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FBI director: Al-Qaeda stronger than I thought

Published time: May 19, 2014 19:13
FBI Director James Comey (AFP Photo / Getty Images / Justin Sullivan)

FBI Director James Comey (AFP Photo / Getty Images / Justin Sullivan)

​Never mind the 2011 elimination of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden by United States Navy Seals: the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation says affiliated terrorism groups pose a big of a risk now as ever before.

Comey, 53, became the seventh director of the FBI in September 2013 when the bureau’s longtime leader, Robert Mueller, walked away from that role after serving a 12-year stint that started just days before Al-Qaeda affiliates launched the largest terrorist attack ever to hit US soil. More than a decade later, though, the current director says that organizations intent on striking America once again may nevertheless still have the know-how to make another 9/11 unfold.

“I didn’t have anywhere near the appreciation I got after I came into this job just how virulent those affiliates had become,” Comey told journalist Michael Schmidt, according to an article published in the New York Times on Monday this week.

Speaking of Al-Qaeda offshoots in both Africa and the Middle East, Schmidt wrote, Comey said there are “many more” of these affiliates than he imagined, “and they are stronger than I appreciated.”

Now more than a decade after the George W. Bush administration began an ongoing War on Terror, the ability of the United States government to counter growing insurgency abroad is still up for debate.

“When James B. Comey was nominated last June to be director of the FBI, it seemed to herald the beginning of a new era at the bureau,” Schmidt wrote this week. “But nine months into his tenure as director, Mr. Comey acknowledges that he underestimated the threat the United States still faces from terrorism.”

Only weeks after Comey took on his current role with the FBI, he said during congressional testimony that cyberattacks were likely to soon be more of a threat to national security than the conduct of Al-Qaeda affiliates. Indeed, the Justice Department announced on Monday this week the results of two separate major cybercrime investigations, including one in which foreign hackers are accused to have lifted an untold quantity of trade secrets and confidential information from American companies in order to give competing state-owned entities in China an edge over US opponents.

Nevertheless, Comey and others close to US law enforcement say that terrorism along the lines of what is carried out by Al-Qaeda and similar affiliates remains a real threat for the time being.

“The problem is that as they have wanted to dial back, the threat has persisted in places like Syria, Yemen and East Africa,” Rick Nelson, a former senior counterterrorism official with the FBI, told Schmidt for his Times article. “There’s still a legitimate threat and we can’t stop what we have been doing and change the model, and that has limited what Comey can do at the FBI.”