Counterterrorism is the FBI's number one priority, FBI Director James Comey said in a visit to Denver on Wednesday. That includes monitoring what Comey called "homegrown violent extremists," Americans who become radicalized via the Internet. "In their pajamas, in their basement, they can get all the inspiration they need, all the training they need, to emerge and commit some terrible act of jihad here in the United States," he said. "That is not a New York problem. That is not a D.C. problem. That is an everywhere problem."
It's also one Colorado has seen firsthand in the case of nineteen-year-old Shannon Conley, who was arrested for trying to provide material support to the terrorist group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, a group that Comey called "savages."
Conley came to the attention of law enforcement in late 2013 after she visited Arvada's Faith Bible Chapel church, where she got into a confrontation with church staff in which she cited her Islamic views and asked why the church was worried about terrorist attacks. FBI agents and local police met with Conley over the next several months and learned of her desire to travel overseas and aid jihadi fighters.
However, Conley wasn't arrested until agents caught her boarding a plane at Denver International Airport. Her final destination was Turkey, where she was reportedly bound to marry an ISIL fighter. Asked why Conley wasn't arrested until she was boarding the plane, Comey explained that talking about a crime is "protected conduct."
"We are not interested in people talking," Comey said. "If they cross the line into doing, then we're prepared to respond. We don't ever want to infringe speech. But we want to save lives and protect people if someone crosses the line."
Comey was in Denver as part of an effort to visit FBI field offices across the country. He is currently in the eleventh month of a ten-year term as FBI director.
In a half-hour press conference with reporters, Comey was also asked about the death of journalist James Foley at the hands of Islamic State terrorists, the FBI's response to both the unrest caused by the fatal police shooting of black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and to people preying on the families of undocumented children crossing the Mexican border, and whether the agency plans to investigate alleged misconduct by the Denver Sheriff's Department.
Comey said he couldn't comment specifically about the sheriff's department. But in general, he said the decision to open an investigation is a "deliberate, careful process." "We open an assessment early on to see, Are there sufficient facts to justify the opening of a preliminary investigation?" he said. "Then we do a preliminary investigation to decide, Are there sufficient facts to justify a full field investigation?"
With regard to Foley, Comey said he's "highly confident" that the FBI will catch his killers. "We are very, very patient and dogged people," Comey said. "We will never, ever forget."
He said the agency doesn't put pressure on websites such as YouTube to take down videos such as the one that shows Foley's death. "We have found that especially since 9/11, the owners of such sites like YouTube are highly responsible, and when they get notice of such things, they will take it down," Comey said. "These are good people, civilized people. They don't want this kind of savagery on their system."
As for whether that video will cause more "homegrown violent extremists" to become radicalized, Comey said that sadly, there are many examples of ISIL's savagery online. "Someone who is looking to get radicalized to join that particular soulless undertaking has plenty of opportunities to radicalize themselves," Comey said. "Slaughter of men, women and children of all faiths, cutting the heads of entirely innocent journalists -- if you're sick enough to think that that's the world you want to inhabit, you'll find excuses."
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Comey said he couldn't provide specifics about the FBI's civil rights investigation into Brown's shooting in Ferguson, Missouri. "I'm not going to say much about that because it's pending," Comey said. "As with any investigation, I expect it to last as long as it's needed to last to have a full gathering of the facts."
Similarly, Comey said the FBI is investigating people taking advantage of undocumented children, but he didn't provide any details about what those investigations have revealed. "We at the FBI are particularly focused on a brand of crime that has emerged there where people are ripping off families of children who are in shelters run by the Department of Homeland Security, stealing money from people in their most vulnerable circumstances," he said. "We're doing a lot of those cases to try and deter that conduct."Follow me on Twitter @MelanieAsmar or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org