American ISIS recruits are younger than before and increasingly are women, FBI director James Comey told a congressional committee Thursday.
“It seems to be drifting younger, with more girls,” Comey said. “By girls I mean women under the age of 18, with whom this message on social media is resonating.”
The remarks came during testimony before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, where Comey appeared alongside Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and Nick Rasmussen, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center.
The officials painted a picture of a changing landscape of threats from ISIS and other groups, as new technologies enable terrorists to communicate privately and out of the reach of American law enforcement.
Comey said that over the summer FBI agents were following “dozens and dozens” of people all over the United States, and that the Bureau “disrupted a lot of those people.” But, he said, ISIS is relentlessly spreading its message over social media.
“It’s a message that comes in an entirely new way because it buzzes in the pockets of troubled souls, unmoored people all over this country, all day long,” Comey said.
When ISIS finds a recruit, Comey said, communications are moved off Twitter onto programs offering encrypted chatting that law enforcement cannot see, even with a court order. Pressed on how many Americans are speaking privately with ISIS over encrypted technology, Comey said dozens.
Asked later if other technology could enable access, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson called for help from the private sector.
Nick Rasmussen, the National Counterrorism Center Director, told the committee that ISIS has surpassed Al Qaeda as the leading jihadist organization, but that Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen remains a top concern. “Today there are more threats originating in more places,” Rasmussen said.
Comey estimated that approximately 250 Americans have traveled or attempted to travel to Syria, a jump from previous estimates. During testimony before congress in February, James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, said about 180 Americans had made the trip or tried to.
Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham University, which tracks terrorism arrests and prosecutions, says that ISIS propaganda offers the promise of purpose and belonging – a message tailored for teenagers.
“They are appealing to kids that are often the ones who seem isolated, and who are drawn to the prospect of joining a cause. And this cause is the caliphate,” Greenberg said.