WASHINGTON — With Al-Qaida militants surging in the Middle East and North Africa, U.S. law enforcement officials are increasingly concerned about efforts to recruit and radicalize American citizens by drawing them to the region and sending them back to this country to carry out 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-Qaida 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. “It’s something we are intensely focused on.”
Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said al-Qaida, which has turned into a number of splinter groups, is just as ominous a threat as it was on Sept. 11, 2001. “Al-Qaida 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 last week.
Two cases of radicalized Americans surfaced last year.
Nicole Lynn Mansfield, a nurse from Flint, Mich., died in May while fighting alongside anti-government militants in northern Syria. She reportedly tossed a grenade from a passing car at Syrian government soldiers, who then opened fire on the vehicle.
Mansfield, 33, was still carrying her Michigan driver’s license. Also found in her vehicle was a banner for one of the al-Qaida-linked rebel fronts fighting in Syria. She had married a man from Dubai and converted to Islam.
The other 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 Nusra Front, a branch of al-Qaida 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, 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, and 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 said 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-Qaida facility in Afghanistan.
Comey said these suspects are always the most difficult to identify and stop. He suggested it is all the more challenging today because al-Qaida has been “metastasizing” into splinter groups in Iraq, Syria and Libya.
Although the FBI previously had “great success” against al-Qaida 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-Qaida affiliates.”