-- Of the dozens of Americans who traveled to war-torn Syria or Iraq
and then returned home, only a “small group” of them fought with a
terrorist group and might be inclined to launch an attack back in the
U.S., federal counterterrorism officials are claiming.
Putting potentially dangerous returnees like that behind bars, however, has been a slow and painstaking process.
the past 16 months, not a single returnee has been arrested -- even
secretly -- on charges of allegedly supporting terrorists or committing
any other direct form of terrorism overseas, though “a couple” have been
quietly implicated in lesser offenses such as lying on travel forms, a
federal source told ABC News.
By contrast, in that time, the FBI
and Justice Department have arrested at least nine people in the United
States who allegedly tried to join terrorists in Syria or Iraq, where
more than 12,000 foreign fighters have converged.
And just last
month, an upstate New York man was nabbed for allegedly trying to
recruit two more Americans to join the Islamic State, also known as ISIS
or ISIL, the Iraq-based group that has been wreaking havoc in the
region and inspiring attacks around the world.
saying, ‘Hey, I just got back from fighting with ISIL, here’s my ticket
[proving it],’” a federal source quipped about the challenges in
bringing cases against returnees.
In fact, U.S. law sets a “high
bar” to prosecute an American for joining a group like ISIS, especially
given the “complicated dynamic” and “limited visibility” on the ground
in Syria and Iraq, and the reluctance to present classified sources and
methods in open court, according to current and former federal
“The problem is some of the guys we … know traveled,
but we didn’t know about it until they came back,” one federal source
said. “So how do we find out what they did?”
The FBI has spent much of the past two years trying to figure that out.
that time, at least 40 Americans have returned from Syria or Iraq, and
at one recent point about half of them were under “full investigation,”
indicating the FBI had come across some bit of information -- even
“single-source” information -- suggesting those suspects posed a
possible threat, ABC News was told.
FBI agents across the country
have conducted electronic surveillance, scrutinized travel records and
passenger databases, reviewed messages and posts on social media,
interviewed family and friends, and in some cases approached the
“We worked very hard to sort out who are the ones” to worry about, FBI Director James Comey claimed last month.
that work, the FBI has cataloged a recent "shift" in returnees and
other so-called "travelers," with an increasingly younger crop of
American jihadists replacing those focused on providing humanitarian
assistance or “nationalistic support," according to federal sources.
of the investigations into the "early travelers" -- who the FBI
determined never fought with or supported a terrorist group -- have
since been “closed out,” one federal source said.
So the FBI is
now focusing its efforts on that small group of returnees it “assesses”
pose an “actual” and, “significant threat to the homeland,” as the
federal source put it.
“There are several cases in the pipeline” at “various stages,” the federal source said.
targets of those investigations are likely under daily FBI
surveillance, according to what Comey and Attorney General Eric Holder
recently told ABC News.
Arresting suspects for lower-level
offenses would take them off the streets at least for a short time. But
to put returnees behind bars for longer, the Justice Department “relies”
on a law that prohibits someone from providing “material support” to
terrorist organizations or even trying to do so, Holder recently said.
under that law, federal investigators need to prove suspects linked up
with a group officially designated a terrorist organization by the U.S.
government, and that they did it “knowingly” -- meaning they didn’t end
up there through chance or misfortune.
“Traveling to Syria and engaging in combat there is not enough,” one federal source said.
and Iraq are home to several U.S.-designated terrorist organizations,
such as ISIS and the Al Nusrah Front. However, there are also countless
rag-tag rebel groups there that have not been outlawed by the U.S. State
In fact, some of those rebel groups attracting
Americans have received direct help from the U.S. government to topple
Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s brutal regime, making it complicated
to prosecute someone for engaging in activity akin to the U.S.
government’s own actions, according to sources.
get into that melting pot, sorting out who belongs to which group… who
they’re exposed to … [and] what skills they gathered … is where the
complicated dynamic comes into this,” one federal source said.
complicated dynamic can undermine a federal prosecution, as illustrated
last year when FBI agents in Virginia arrested a former U.S. Army
soldier for fighting with militants in Syria.
Eric Harroun, 30,
had appeared in online videos with many of those militants, and he
repeatedly told FBI agents he was fighting with the Al Nusrah Front as
part of its “RPG Team.” He even posted photos and messages about it on
his Facebook page.
Federal prosecutors indicted him for providing
material support to a terrorist organization, calling their case
“extremely strong.” He faced life in prison.
But within months
the case dramatically changed course, with further investigation
revealing Harroun had not been fighting with the Al Nusrah Front after
all. He wanted to fight with them and thought he had found them, but he
actually fought, “with a different violent extremist group” not
designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. government, one federal
law enforcement official said.
In a deal with prosecutors,
Harroun pleaded guilty to an obscure weapons-related violation. He was
released from prison six months after his arrest, sentenced to time
“Until we have more of an ability to collect and
gather evidence and support these prosecutions, they’re going to present
challenges,” said John Cohen, a former Los Angeles-area police officer
and Naval Intelligence investigator who until recently was a top
counterterrorism coordinator at the U.S. Department of Homeland
Security. “We’re going to have to look at different ways to mitigate the
threat or to neutralize the threat.”
Cohen predicted the FBI
will now be looking to make cases against returnees, “based on what they
do in this country” rather than what they did previously overseas.
prosecutors in Los Angeles built such a case last year after a
25-year-old California man returned from Syria, where he attained what
he described as his “first confirmed kill” and spent five months
fighting with the Al Nusrah Front.
To put Sinh Vinh Ngo Nguyen
behind bars back on U.S. soil, the FBI launched a four-month undercover
operation, ultimately ensnaring him in a fake plan to leave the United
States again to train al Qaeda fighters in Pakistan. In June, he was
sentenced to 13 years in prison.
In Europe, the threat from
radical returnees “became real” months ago, when a former ISIS fighter
opened fire in a Jewish museum in Brussels and killed four people, the
then-director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Matt Olsen, said
at a forum in Washington last month before he left office.
federal source said the FBI’s “priority” is stopping a radical returnee
from taking an action like that, and the "prevention piece” is more
important to the FBI than proving any criminal case.
The FBI is
undertaking that effort even as it tries to identify others who may have
left for Syria or Iraq and then slipped back into the United States.
is no doubt that there are people that have traveled and returned that
[we] don’t know about,” the federal source said, adding such anonymity
makes stopping any potential threat from them even harder.
course, there are likely also so-called "lone wolves” across the United
States that have never stepped foot in Syria or Iraq and are being
radicalized online, “in basements [and] in pajamas” by groups like ISIS,
as Comey and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson recently described
“In many respects, that’s the terrorist threat that I
worry most about because it’s the hardest to detect, and it could happen
on very little notice,” Johnson said earlier this month.