The national director of the FBI said Tuesday that local law enforcement officials will have a “pretty good handle” on security precautions in advance of the terrorism trial of accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, set to begin in January, as he explained his agency’s focus on combating terrorism.
FBI Director James Comey was in Boston to meet with local law enforcement officials Tuesday, as part of a tour of the FBI’s 56 field offices nationwide and the dozens of others around the world. Afterward, he gave local reporters a half-hour briefing on the agency’s law enforcement efforts.
“Our top priority is counterterrorism,” Comey said, describing the effort on two fronts: The battle against extremist groups that have replaced Al Qaeda in the Middle East and in North Africa – specifically the Islamic State group – and the “homegrown” terrorists who have been recruited online.
“These are people who will never meet Al Qaeda, or [the Islamic State], but have access to their propaganda from the Internet . . . all from within their basements while in their pajamas,” Comey said.
Investigators believe at least 150 Americans have joined the Islamic State, “a significant number of them to fight.”
“We’ve taken the fight to [the Islamic State] in a significant way,” he said, adding that he believes that US forces have “stalled” the terror group’s growth.
Despite indictments over the last several years of suspected terrorism supporters in Boston, including Tsarnaev, and Ahmad Abousamra, who is wanted for supporting Al Qaeda in Iraq, Comey said there is no evidence of a terrorism pipeline in New England. He said, however, “the homegrown, violent extremism problem is not a D.C. thing, it’s not a New York thing, it’s an everywhere thing.”
Comey urged people to report suspicious activity in their communities, and cited a recently formed coalition of local law enforcement officials that has been tasked with better community outreach.
He said in nearly every case of domestic terrorism over the last 15 years “somebody saw something.”
“We’re trying to find them . . . but we also need the help of good people,” Comey said. “If you see somebody act in a certain way, just say something.”
Comey also discussed other topics with local law enforcement officials, such as the region’s growing opioid abuse epidemic. He said the FBI has worked closely with the Drug Enforcement Administration.
While speaking of Boston’s growing tech industry and the region’s academic institutions such as Harvard University and MIT, Comey said the FBI also plans to focus on cybersecurity threats and espionage by outside countries.
The FBI’s Boston office warned local companies earlier this year that Russian investment firms may be looking to steal high-tech intelligence to give to their country’s military.
Comey would not speak of any possible threats but said the concern of espionage is ongoing. The FBI has warned that local entrepreneurs could unwittingly be drawn into industrial espionage.
“Boston is a center . . . of tremendous innovation for people who would rather steal ideas than invent them,” Comey said.
He added that the FBI is “making sure we’re equipped right, we’re deployed right,” in combating cybersecurity threats, because, “all of us have connected our entire lives to the Internet.”
Federal officials in Boston have been criticized for overzealously prosecuting computer crimes, specifically in the case of free-Internet activist Aaron Swartz, who later killed himself. But Comey said generally that the FBI will pursue an investigation when someone crosses the line from activism to “criminal intent.”
Comey refused to comment on the Boston Marathon bombing investigation or say whether anyone else might face charges, citing the pending trial, and he would not address the FBI’s handling of the investigation. He added that “we’re constantly trying to find a way to improve” relationships between local and federal law enforcement officials.