FBI Director James B. Comey said Friday that the problem of Americans traveling to Syria to fight in the civil war there has worsened in recent months and remains a major concern to U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials.
In a wide-ranging interview with reporters at FBI headquarters, Comey said the FBI is worried that the Americans who have joined extremist groups allied with al-Qaeda in Syria will return to the United States to carry out terrorist attacks.
“All of us with a memory of the ’80s and ’90s saw the line drawn from Afghanistan in the ’80s and ’90s to Sept. 11,” Comey said. “We see Syria as that, but an order of magnitude worse in a couple of respects. Far more people going there. Far easier to travel to and back from. So, there’s going to be a diaspora out of Syria at some point and we are determined not to let lines be drawn from Syria today to a future 9/11.”
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.
Comey said the threat associated with foreign fighters in Syria is of concern not only to the United States but also is “a huge focus” of European intelligence officials.
“It’s the first thing we talk about when I go visit a counterpart,” said Comey, who has visited 13 FBI legal attache offices abroad since he became director in September.
Comey said thousands of fighters are traveling to Syria from European countries, and they are a focus for the FBI because many of them could easily get into the United States.
“They’re visa-waiver countries,” Comey said. “If someone flows out of Syria, they can flow in here very easily.”
Comey said the al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen remains the greatest threat to the United States. He said the terrorist group is bent on attacking America and that he was very concerned about the group’s bombmaking expertise.