A large number of Americans on the Islamic State’s latest kill list have not been informed by the FBI of their inclusion on the list, nor have local law enforcement been notified about the potential dangers facing them, a website probe has discovered.
The names and addresses of more than 15,000 U.S citizens were found by security officials on encrypted Islamic State websites, but many of the potential targets for lone-wolf Islamists and/or jihadi sleeper cells only found out about the threat when contacted by investigative journalists at the website Circa.
This revelation comes as counterterrorism officials debate whether the government should keep notifying all the individuals on the Islamic State’s increasingly large kill lists that include ordinary Americans rather than government and military officials.
To date, the terror group that goes by the acronym ISIS has published on encrypted web sites several hit lists naming more than 15,000 people it would like to see killed by sleeper cells or lone wolves in New York, Texas, Florida and California.
The lists aren’t public but Circa News obtained copies of some and made sample calls to the everyday Americans who appeared on them, from college professors and military personnel to art collectors and homemakers.
In Texas alone, Circa identified 22 people in a sampling of 24 names who did not receive any notification that they were in ISIS’s crosshairs. It also identified two local police departments whose citizens were on the list that also got no alert from the FBI.
“I was terrified. We live in a different world and the Jewish community is a number one target of these radicals,” said a woman in Austin who found out from Circa that she and several of her friends in the Jewish community were on a list. The woman agreed to be interviewed only on condition of anonymity, fearing using her name would only increase her risk.
“I’m very upset that I was not notified by the FBI or local law enforcement,” she said.
Since the hit lists began emerging more frequently earlier this year, FBI officials have said they intended to notify all Americans threatened by ISIS and to work with their local police departments.
FBI officials said they are confident most American on the lists were alerted in some manner but it was possible some people may have fallen through the cracks. They stressed to date no one on the list has actually been attacked.
“The FBI routinely notifies individuals and organizations of potential threat information. We perform these notifications so potential victims are aware of possible threats and take appropriate steps,” the bureau said. “Those measures may include paying close attention to your surroundings at all times, protecting personally identifiable information, and immediately calling the local authorities if you observe something suspicious. The FBI will continue to work closely with federal, state, and local partners to keep the public informed of potential threats.”
There has been a debate among law enforcement officials on whether the lists represent a credible threat or are just a tactic to terrorize civilians, garner media attention and show off their “hacking” prowess.
Previously, ISIS kill lists have been found to be little more than groups of names and addresses randomly compiled from information openly posted the Internet through social media, etc. Vocativ recently observed that a list appeared to have been assembled from a a business platform (like LinkedIn) found online.
The self-declared hackers took the list as it is, changed some colors, and added their own threatening language. There is nothing that distinguishes this set of names as worthy of attention, certainly nothing that might make them targets of ISIS. In the past other groups affiliated with the Islamic State have released contact details for logical targets like police officers and military officials. This list, however, is so random that it appears to be little than an attempt by the group to prove that it has hacking abilities.
It’s not the first time so-called hackers have done this. Recently another pro-ISIS group called the “United Cyber Caliphate” released a “kill list” with similar details of thousands of others it deemed worthy, but unclear, targets.
The Wall Street Journal reported that although such lists are officially taken seriously by law enforcement and counter-terrorism officials, they seem to be nothing more than reproductions of data gathered from public websites, thus authorities aren’t sure whether they “pose an actual threat.”
Often the lists aren’t even the product of hacks but rather involve gathering data from public-facing websites. A list distributed late last month contained the names of more than 2,000 New Yorkers, while another listed about 1,500 Texans. None of the people had known connections to government or to issues that the terror group cares about, according to counterterrorism officials.
That development is sparking a debate among counterterrorism officials about whether the government should keep notifying all the individuals identified. While ISIS has distributed kill lists for more than a year — typically over Twitter and other social-media platforms — officials say such lists are increasing greatly in size and have moved from targeting dozens of military or government officials at a time to thousands of ordinary citizens.
With the number of names growing, counterterrorism officials are having to weigh which lists deserve more attention and concern than others, according to Thomas Galati, chief of intelligence for the New York Police Department. While there are other lists with more logical targets than the latest ones, they all have to be given credence, Mr. Galati said.
“They’re putting out the lists that they are finding online and they’re sending it to their followers and they are saying these are good people for you to attack,” Mr. Galati said. “You can’t discount it.”
In New York City, according to Circa, citizens claimed they received calls from the NYPD informing them of being on the ISIS kill list.
Chad Jenkins, a former FBI counterterrorism agent who now runs his own security firm, said he was flabbergasted by the lack of notification from his old agency.
“If we aren’t notifying private citizens that is a disservice,” Jenkins said. “If we’re not then we need to be asking those questions as fellow Americans why that’s not being done right now, especially with the evolving threat that we have seen so recently from ISIS-inspired and ISIS themselves here in America.”
A senior law enforcement official, speaking only on condition of anonymity, told Circa News that the FBI deferred to the Army for notifying service members on the list and that other challenges, like address changes, can create complications. FBI officials, for instance, want to warn people who are living at addresses once occupied by a person on the list, the official said.
The official went on to say that preventing terrorist attacks is “daunting”: “With regard to the effort to identify and mitigate inspired terrorist attacks in the Homeland by Homegrown Violent Extremists, the undertaking is quite daunting. We’re not only looking for needles in haystacks, we’re looking for small pieces of hay that can possibly turn into needles in the haystack.”
Regardless, the official said, “our duty to warn is explicit.”
Thanks to the good work of Circa, we now know they need to step up their efforts.