Courthouse News Service
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WASHINGTON (CN) - Top brass of the U.S. intelligence community warned Thursday of a mass exodus of foreign fighters, spreading globally, as the Islamic State group prepares for the eventual loss of its self-proclaimed caliphate.
"We all know there will be a terrorist diaspora out of the caliphate as military force crushes the caliphate," FBI director James Comey told the House Homeland Security Committee. "Those thousands of fighters are going to go someplace, and our job is to spot them and stop them from coming to the United States to harm innocent people."
The Islamic State group's territory has shrunk by 6 percent this year. Iraqi forces backed by a Shiite militia took back the key Iraqi city of Fallujah last month. But the reclaiming of territory from the group, abbreviated in the hearing alternatively as ISIS and ISIL, has come at a cost. The city is ruins, and many of the more than 85,000 who fled during the battle are still languishing in desert camps.
There could be a cost at home as well, as the group compensates for territorial losses by stepping up attacks outside the territory it holds, CIA director John Brennan warned last month. Brennan had said battlefield losses have not hampered the group's ability to launch global terror attacks.
Just several days after ISIL lost Fallujah in June, the group carried out a deadly attack at Istanbul's airport in Turkey, and then at a restaurant popular with tourists in Dhaka, Bangladesh, earlier this month. The group also launched the deadliest attack Baghdad has seen in years, killing nearly 300 in a truck bomb attack in the final days of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting.
Comey agreed with Brennan's assessment that the group remains formidable, despite the anti-ISIL coalition's recent gains. His counterparts at the National Counterterrorism Center and Homeland Security echoed the concern.
"It's fair to say that the array of terrorist actors around the globe is broader, deeper and wider than it has been at any time since 9/11," NCC director Nick Rasmussen said.
No one is letting their guard down, said Homeland Security director Jeh Johnson.
"In no respect I think are we satisfied that their ability to engage in external attacks and self-radicalize actors, inspire actors, has been diminished to the point we can step back and take a breather," Johnson said. "We have to stay focused on that, very much so."
Before Turkey and Bangladesh, Rasmussen noted that ISIL also carried out global attacks in Paris and Brussels last year and possibly downed a Russian airliner over Egypt. He did not, however, note the attack in Baghdad, which was far deadlier than any of the others, and targeted Muslims.
Hassan Hassan with the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policycriticized the invisibility of ISIL's Sunni Muslim victims on June 22.
He told a Senate committee: "The very people that ISIS claims to represent are victims of its brutality just as much as everyone else." Bringing these victims into focus is essential to defeating the group, he said.
Thursday's testimony came one day after a State Department official delivered optimistic news about the turning tide of the propaganda battle with ISIL. Richard Stengel, under secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs at the State Department, told members of a House committee that anti-ISIL internet content generated by mainstream Muslims now outnumbers pro-ISIL content 6 to 1.
Comey noted that the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq and Syria has also dropped. In April, the Pentagon noted a 90 percent decrease in the flow from 2000 to 200 per month.
But Comey said he takes little comfort in that statistic.
In two years, the U.S. has arrested more than 90 ISIL supporters in the U.S., and four so far this month, he said.
Though lengthy jail sentences for fighters and exposure of the caliphate's true, brutal nature have deterred some, Comey noted that hundreds of Americans are consuming pro-ISIL propaganda.
He said he remains unsettled by homegrown radicals who are staying put to carry out violent attacks at home, citing the shootings in San Bernardino and Orlando as examples.
In both cases the shooters allegedly pledged support to ISIL, but law-enforcement officials have yet to uncover evidence that any outside group directed the attacks.
Johnson noted this blurry line when discussing how he prioritizes the things that keep him awake at night.
"The prospect of homegrown violent extremism," he said. "Another San Bernardino, another Orlando is No. 1 on my list. We're now dealing not just with direct terror attacks, but terror-inspired attacks."
Law enforcement and intelligence communities have difficulty detecting self-radicalized actors, he said.
Johnson said the agency is concerned about ISIL using fake travel documents to enter the U.S., though he declined to expand on that in a public setting. He did say, however, that the agency has a sophisticated detection capability to identify fraudulent travel documents.
ISIL has been calling for more lone wolf attacks since 2014, and renewed the call in an unverified video message last month during Ramadan, delivered by Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, a close associate of the group's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
How many will answer the call remains to be seen.