For more than a year, U.S. officials have been warning of the potential terror blowback from Americans who have fought in Syria. Senior counter-terrorism officials have repeatedly claimed that more than 100 individuals have traveled from the U.S. to fight with terror groups in Syria and Iraq.
However, FBI Director James Comey began to walk those claims back in late September and early October — just weeks before the November mid-term elections.
In an interview with 60 Minutes, he claimed that “roughly a dozen” U.S. persons were fighting with extremist groups in Syria.
That was a marked change from his own comments in May, when his own figures were considerably higher:
Comey declined to give a precise figure for Americans believed to be involved in the Syrian struggle but said the numbers are “getting worse.”
“I said dozens last time,” said Comey, referring to an interview with reporters four months ago. “It’s still dozens, just a couple more dozen.”
A senior U.S. counterterrorism official estimated this year that 60 to 70 Americans have traveled to fight in Syria. Comey said that Americans in Syria are actively recruiting other Americans to join the fight.
Several dozen in May 2014 is still considerably more than “roughly a dozen” just a few months later.
An Associated Press article allowed Comey to explain his walk-back on his own numbers:
“When I use a number of more than 100, that means people who have gone and come back, people who have attempted to go and we locked them up, people who have gone and stayed,” Comey said during an interview with reporters at FBI headquarters. “The figure that I’ve been operating with is, ballparkish, a dozen still there fighting with terrorist groups.”
The AP reporters deemed the 100-plus Americans fighting in Syria claim that had been repeated by a number of U.S. senior officials — including Comey himself — as having reached “urban legend status.”
But once America was past the mid-term elections, the stated numbers provided by senior officials quickly soared.
In early March, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper claimed that 180 U.S. persons had traveled to Syria. More remarkably, he claimed that 40 such individuals had already returned to the United States.
According to Reuters, Clapper also said that he was not aware of any plots that anyone who had returned from Syria had been involved in. However, Abdirahman Sheik Mohamud had already been arrested on state terror charges at the request of the FBI a week before Clapper made his comments.
Just yesterday, a federal grand jury indicted Mohamud on charges of traveling to fight with Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria. Having received training, he returned to the U.S. with the mission of conducting terrorist attacks here at home. This is the first known case of a fighter returning from Syria with terrorist intent.
According to the indictment, Mohamud became a naturalized U.S. citizen in February 2014. A week later, he applied for his U.S. passport to travel to fight in Syria.
(This case is of particular interest to me not only because Mohamud lived just a few miles from my home in Columbus, Ohio — I have been warning of terrorist recruitment in Central Ohio for more than a decade — but also because Mohamud roamed freely around our city for eight months before he was arrested, during which time he could have committed any number of terrorist acts.)
Was the director of National Intelligence not informed of this terror plot, or was he keeping critical information away from the American public?
Additionally, why was this rapidly escalating terror threat apparently never mentioned during President Obama’s three-day White House “radicalization summit” just days before Clapper’s Council on Foreign Relations speech? There, all the talk was about “right-wing terrorism,” based on a Homeland Security report that is still kept under wraps.
Lesley Stahl: As I understand it, of the 180 Americans who have gone overseas to fight in Iraq and Syria, 40 have come back. I assume you’re keeping close tabs on those 40?
Jeh Johnson: We have in fact kept close tabs on those who we believe have left and those who’ve come back. A number have been arrested or investigated and we have systems in place to track these individuals. But you can’t know everything.
Amazingly, Stahl never asked Johnson about the discrepancy between those numbers and the “roughly a dozen” claim made by FBI Director Comey — on her own program — just six months before.
Was the FBI director deliberately misleading the public about the nature of the threat just four weeks before the mid-term elections?
Our national security leaders have been less than forthcoming about the nature of the threat from returnees who have fought with terrorist groups overseas, and this dishonesty is occurring while these terrorist groups are publicly threatening attacks on the American homeland.
The Abdirahman Sheik Mohamud indictment yesterday, which says he made statements indicating his intention to attack police and soldiers here at home, makes clear that this is not an imaginary threat. But as we saw in both the Fort Hood massacre and the Boston bombing, playing politics with national security will cost American lives, and our leaders are still playing games.