Islamic State presence in the U.S. is 'the new normal,' FBI director says

When a Brooklyn man pleaded guilty to plotting to join Islamic State and to bomb Coney Island, it drew little attention outside of New York City despite the spectacular image his confession conjured of a fiery blast ripping through a seaside amusement park.

It was, after all, one of hundreds of such plots that the FBI said it had been tracking since long before last week's Paris attacks, which were a stark reminder of Islamic State's global reach.

Nowhere was that reminder as chilling as in the United States, where neither Al Qaeda nor Islamic State has pulled off a major strike since Sept. 11, 2001. Despite the track record, FBI director James B. Comey has warned that Islamic State, an organization that was added to the agency's list of foreign terrorist groups only last year, is now in virtually every state.

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"This is sort of the new normal," Comey said in July after announcing the arrests of 10 people believed linked to Islamic State plots, including some suspected of planning attacks to coincide with the July 4 holiday.

The foiling of alleged plots linked to foreign terrorist groups made big news on the heels of 9/11, but the cases rarely get much notice anymore unless they follow events such as the Paris violence. Even the most unusual cases, with exceptionally young defendants or especially wild accusations, are easy for most Americans to miss unless they check the FBI website, which has a running list of busts.

Last August in Alexandria, Va., a 17-year-old was sentenced to 11 years in prison and a lifetime of monitoring of his Internet activities after pleading guilty to conspiring to support Islamic State.

Also in August, the Brooklyn man, Abdurasul Hasanovich Juraboev, entered his guilty plea, admitting he hoped to go to Syria and join Islamic State. If he remained in the United States, Juraboev, an Uzbek-born U.S. resident, said he planned to either kill President Obama or bomb Coney Island.

The cases were among at least 15 cited by the FBI that month in which defendants were arrested, copped pleas or sentenced. They included cases in California, Mississippi, New Jersey and Kansas, as well as New York and Washington, D.C., and most involved Islamic State.

In the two weeks before the Paris attacks, the FBI announced arrests or guilty pleas in five cases involving Islamic State or Al Qaeda. On Thursday, Comey said no "credible" threats had been substantiated in the United States since the Paris violence.

New York City Police Commissioner William J. Bratton says that more than 20 terrorist plots have been foiled in the city since the 2001 attacks and that the city is the nation's No. 1 terrorism target.

An Islamic State video released late Wednesday and featuring footage of New York City landmarks underscored that point. Bratton dismissed the video as a "mishmash" of old clips, but he and Mayor Bill de Blasio held a late-night briefing in Times Square — the site of a failed Al Qaeda-inspired bombing in 2010 — to reassure the public.

"There is no city in America that is better prepared to defend and protect against a terrorist attack," said Bratton.

There are 59 organizations on the FBI's list of foreign terrorist groups, which compounds the challenges of keeping an eye on all potentially threatening activities. Islamic State, which was added in April 2014, and Al Qaeda and its offshoots are considered the most capable of carrying out major attacks, but investigations continue into other groups. They include the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and Abu Sayyaf, a militant Islamist group based in the Philippines.

Comey has said that as many as 900 investigations are underway into suspected terrorist-related plots, and officials say the majority involve Islamic State.

Skeptics say no matter what the number of investigations or reported plot foilings, domestic anxiety since the Paris attacks is misplaced, and they point to Islamic State's failure to launch an attack on U.S. soil.

"There is no evidence they are gaining any traction in America's Muslim community," said terrorism expert Brian Michael Jenkins, senior advisor to the president of Rand Corp., a think-tank based in Santa Monica, and director of the National Transportation Security Center at the Mineta Transportation Institute in San Jose.

Jenkins, who advised the Clinton White House on security issues, said the domestic terrorism threat today is small compared with what it was in the 1970s, when the FBI was faced with homegrown, militant leftist groups that staged bombings, bank heists, hijackings and kidnappings.

Nowadays, Jenkins says, U.S.-based Islamic State sympathizers tend to be troubled loners who try, and fail, to orchestrate attacks before being caught.

"Since these are all one-offs, everyone starts over from scratch, so they remain at this amateurish level," said Jenkins, who praised security officials for thwarting domestic attacks but who questioned the degree of threat in this country.

"I sometimes think we lose our ability to discern what is a genuine threat," he said, citing the concern about social media's ability to find and radicalize individuals.

"This is somebody beating their chest, sounding off," said Jenkins. "It encourages a high volume of meaningless communication. It's not a threat. It's a tweet."

But Gloria C. Duffy, a former deputy assistant secretary of Defense and special coordinator for cooperative threat reduction under President Clinton, said such chest-beating is just one element that officials have to examine when determining an individual's threat ranking.

Duffy, who is now president of the Commonwealth Club in California, a nonprofit, nonpartisan public affairs forum in the Bay Area, said the country is back in the post-9/11 phase of being "very watchful," which is a good thing as Western attacks on Islamic State intensify and its loyalists become more angry.

This watchfulness has to include keeping an eye on domestic social media users, some of whom will go beyond online boasting and take calls to action seriously, she said.

But Duffy said if officials want to keep Islamic State from spreading further into the United States and launching attacks here, their main concern should be the group's source of funding overseas.

"The danger of ISIS is emanating from Syria and Iraq. The game right now is about cutting off the flow of money, which is coming from the sale of oil and antiquities," said Duffy. "The domestic side is of a concern, but we've got to cut it off at the root."

tina.susman@latimes.com

Twitter: @tinasusman

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A version of this article appeared in print on November 20, 2015, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Islamic State in U.S. `the new normal' - FBI director says the terrorist group is present in virtually every state. But a Rand expert doesn't see it gaining traction." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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