If Potential Terrorists Are Under Surveillance, Why Not Deport Them?
At least three dozen people in the United States suspected of ties to the Islamic State were under heavy electronic or physical surveillance even before the Paris attacks, senior American officials say. But unlike the attackers in France, the officials say, the majority of those under investigation here never traveled to Syria to fight alongside the Islamic State or receive training from it.
In many ways, the officials say, that makes the American investigations even harder. Those under investigation typically have little terrorism expertise or support from a cell, which makes thwarting an Islamic State-inspired attack in the United States less like stopping a traditional terrorist plot and more like trying to prevent a school shooting.
Stopping a potential attack has taken on new urgency after Paris, which served as a reminder that even people who have already caught the eye of intelligence services can spring attacks on short notice. Although at this point American officials say there is no credible threat from the Islamic State inside the United States, they worry that Paris could provide the spark to inspire angry, troubled people to finally do something violent.
This year, American counterterrorism officials began focusing their resources on these Americans — known as homegrown violent extremists — after the Islamic State altered its tactics. After months of trying to persuade Americans to join it in Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, began using social media to urge its sympathizers in the United States to stay put and plot violence here.
“They’re targeting the school-shooter types, the mentally ill, people with dysfunctional families and those struggling to cope with different issues,” said one senior law enforcement official on the condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to talk to reporters. “We have been pretty successful in disrupting these cases because they are not very sophisticated or smart.”