WASHINGTON • The FBI followed "dozens and dozens" of potential militants across the United States during the summer and "disrupted" many of them, its director James Comey has told a Senate hearing.
Encouraged by extremist groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the number of home-grown radicals had jumped dramatically in the past 18 months, Mr Comey told the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Thursday. He admitted that hunting down potential militants was like "finding those needles in a nationwide haystack".
"This summer we were following dozens and dozens of people, all over the United States, 24/7," Mr Comey said. "We disrupted a lot of those people."
It seems to be drifting younger with more girls, and by girls I mean women under the age of 18, with whom this message on social media is resonating.
FBI DIRECTOR JAMES COMEY, on the recruiting campaigns of terrorist groups
The social media campaigns of extremist groups such as ISIS had found an increasingly receptive audience in the US, he warned.
"The challenge for us is there's no geographic centre to it and in part because of the crowd-sourced way that the message is going out, and there are kids and adults who are seeking meaning in their life, troubled people all over the United States," Mr Comey said.
"But it seems to be drifting younger with more girls, and by girls I mean women under the age of 18, with whom this message on social media is resonating."
Mr Nicholas Rasmussen, director of the National Counterterrorism Centre, said the number of homegrown lslamists had surged.
"If you go back to 2009, we were seeing on average fewer than two or three of these incidents a year. By last year, the number rose to a dozen and today this number has already doubled," he said of instances of home-grown threats identified by the US authorities.
"There's no question in my mind that this population has increased in size dramatically over the last 18 months,'' said Mr Comey, adding that ISIS "has injected new energy in the life of the population of home-grown violent extremists".
Even as ISIS has been waging a brutal war in the Middle East, it has been spearheading an aggressive campaign to recruit Muslims to its cause, using social media to target young people across the world. It has drawn thousands of fighters from Middle East nations, tapping into a range of resentments such as political oppression and personal disillusionment.
More recently, the group has found scores of willing recruits in Europe, many inspired by its gruesome videos of atrocities.
Its reach has also extended to the US. In August, a newlywed Mississippi couple were arrested on their way to an airport for a trip to Syria to join ISIS. Jaelyn Delshaun Young, 19, and Muhammad Oda Dakhlalla, 22, were arrested by FBI agents after unwittingly making travel plans with undercover agents on social media.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, NEW YORK TIMES