attacks, such as half a dozen men from the Buffalo suburb of Lackawanna, N.Y., who trained at an Al Qaeda facility in Afghanistan.
Comey says these suspects are always the most difficult to identify and stop. He suggests it is all the more challenging today because Al Qaeda has been "metastasizing" into splinter groups in Iraq, Syria and Libya.
Although the FBI previously had "great success" against Al Qaeda in the group's traditional Afghanistan-Pakistan region, he said, "in the ungoverned or poorly governed spaces in Africa and around the Middle East, we see a resurgence of Al Qaeda affiliates."
Former Rep. Jane Harman of California, who used to be chairwoman of a House Homeland Security subcommittee and is now president of the Wilson Center, a Washington think tank, told McCaul's committee that one of the biggest challenges was identifying disgruntled Americans or immigrants who might be susceptible to violence.
"Lone wolves are a big part of this problem," she said. "We need to have an effective system that can spot bad guys and prevent and disrupt plots against us."Copyright © 2015, CT Now