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Homeland Security Chief: Global Terror Threat Has Entered ‘New Phase’


FILE - U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson.
FILE - U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson.

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson says the fight against global terrorism has entered a new phase with groups like the Islamic State (IS) successfully using social media to inspire others to join them or to launch domestic attacks. Johnson’s comments Sunday on the ABC program This Week followed the revelation that federal law enforcement has hundreds of investigations underway to determine who might pose a threat of homegrown terrorism.

Secretary Johnson noted the Islamic State group’s ability to reach into the homeland to recruit homegrown jihadists.

"Because of the use of the Internet, we could have little, or no, notice in advance of an independent attacker attempting to strike. And so, that’s why law enforcement at the local level needs to be ever more vigilant, and we’re constantly reminding them to do that," said Johnson.

Johnson says every attack or attempted attack represents a lesson learned and, as the threat evolves since the September 11, 2001 attacks, there has been closer cooperation among federal, state and local law enforcement officials.

Last week, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), James Comey, warned there might be thousands of Islamic State followers online in the United States and the challenge is to determine who among them poses a real threat.

Earlier this month, two gunmen attacked an event near Dallas, Texas, where cartoons of Islam's Prophet Muhammad were being judged in a contest. The gunmen were killed in an exchange of gunfire with police, in which a security guard was also wounded. Comey said his agency had warned the Garland, Texas police to be on the lookout for Elton Simpson and accomplice Nadir Soofi hours before the attack.

Johnson said he and other federal officials are trying to counter social media recruitment efforts by reaching out to the Muslim community in the United States.

"Since I have been secretary, I have personally participated in engagements with community leaders in the Islamic community and elsewhere. I’ve been to New York, Boston, Minneapolis, Chicago, Los Angeles and other places where I personally meet with community leaders about countering violent extremism in their communities. That has to be part of our efforts in this new phase," said Johnson.

Johnson said a lot of the counter-narrative to what he acknowledges to be a "slick and effective" message by the IS group to would-be terrorists on social media must come from those communities.

"It has to come from Islamic leaders who, frankly, can talk the language better than the federal government can and so, when I meet with community leaders, Islamic leaders, it’s one of the things we urge them to do. Some have begun it. We’ve seen some good progress, but there’s a lot more than can be done," he said.

Johnson described as prudent and cautious steps taken by the U.S. military to increase security at bases across the country, after the FBI warned that Islamist militants could target troops or local police.

Appearing on the Fox News Sunday broadcast from Paris, Congressman Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said there has been an uptick in threat streams against local police and military bases.

"We’re seeing these on an almost daily basis. It’s very concerning. I’m over here with the French counter-terrorism experts on the Charlie Hebdo case, how we can stop foreign fighters coming out of Iraq and Syria to Europe. But then, we have this phenomenon in the United States where they (terrorists) can be activated by the Internet. And, really, terrorism has gone viral," said McCaul.

McCaul said the potential terror threat may even be greater than the FBI has outlined. He said the United States faces two threats: one from fighters coming out of the Middle East and the other from thousands at home who will take up the call to arms when the IS group sends out an Internet message. He warned the threat will only get worse, largely because of the existence of so many failed states in the Middle East and North Africa.