FBI chief: Americans fighting in Syria not just a Mpls. problem

James Comey
FBI Director James Comey, backed by law enforcement personnel, addresses a news conference Tuesday, June 17, 2014 at the FBI Minneapolis field office in Brooklyn Center, Minn.
Jim Mone/AP

The head of the FBI says he wakes up every morning worrying about the 100 or so Americans who traveled to Syria to fight with radical groups there.

More: Jihad in Syria lures Somalis from Minnesota

It's also a pressing concern for the Twin Cities, where federal authorities are investigating who or what may have lured a handful of young men into trying to wage a holy war against President Bashar Assad's government.

FBI Director James Comey says if left unchecked, the problems in Syria could spill over here.

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Nine months into the job, Comey paid a visit to the Minneapolis field office for the first time, to, as he put it, talk with his troops, as well as local law enforcement. It's part of his plan to visit all 56 divisions in the bureau, and he's more than halfway to his goal.

Comey also met Twin Cities reporters in the cavernous lobby of the FBI's offices in Brooklyn Center. Flanked by a couple dozen law enforcement officials from the metro, Comey's six-foot-eight figure loomed nearly a head taller than many of his peers.

Comey says the fear that corners him every day is whether the jihadist unrest in Syria could ever lead to an attack in the U.S.

"There are thousands of people from all over the world, including from all parts of the United States who are traveling to Syria, learning the worst kinds of techniques and tactics, and making the worst kinds of relationships," he said. "At some point there will be some kind of diaspora out of Syria, back to western Europe, back to North America, bringing with those skills and relationships, and we have to be very careful to anticipate what the future might be if we're not careful."

Comey declined to say whether the FBI had any evidence suggesting that the Syrian extremists were plotting attacks on U.S. soil. But he did emphasize that the enlistment of American recruits wasn't confined to Minneapolis, or any other city.

"This traveler problem is not a New York thing, it's not a Washington thing, it's not an L.A. thing," he said. "It's an everywhere thing."

A spokesman for the Minneapolis FBI says new information suggests the number of travelers to Syria from the Twin Cities is smaller than the bureau's earlier estimate of 10 to 15. The spokesman characterized the figure as "a handful," but declined to be more specific because of the ongoing investigation.

Through Facebook, MPR News interviewed a Minnesota man who said he's fighting with the militant group ISIS.

James Comey says the group is a major concern, because it wants to wage a "jihad" around the world.

"It's something we have to be vigilant on, and everyone standing here is focused on that," he said.

Comey singled out Minneapolis as a national model for its work in trying to prevent the radicalization of young, disaffected men, particularly in the Somali-American community.

Comey says the rest of the country can also learn from the Twin Cities how law enforcement is working across local, state and federal levels.

But he also spoke of the challenges. It's been seven years since the FBI started investigating the travels of about two dozen young Twin Cities men to the Horn of Africa to fight with a Somali terrorist group.

As high-profile as that case was, it didn't keep others in recent months from following radical Islamic ideology to Syria, where the men had no family or ethnic ties. The FBI says it has not arrested any of the Minnesotans who traveled to Syria to fight.

Comey said it would have been difficult to prevent those most recent departures. And that's why he says the FBI's work with local authorities through its joint terrorism task force is crucial.

"It is most likely that a sheriff's deputy or a police officer is going to see or hear about a traveler looking to go, or a traveler returning, and we have to make sure we're connected closely to those people so we can respond to it," he said.

Still, Comey noted that the roughly 100 Americans who have traveled to Syria to fight is a relatively small number. He says the FBI has hundreds of counterterrorism staff from all over the globe focused on the problem.

Comey has been outspoken on other matters, including diversity within the FBI. As a white man from the Northeast, he says the FBI needs more people from other backgrounds, including those in the local Somali-American community.

"We'll take any height," he quipped. "You don't have to be freakishly tall."

Comey says the bureau will do better when it begins to look less like him, and more like the rest of America.