In the wee hours of July 4, FBI counterterrorism agents in the Boston area scrambled to thwart the last of a string of Islamic State terror plots they feared could be conducted during the patriotic holiday or soon after.
Just weeks earlier, an agent and Boston officers had shot and killed an ISIS sympathizer on the same streets, right before he boarded a bus armed with a military-style knife and plans to attack cops and behead a woman.
Now, an undercover operative set up a weapons buy on the streets with a young Massachusetts man, the son of a respected cop but now someone who had been radicalized by the Islamic State. Agents believed he was plotting to shoot or blow up students at an out-of-state campus with bombs laced with Styrofoam, which sticks to skin and worsens the burns.
The buy went down, the young man was arrested and a search of his apartment quickly confirmed agents’ fears.
The harrowing ending to the two Boston cases this summer seemed ripped from a Hollywood movie script — except the threats were real and the consequences of stumbling could have been lethal.
With another round of holidays fast approaching in the shadows of last Friday’s Paris attacks, FBI officials on the front lines of the war on terrorism see a new round of threats rising and worry they don’t have all the tools to cope, according to interviews with The Washington Times.
Officials familiar with the bureau’s preparations, speaking only on condition of anonymity, said Director James Comey has put a brave public face on the bureau’s fight against ISIS that masks significant tensions behind the scenes with the Obama administration.
Bureau officials are deeply worried they don’t have enough resources to track a growing number of radicalized Americans inspired by the Islamic State, with more possibly entering as President Obama opens the borders to thousands of Syrian refugees.
Those fears are also shared in Congress, where support is building for a measure by House Speaker Paul Ryan to temporarily halt any new refugees from entering the country.
Rep. Blake Farenthold, Texas Republican and a member of both of the House Judiciary and Oversight and Government Reform Committees, told a Washington Times radio show Tuesday that the U.S. government does not have the resources to screen a new wave of Syrian refugees for terror ties as the administration has promised.
“They’re basically lying to you saying, ‘oh we’ve got this vetting process to make sure that they’re safe.’ But you had the FBI director testify before Congress, under oath saying that if they have no information on someone they have nothing to vet them against,” Mr. Farenthold said on the “Capitol Hill Show” with Tim Constantine.
“We have testimony saying, and I think common sense also dictates that in a failed state like Syria you don’t have any government information, police reports to rely on to vet somebody,” the congressman added. “So there’s no way to do a background check from somebody coming out of Syria. There’s no way we can find out whether they’re safe or not.”
Likewise, the bureau is frustrated that the White House and Justice Department have not pressured Congress to act more quickly to force technology companies to help break the encrypted communications of suspects, fearing political appointees have been too deferential to a politically connected, well-monied industry.
“We have suspects we’ve been tracking that have gone dark, because we can no longer follow their encrypted activities. Physical surveillance can only take us so far and the urgency to solve that gap in the political realm isn’t there,” one official said, speaking only on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media.
Added another official: “The administration has a calming public storyline that we have this all under control and life can go on as normal. But we’re one crack in the sidewalk away from a tragedy, and that crack could be an encrypted message we can’t follow, a lead we couldn’t resource or a refugee who slips in like we saw in Paris.”
FBI officials have seen a spike in Islamic State supporters in the U.S. switching to mobile and gaming apps with deep encryption to carry out their communications, suddenly cutting off the FBI’s ability to monitor them.
One official told the Times the U.S. has credible evidence that the Parisattackers used a PlayStation 4 to plan the attacks and talk with plotters through encrypted means.
“These apps and games have encryption we currently can’t penetrate,” the official said. “A legislative solution isn’t even possible with the time we have left with the potential threats in the U.S. for these holidays.”
A senior FBI official in headquarters, speaking on condition of anonymity, acknowledged that agents on the front lines have frustrations with the speed of a policy or legislative solution, but that officials in headquarters were working hard to strike a short-term deal with technology companies to improve the FBI’s access in terror cases.
“We continue to have productive conversations with communications providers, based on a shared belief of safety and security on the internet, the benefits of strong encryption, and the need for reasonable access pursuant to court orders,” the official said.
Read more: The Washington Times