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Authorities seek help identifying US terror recruits

Federal authorities have tracked some 100 Americans suspected of possible involvement with violent militant groups overseas, but need the community's help in identifying others who may be vulnerable to recruitment, a top US Justice Department official said Thursday.

John Carlin, the assistant attorney general for National Security, credited the FBI and the intelligence community with doing an excellent job of identifying Americans who have traveled to the Syria and Iraq region and joined or attempted to join terrorist groups, including some who were killed or prosecuted and imprisoned.

"They have a good handle on the ones they know about," said Carlin, adding that officials are "particularly concerned about what we don't know . . . about the issue of using the Internet to radicalize and recruit."

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Speaking to reporters, along with US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz, during a round-table discussion at her office in Boston, Carlin said, "Someone over here may be in contact with someone who is a terrorist in Syria or Iraq and they are in their pajamas in the basement, having that conversation and being radicalized.

"That is the hardest to detect and that is where we most need the assistance of the community."

Carlin's remarks come as the Islamic State militant group that has occupied parts of Syria and Iraq has been aggressively recruiting members on social media, and a number of Americans have traveled overseas to join the Islamic State and other militants.

There have been arrests around the country of young people accused of offering material support to terrorists, or attempting to travel overseas, but Carlin said he does not see any trends in those who are allegedly radicalized.

"It's really cut across the spectrum in terms of the people that have been attracted by it," he said.

The problem, according to Carlin, is not limited to the United States. The Justice Department official estimated that some 12,000 foreign fighters have been recruited globally to fight alongside militants for the Islamic State and other organizations.

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The estimated 100 Americans identified by authorities have not been linked to a designated militant organization, Carlin said. That number includes people who went to Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and parts of Africa, he said.

Some of those Americans fought alongside militants and some traveled overseas and unsuccessfully tried to join militant groups. Others traveled to those regions and then returned to the United States, raising concerns, he said.

Carlin declined to offer more details on how many of those people remain free in the United States or where they are located. About a dozen Americans are suspected of joining the Islamic State overseas, according to the Justice Department.

Ahmad Abousamra, who grew up in Stoughton and faces terrorism charges in federal court in Boston, allegedly fled to Syria in 2006 and is currently on the FBI's Most Wanted Terrorists list, with a $50,000 reward being offered for information leading to his capture.

A Justice Department initiative in Boston, which was recently launched by Ortiz's office, is aimed at preventing people from joining extremist groups and will focus not just on radicalized Muslims, but also on white supremacists, religious hate groups, and school shooters.

The program enlists a broad spectrum of religious leaders, community leaders, and experts in public and mental health and education to identify people susceptible to radical ideology and intervene before they become a threat. It also draws on counterterrorism specialists, as well as federal, state, and local law enforcement, to assess risks and threats.

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The use of the Internet by terrorists, not just to radicalize and recruit, but to launch massive cyber attacks on public and private institutions and utilities is also a major concern of law enforcement officials, Carlin said.

"In some sense we are in a race against time," he said. "We know they have the intent. We know that if they develop the capability they are going to use it and so we need to do everything we can in the interim to increase our defenses to prevent against such an attack."


Shelley Murphy can be reached at shmurphy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymurph.