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FBI Director: ISIL is ‘Not Your Parent’s Al Qaeda’

July 23, 2015  • Katherine Grygo, Guest Blogger

Above, watch FBI Director James Comey and CNN “The Situation Room” Host Wolf Blitzer discuss a range of topics in “The Complexity of Today’s Global Threat Environment” session at the 2015 Aspen Security Forum. 

Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey sat down for an interview with CNN “Situation Room” Host Wolf Blitzer to discuss topics ranging from ISIL, to cyber threats posed by China and Russia, to Charleston shooter Dylan Roof in “The Complexity of Today’s Global Threat Environment” session at the 2015 Aspen Security Forum

When asked what keeps him up at night, Comey responded without hesitation, “What keeps me up at night probably these days is the ISIL threat in the homeland, and I worry very much about what I can’t see.” He believes them to be a bigger threat to the US than Al Qaeda because of their use of social media in spreading propaganda and gaining supporters.

“The threat that ISIL presents to the United States is very different in kind, in type, in degree than Al Qaeda. ISIL is not your parent’s Al Qaeda, it’s a very different model. And by virtue of that model, it’s currently the threat that we are worried about in the homeland most of all.”

“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 email in to their magazine and hope that somebody answers you,” he said.

“ISIL has changed that model entirely because ISIL is buzzing on your hip [through mobile devices such as smartphones]… that message is being pushed all day long. If you want to talk to a terrorist, they’re right there on Twitter direct messaging for you to communicate with,” said Comey. 

In discussing the demographic of people who join ISIL, Comey explained that it’s difficult to track, but it is primarily men — and increasingly women — who range in age from 18 to 62. Comey believes the terrorist group appeals most to “troubled souls.” “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 them where you are.”  

Comey spoke about other issues besides ISIL, including  the lack of diversity present in the FBI, the deep distrust the public has towards law enforcement, the Charleston massacre, cyber security, and how World War III could differ from other wars. 

Diversification in the FBI

Comey cited that one of the biggest issues facing the FBI is the lack of diversity. A majority of special agents are white men, so there is a pressing need to reach out to minority communities and show them the good work the agency does. “My challenge is that I have to get people of color to give us a look… We just have to make sure that the talent out there, especially talented people of color, come to see us and see our work,” said Comey. 

Rebuilding Trust Between the Public and Law Enforcement 

When discussing the negative sentiments the public feels towards law enforcement, Comey stressed the importance of rebuilding this relationship. He believes the solution is to bring down the barrier between law enforcement and the citizenry. “It’s hard to hate up close… I think about a human zipper,” Comey said. “We just need to blend together and get to know each other. We in law enforcement have to get out of our cars and get to know the people we’re trying to protect, and they need to see us and the kind of people we are.” 

Preventing Future Charleston Shootings

Because of an error in Charleston shooter Dylan Roof’s background check, Roof was able to purchase a firearm that he later used in the Charleston massacre. This mistake has prompted Comey to take a closer look at the firearms clearance process and find a way to prevent any future incidents. “I sent a team out to find out what exactly went wrong, how can our training be better, how can our process be better — that’s our piece… It’s a very hard job to process tens of thousands of gun purchases… that’s the burden the law puts on us, and so we need to meet it.” 

US Cyber Threats and Security

There was a major breach of government computer systems earlier this month, which resulted in the theft of a vast number of people’s personal information, including health and financial history, Social Security numbers, and fingerprints. Reports speculated that the attacks are from China, but Comey refused to comment on the validity of this information. However, he did discuss how Russia and China present the biggest threat to US cyber security and explained how this sensitive information is valuable in recruiting spies. 

“In the hands of a state actor, it [sensitive information] would be a gold mind for intelligence operations,” Comey said. “You could craft recruitment strategies; you could craft the world’s best spear-fishing emails. You could send me an email that appears to be from my sister about some family event that you’ve figured out from my background forms with an attachment, and I would click on that attachment and then you would be into my system.” 

The Allies for World War III 

It has been speculated that the next World War will not be nations against other nations. Instead we will see countries like China and the United States coming together to fight societal ills. Comey was asked whether the US would collaborate with China in the future to address security challenges such as terrorism, despite the threat China and Russia pose to US security. 

“Yes,” he replied. “We work together today with both… the Chinese government and the Russian government to deal with common threats. We have a good cooperative relationship with parts of the Chinese government on various criminal actors who’ve flown back and forth between our countries. With the Russians we work together in various ways together to fight terrorism.” 

The four-day Forum will feature other top-level government officials, including US Attorney General Loretta Lynch, US Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, and others. Watch the conversations as they happen live on the Aspen Security Forum website.