The United States faces an expanding array of Al Qaeda-related threats that extend far beyond the lawless regions of southwest Asia and into the U.S. itself via radical Islamist websites, FBI Director Robert Mueller told a House Appropriations subcommittee on Wednesday.
“For those in the intelligence community there has been a shift in the degree of concern about affiliates of Al Qaeda growing in strength and presenting a much enhanced threat to the United States,” the Federal Bureau of Investigation director said.
Prior to the 9/11 attacks, he said, the Al Qaeda threat largely resided in or near Afghanistan. Now, however, US intelligence officials are monitoring the growth of groups based in Somalia and Yemen, among others.
Some 3,000 naturalized US citizens currently reside in Yemen, Mr. Mueller said, and intelligence officers are attempting to identify if any have been radicalized, trained, and tasked to return to the US to conduct attacks.
In addition, Mueller warned of the threat of Al Qaeda supporters emerging within the US domestic population who have grown sympathetic to Al Qaeda through contact with militant websites.
FBI agents are attempting to head off traditional means of radicalization within American prisons or in small pockets in certain US communities. But Mueller said the hardest to counter is the militant international dialogue underway on pro-Al Qaeda websites.
“The one that is most worrisome is the Internet,” Mr. Mueller testified.
In nearly 2-1/2 hours of testimony, Mueller also defended the FBI’s interrogation of alleged Christmas bomber Umar Abdulmutallab, and he revealed the Obama administration’s plans to deploy a high-value terrorist interrogation team within the domestic US.
On Tuesday, Attorney General Eric Holder was grilled by Republican members of the same House subcommittee for failing to treat Mr. Abdulmutallab as an enemy combatant. Administration critics say that rather than giving him Miranda warnings about his right to remain silent and obtain a lawyer, the alleged terrorist should have been turned over for indefinite military detention and interrogation by members of the newly formed high-value terrorist interrogation team.
Mueller disagreed. “I believe that the special agent in charge and the agents on the ground [in Detroit] did an admirable job,” he said. “We could have brought in more subject-matter experts but they were not readily available on the ground at that time.”
The FBI director said that sometimes the best opportunity to obtain statements from a suspect is immediately following the arrest. “You have to act relatively quickly,” he said.
Mueller said officials on the scene turned to an experienced FBI interrogator who had served in the Middle East. They also brought in an explosives expert to participate in the questioning.
Abdulmutallab was initially talkative, providing important details, officials have said. But later, after he was read his Miranda rights, he stopped talking.
Rep. Frank Wolf (R) of Virginia said Abdulmutallab should have been placed in military detention long enough to allow interrogation specialists to fly to Detroit to question him.
“We are not saying the [FBI agent] who drew the short straw to work in Detroit on Christmas Day was a bad person,” he said. He just wasn’t the best qualified in the country to perform the job at hand, Representative Wolf said.
The FBI director said the agents used their skills and expertise to good effect. “I could not get an expert on Nigerian radicalism there that fast,” he said. In such cases, it is necessary to rely on the judgment and ability of officials on the scene, he said.
Mueller said he would have liked having the high-value interrogation team in Detroit, and he said the administration is currently developing guidelines to cover US-based interrogation sessions by the group.
Wolf complained that the administration had announced the creation of the interrogation team seven months ago, but that it won’t be operational at the national counterterrorism center until August.