Although the number of people trying to join ISIL's fight abroad has fallen in the last year, the FBI is still investigating more than 1,000 ISIL-related cases across all 50 states, the bureau's director said Tuesday during a visit to Minneapolis.
In a brief conversation with reporters at the FBI's office in Brooklyn Center, Director James Comey said the number of people trying to leave the U.S. and join ISIL in Syria dipped from 6-10 per month last year to 1-2 per month by late last summer. But he said the FBI hasn't seen the same drop-off in new terrorism investigations opened.
"It's possible that people are trying to travel to other outposts of the so-called Islamic State, but I think it is more likely that people have gotten the message that this is a way to get yourself locked up for a long period of time," Comey said.
However, he added, "a more disturbing possibility is that people are staying home because they know we might catch them if they travel, and are looking to do things on behalf of [ISIL] at home."
Comey's visit to the Twin Cities office capped a two-day regional trip that began with the opening of an FBI office in Williston, N.D. The new branch reflects an increased federal law enforcement presence to address spikes in crime in the Bakken oil-drilling region. Comey also met Monday with authorities who work in Indian Country in the Dakotas before spending much of Tuesday in meetings with Twin Cities community leaders and law enforcement officials.
His second visit to the area as director came amid an ongoing FBI investigation into terrorist recruitment in the Twin Cities, and it follows guilty verdicts delivered Friday against three Minneapolis men charged with federal terrorism-related crimes. Abdirahman Daud, Mohamed Farah and Guled Omar were among 10 Twin Cities men charged last year as part of the U.S. Justice Department case. A jury found them guilty of most charges after a trial that began May 9.
Comey would not comment on any cases still being worked in Minneapolis, which has been home to some of the nation's largest terror-related investigations. But he did say he hoped that recent convictions like the one in Minnesota would signal that there were "severe consequences" for trying to follow the pull of terror recruitment, which Comey said relied more on a "chaotic spiderweb of connections" than individual recruiters.
The FBI investigation, known as "Operation Rhino," kicked into gear with the disappearance of nearly two dozen Somali-Americans from Minnesota who first left to join Al-Shabab, a Somali extremist group, beginning in 2007. Since 2014, at least 15 men either tried or succeeded in traveling to Syria to join ISIL — five who went on to fight for the group and others who were arrested in the U.S.
Much of Comey's 20-minute talk with reporters Tuesday centered on counterterrorism, which he called the FBI's top priority. In predicting the eventual defeat of ISIL, Comey also forecast a "terrorist diaspora" of fighters trickling into Western Europe and attempting to make their way into the U.S.
He also urged more discussion this year on the topic of encryption. According to testimony in the Minnesota ISIL trial, defendants sought social media messaging apps that they believed were encrypted as they communicated with ISIL members in Syria.
Earlier this year, the FBI engaged in a legal battle with Apple over access to the locked iPhone of one of the two San Bernardino, Calif., shooters before an unidentified third party helped the agency unlock the device.
Comey said Tuesday that public safety and individual privacy are colliding with one another.
"I think in a mature democracy we talk about it," he said. "We're moving to a place where all of our lives, especially because they are on mobile devices, may be out of reach to judicial authority. That's a place we've never lived before."