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FBI Director: Why ISIS is a bigger threat to the US than Al Qaeda (+video)

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(Read caption) FBI Director James Comey testifies during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on July 8, 2015.

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Islamic State's ability to woo troubled young Americans through social media now poses a greater terror threat to the US than an attack by Al Qaeda, FBI Director James Comey said Wednesday. 

Speaking at the Aspen Security Forum, Mr. Comey said that ISIS's year-long social media campaign encouraging Muslims living outside the Middle East to "kill where you are" has inspired a significant number of Americans to take violent action and prompted hundreds of FBI investigations across the country, NBC News reports.

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ISIS-affiliated Twitter accounts have more than 21,000 English-language followers around the world, he said. Thousands of these followers may be US residents. 

When asked if the Islamic State and its online presence were a greater danger to the US than the terrorist group that orchestrated the 9/11 attacks on the US, Comey answered, "Yes."

IS's online recruiting success is "a trend that is clearly increasing, not decreasing," said the head of US Cyber Command in June, noting that their ideology is "increasingly resonating" with Americans.

"There are thousands of messages being put out into the ethersphere, and they're just hoping that they land on an individual who's susceptible to that type of terrorist propaganda," said John Carlin, the assistant attorney general heading the Justice Department's national-security division, to CNN. "They just need to be right once to get a terrorist attack inside the United States."

Oftentimes, the individuals most susceptible to these messages are "unstable, troubled drug users," said Comey, "people that Al Qaeda would never use as an operative."

Social isolation and loneliness are frequently factors in the vulnerability of Americans falling prey to ISIS’s recruiting efforts. 

"All of us have a natural firewall in our brain that keeps us from bad ideas," said Nasser Weddady, a Middle East expert who researches how to combat extremist propaganda, to the New York Times. "They look for weaknesses in the wall, and then they attack."

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Some have speculated that the shooting of four marines and a sailor on July 16 by Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez, a young Muslim man who family members say struggled with depression and drug abuse, could be linked to an Islamic terror group such as IS. However, Comey said it was too soon to say how Mr. Abdulazeez became radicalized. 

Combating these online recruitment efforts is extremely difficult, experts say, as the violent and shocking nature of IS messages and videos leads to rapid circulation across the web. 

"The trouble we face is to counter that, [the US government’s] countering messages ... don’t percolate through the Internet in the same way," said Shahed Amanullah, a former senior adviser at the State Department, to Newsweek. "The kumbaya message does not fly through the Internet the way a beheading video does."  

Twitter has banned thousands of IS-related accounts from its website in recent years, a strategy that one study has found to be effective in reducing the organization’s ability to attract new recruits. However, issues of free speech and the ease with which new accounts can be created make these suspensions a controversial topic.

Journalist Anna Therese Day, who has been on the ground in Syria since 2012, argued in a Slate article that IS’s online campaign makes the militants more accessible to the media and offers a transparency and insights that can create channels for engagement.  

"Their public internet presence has informed a significant part of our understanding about the group's recruitment, worldview, and motivations, as well as how they relate to each other," says Ms. Day.