Miami-Dade County

New FBI director visits Miami, spotlights threat of U.S. extremists traveling to Syria

FBI director James Comey said Monday that counter-terrorism is still the bureau’s No. 1 priority, but its focus has shifted toward U.S. travelers going to Syria bent on some “misguided jihad” — including a Florida man who participated in a rebel suicide-bombing attack in May.

The 22-year-old Vero Beach man, Moner Mohammad Abusalha, was believed to have been the first American suicide bomber in Syria.

Comey, who toured the FBI’s Miami field office for the first time since he was confirmed last September, said “Syrian travelers” are of grave concern to the bureau.

Comey, flanked by dozens of local, state and federal law enforcement officials during a brief speech at the Miramar Cultural Center, said the bureau is focused on U.S. travelers who go to Syria, receive terrorist training and return to the United States.

He said there are more than 100 suspected U.S. travelers among the thousands of foreign fighters in Syria. He also said the surging conflict between the Iraqi government and a rebel organization has created a “staging ground” for terrorist threats to Western Europe and the United States.

“This is not a New York phenomenon or a Washington phenomenon,” said Comey, who served as deputy attorney general in the George W. Bush administration. “It’s an everywhere thing because the travelers come from anywhere in the United States and they return to any part of the United States.”

Comey, a New York native, said the bureau’s second major concern is “homegrown violent extremists” who are influenced by “poisonous propaganda” on the Internet and could quickly carry out a violent domestic attack. “That is a particular challenge for all of us in law enforcement,” he said.

Comey stressed that criminals have increasingly turned to the Internet to commit a variety of crimes, especially Medicare, financial, identity and tax-fraud offenses. He noted that Miami’s FBI field office has a “full plate” of investigations.

Comey said he has added more personnel to the 400-plus agent regional office in South Florida to fight rampant crimes of fraud. “They’re going to keep banging away at what they do,” he said.

A decade ago, Comey garnered widespread respect as acting attorney general for refusing to certify the legality of the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance program — an increasingly controversial issue.

Asked about balancing the privacy rights of American citizens versus fighting terrorism, Comey said: “My philosophy is that people should be suspicious of government power.”

“People should ask the questions, and I hope they will listen to the answers why I need to do what I do to protect the American people,” he said. “It matters a great deal, but the dialogue is very, very important and I welcome it.”