James B. Comey
Federal Bureau of Investigation
NYPD Shield Conference
New York City, New York
December 16, 2015

Standing Together Against Terrorism and Fear: Tossed by the Waves but Never Sunk

Remarks as delivered.

Thank you so much, Commissioner, and good morning, ladies and gentlemen.

It is a thrill to be back. It seems like yesterday I was back here in another role as a federal prosecutor. I believe the work of the NYPD in both law enforcement and national security is an inspiration not just for our colleagues throughout the United States but our colleagues around the world. So it is an honor to be back. It is a special treat for me to get to work with and know better Commissioner Bratton.

It is a wonderful thing for the City of New York that he has returned to public service. We are better and we are safer as a result of that. Thank you, Bill, for returning.

This is a hard time in law enforcement in the United States for a whole lot of reasons. Having a voice like Bill Bratton’s is part of the solution because he is much closer to the people we need to serve and protect, having them see better the work of law enforcement so we can together be safer.

We are together here today to talk about the terrorist threat. This room is filled with people who come from all sectors, who understand the challenges we face. In the end, we believe this will bring us closer together. Thank you for meeting these challenges.

I want to give you some sense of how we, the FBI, think about it in terms of the terrorist threat today, some of the worries that we have with respect to being effective against that threat, some of the particular challenges that we face, and then I’ll take your questions.

Let me start with the threat we face. I think everybody in this room knows this but it’s worth reminding folks that your parents’ al Qaeda was a very different model than the threat we face today. By your parents’ al Qaeda, I mean the primary tumor of terrorism which before 9/11, and in the years shortly after 9/11, was based in the Afghanistan and Pakistan region. It was focused on the spectacular attacks aimed at landmarks, aimed especially at this great city, focused on airplane-based attacks, sophisticated multi-pronged efforts involving carefully selected operatives, long-tail surveillance, careful operational security, and the execution of the next big thing.

And in a way, all of us in the counterterrorism business in some sense came to rely upon that model. We knew that for Osama bin Laden and his successor, Ayman al Zawahiri, at least in the 10 years following 9/11, to do something small would be a confession of weakness, would be a confession that the counterterrorism efforts of the United States military, our Intelligence Community, and our partners was preventing them from doing the next big thing. And so their focus remained—how could they do the next big thing?

That culture of core al Qaeda, and its approach to attacks lasted, frankly, until the rise of the group that we call ISIL. Two years ago, the model changed. Two years ago with the rise of ISIL, we were suddenly confronted with a terrorist group that had significant land that it controlled, significant resources, and an entirely different way of approaching terrorism.

Their mission was two-pronged: to bring fighters and their families to the Iraq-Syria border region where they claim their so-called caliphate, and if they couldn’t attract fighters to them, they wanted people to kill where they were. Not sophisticated, airplane-focused, landmark-focused attacks, just kill anybody wherever you are. That was their twin-pronged call, their siren song. Come or kill, come or kill.

The message went out in a way that al Qaeda never imagined and never could have dreamed of. Instead of the set piece videos filmed by bin Laden or filmed by Zawahiri, then delivered by a courier and then sent to al Jazeera to be played on television, the threat came from ISIL over social media. Social media, which had revolutionized the way all of us connect to each other, and revolutionized terrorism because ISIL could send their twin-pronged message of come or kill out through the chaotic spider web of Twitter. And the message was no longer in a place that we can track.

In the old days, say two years ago, if someone wanted to consume terrorist propaganda, they went to a particular place. They went to a web forum. They went to find where a copy of Inspire magazine was posted. And if they wanted to talk to a terrorist, they sent an e-mail into Inspire magazine and would hope that Anwar al Awlaki would e-mail back. Two years ago, ISIL changed that model. Now there is no longer a place where the media is posted. Now it goes out through this chaotic spider web. And it arrives in your pocket, on the device on your hip or in your breast pocket, all day long is the twin message. Come or kill. Come or kill. And if you want to talk to a terrorist, you don’t need to send an e-mail to anybody. You just need to follow that terrorist on Twitter, and then maybe engage in Twitter direct messaging with that terrorist.

ISIL invested in a very slick message that buzzes in pockets all over the world and especially in the United States. Twitter works as a way to sell books, as a way to promote movies. It works as a way to crowd source terrorism, to sell murder.

And it’s a message that resonated and continues to resonate with troubled souls, with unmoored people seeking meaning in their life—often teenagers or adults who have had trouble with drugs or their families or the criminal justice system and are seeking some centering in their life.

And all of a sudden, buzzing in their pocket, 24 hours a day, is this message: “We offer you an opportunity to participate in the ultimate meaning, in a final battle between good and evil on God’s side. We will offer you, either if you come to the caliphate or if you kill in our name, meaning beyond description.” Over and over again, that message went out. It is the reason that the FBI has hundreds of investigations in all 50 states trying to evaluate where people are on the spectrum between consuming this poison and acting on this poison.

And these are not carefully selected operatives. These are not people urged to engage in long-tail surveillance. They are told to come or kill now. Al Qaeda would never, ever have vetted an operative by suggesting the names of people in law enforcement or in the military that they should go kill. That’s what ISIL does. And so that investment in that social media began to pay dividends, especially this spring, where all of a sudden all over the country, including in this great city and the metropolitan area, we had people acting out on that “I will kill where I am. I will try to kill people in law enforcement.”

And these were people, as I said, unmoored people, unpredictable people, where even ISIL, their inspirers, count not count on when they were going to do what they were going to do. We had individuals who were being urged to kill on July 4 who woke up on June 2 in Boston, Massachusetts, and said, “I’m not waiting any longer. Today’s the day. I’m going to kill the boys in blue.” Our colleagues in law enforcement, in uniform, today.

This is the challenge that we face by ISIL breaking the model. The paradigm of al Qaeda still exists in the world, but ISIL has become the leader in the global jihad through the crowdsourcing of terrorism. This poses enormous challenges for all of us in law enforcement and counterterrorism. Some of which are obvious.

We face a threat that really has three prongs:

The first is ISIL would like to attract people to the caliphate, the traveler challenge. Second, ISIL would like to inspire people to kill where they are, the radicalizing challenge. And third, ISIL has thousands and thousands of fighters that it has now attracted over the last two years to its so-called caliphate. It now aspires to send those fighters around the world to Europe or to the United States if they can to kill.

So this is a hydra-headed monster that we face. The cooperation that is represented here and by the JTTFs that that began here in the great city of New York is critical to responding to that threat. Because here’s how hard it is. When someone is consuming that poison in the privacy of their own home, who sees them? Only family members. If they go out in the community and interact with small groups of people, who sees them? Some community members. Who is going to hear about the radicalization besides those closest to them? It’s highly unlikely to be an FBI Agent.

It’s far more likely to be a Suffolk County cop, an MTA officer, someone who knows the community and has the contacts to hear about the changing behavior of these unmoored, troubled souls. The knitting together that began 35 years ago in this great city with the first Joint Terrorism Task Force is critical to responding to this changed paradigm.

I’ve been all over this country saying what you already know. The Joint Terrorism Task Forces, this knitting together that we’ve experienced in this city for decades is as important, in fact, I would suggest more important today than it was right after 9/11 because the threat is dispersed, it is very hard to see. It is harder to see even more than I have described. Because one of the challenges we face, among many, in confronting this hydra-headed monster, is if ISIL finds somebody online who is a live one, someone who might be willing to travel or kill in place, they will begin a Twitter direct message contact. If they really think this is someone who will kill on their behalf, they make another move. They move them from Twitter direct messaging, which we can get access to, to a mobile messaging app that is end-to-end encrypted.

And at that moment, the needle that we have been searching for in a nationwide haystack goes invisible to us. Because through the court process, when we intercept that mobile messaging app that is end-to-end encrypted, it is gobbledygook. We cannot read it. So the situation we face is the most dangerous people to us that we are tracking disappear when they are in the cusp of the most dangerous manifestation of their radicalization. That is a big problem. We call this the Going Dark challenge.

Why have we Commissioner Bratton and I been talking about this so much? We face two different challenges when it comes to encryption—data in motion and data at rest.

We often encounter devices on which sits information that is important to our terrorism work, important to our criminal investigations. And we have a search warrant. We cannot unlock that device because the manufacturer built it in such a way that even they can’t unlock it. And so we have in our hands a device that holds information that a judge has already said is important to an investigation, we can’t access it. That is the data at rest problem.

Similarly, with respect to information that bad guys are communicating between each other—devices and data in motion—we develop probable cause to believe that that information is relevant to our work and a judge issues an order for us to collect it.

We cannot read it because it’s encrypted. This encryption’s shadow is falling all across of our lives and it’s going to affect all of our work. This is a very hard problem because it involves the collision of two things we all care about.

I think Commissioner Bratton and I have tried to make this very clear. We are big fans of strong encryption. I want my health care information, I want my bank information, I want the information linked to my background to be protected, and I want government secrets to be protected, to be strongly encrypted. If someone steals them, I don’t want them to be able to read them. I’m a huge fan of strong encryption. We need safety and security on the Internet.

I’m also a very big fan of public safety. Those two battles, those two things we hold dear, are crashing into each other. We see that no more clearly than in the threat that ISIL poses to us. The use of encryption is crashing into our need to achieve public safety.

There is no easy answer to this. The good news is that, particularly in the last year, Commissioner Bratton and a whole lot of other people are lending their voices to this, and the temperature in the conversation has come down. People in the tech sector, in government, in the media realize we are not at war with each other. Wars are fought when people don’t share the same values. We share the same values. Everybody cares about public safety and about the security on the Internet. I think everybody now realizes we have a collision.

Democracy has taught us about collisions and to work to find ways to resolve them. So the piece of good news that I offer you when we’re talking about this is I think the temperature has come down and we recognize that we are all Americans. I’ve heard people say, “But we have a problem.” That’s the first piece.

The second piece is we’re having hard conversations with technical experts. I don’t believe this is a technical problem. Lots of people have written about how we’re going to destroy the Internet. I’m actually going on record here. We’re not going to break the Internet. When a judge’s order for communication is served on them, they need to comply and still provide secure service to their customers because their business model allows them to comply with the judge’s orders.

There are lots of other companies that have signed their business model away and said we can’t comply. I actually don’t think it’s a technical problem, but a business problem. That doesn’t solve it but at least I think that gets us focused on that which matters, which is figuring out ways for people who care about the same values to change the business model so that we can maximize those values, so we can still protect information that’s found on wires and sits on devices.

I am an optimist by nature. I think it is possible to figure out a way not to solve the entire problem but to maximize both of those values because we care about the people. We all get why it matters the most.

That’s why Commissioner Bratton and I are talking about this. We don’t want to demonize anyone. But we face a problem. I am not prepared yet to talk about San Bernardino. But I know this. The use of encryption is at the center of terrorist group activities of the last few years. They have changed the way they conduct themselves. We saw that recently in Garland, Texas. Two people tried to commit mass murder in Garland, Texas, armed with long guns. They were stopped by great law enforcement, by courageous law enforcement.

Before they left to try to commit mass murder, one of them exchanged 109 messages with somebody we know is a terrorist outside the United States. I have no idea what they said. I still can’t tell you what they said. Because they communicated with each other that morning 109 times using a messaging app that is end-to-end encrypted. All the judges’ orders in the world are not going to tell us what they said that morning. I can say this. It was important. It was important enough to exchange 109 messages across an ocean to talk about what was about to happen that day but I can’t tell you what it was. That’s a problem. That’s a problem with democracy.

I urge all of you, please, to get involved in this conversation, not to demonize anybody, but because democracy should never get to a place where people say to the Commissioner and I, “What do you mean you can’t?” We have to say, “Follow me and let me talk to you about it.”

This is a time when I believe the American people feel a tremendous sense of anxiety about terrorism in particular. I saw a poll over the weekend that folks are as anxious about the terrorist threat as at any time since October 2011.

So we, the Commissioner and I, spend a lot of time talking about what we see as the threat and how we can protect ourselves. Let me offer you briefly my thoughts on that.

The terrorist threat we face today is one we have talked about for the last few years. This ISIL change to the model, trying to inspire people, trying to get people to join them, that threat has not changed. We’re working on that all day every day all around the country. The key response to it is partnerships and Joint Terrorism Task Forces that operate in four states of the world.

When my children were lucky to have their father become the FBI Director, and I have five kids, they were each given a book called The Gift of Fear. It’s a very important book because it teaches you how to channel healthy fear. It talks about the four states of the world. Red, orange, yellow, and white. In red, you’re in a fight; you’re in a fight for your life. Orange is you’re on the cusp of such a fight. You can’t live in that state of the world for long because the nature of the threat is so stressful that if you live in it long-term it will kill you. So that’s red and orange.

Most people live in white. I describe this as standing on a subway platform at 11 o’clock at night with earbuds in, texting. My children are taught to live in yellow, that is, live in a state of awareness of your surroundings, to allow yourself to channel fear into something healthy, to know what’s going on—not, say, to be in fear, living in orange or red for the long-term, but not obliviously living in white, not knowing what’s going on.

My ask of the American people is to channel that sense of fear that comes at you through Twitter and comes at you through constant exposure to the images of Paris and San Bernardino, please channel that into something that is something healthy and sustainable.

As the Commissioner said, when we look back through our cases, in nearly every single terrorist case that we face in the United States, terrorism attacks in Chattanooga, terrorism attacks in San Bernardino, Ft. Hood, hatchet attack in Queens, when we look back through those cases, in nearly every single case, somebody saw something, somebody saw a turn, a change in behavior, either online or in person, and didn’t say something. That’s understandable in a way because there is a natural human tendency to write an innocent narrative over what we felt were the facts. Save yourself the trouble. He probably had a bad day. I guess I didn’t hear that right.

Our request of the American people is don’t do that. Please, if you see something that hits you in the sternum, tell us. We urge you to live in a healthy state of awareness but if you see something that seems out of line, please tell us. We as a nation have worked very hard since September 11th to get our act together and if you walk up to New York City Police officer, if you walk up to a deputy sheriff in Montana, you walk up to anybody in law enforcement and say, “I saw something that doesn’t make sense, I heard something or I read something online that’s concerning me,” that information will get to the right people in seconds or minutes and we will check it out. If it’s nothing, it’s over and done.

We investigate in secret so that we do not smear innocent people. We will not rush next door and beat in your neighbor’s door. We will look to see if there’s something there and if there’s nothing there, there’s nothing there, but if there was something there, great harm may be avoided.

Our job is public safety. The American people invested a whole lot of money over the last 14 years in getting us better to better serve them and we are better. We are not perfect but we are good. If you see something that concerns you, tell us, and then live your life. Our job is to investigate such things. We simply need your help. So why am I telling you this?

People in this audience feel the same way. The answer to terrorism is to live in yellow. It’s that healthy awareness, not being freaked out and having a disabling sense of fear but a healthy awareness of what’s around us and then sharing concerns, observations with each other so we can check them out.

Thank you. Thank you for doing that here in New York and elsewhere.

I want to say a special word before I finish about the JTTF. Thirty-five years ago the first Joint Terrorism Task Force started here in New York. It was a bit of an arranged marriage between the FBI and the NYPD. I get with such arranged marriages that some of them don’t last long term, some of them grow into mature adults with love and respect. I believe that has happened over the last 35 years. These people who were forced by assignment to that Joint Terrorism Task Force would never have imagined this future. This community, this country is safer because of this model here. It was done right. Before September 11th, there were just 35 JTTFs. We now have more than 100 Joint Terrorism Task Forces across this nation. It is the spine of this nation’s counterterrorism response. It is the spine of our safety.

Thank you to those who are here. People believe in it. Commissioner, you helped build this. Thank you for that. I grew up in this area and I have come to believe that all great things start in New York. The same is true of Boston I suppose.

One of my favorite books is by a fellow named E.B. White. E.B. White is the author of The Elements of Style. He was a long-time editor and writer at The New Yorker, who also wrote a book about New York called Here is New York. And I thought about that as I thought about what I would share with you today about some of the challenges we face when people are concerned or anxious.

The book Here is New York was written in 1948. It’s just 56 pages. I think it captures why this city is the object of such love and fascination around the world. E.B. White quite clearly loved New York. He saw the beauty of New York. He saw the flaws of New York. He had this sense of majesty, wonder, and confusion. He wondered how on earth does it work? He said the whole thing is implausible.

The city was one circuit breaker away, one flood away, one disease epidemic away from entirely falling apart, but he knew, he believed, and we all know, however implausible it might seem on the surface, New York endures. New York endures despite its complexity because of its people. New York endures because New Yorkers have always been people who met challenges with a certain bravado, sometimes sarcasm and a sense of great humor, but also an Irish wake philosophy that we must laugh in the face of challenge. It has always endured.

In the wake of the Paris attacks, a lot of folks talked about the Paris motto, which we have seen in both French and Latin. I’ll give it to you in English: “She is tossed by the waves but is not sunk.”

I think this country has been a bit tossed by the waves in recent weeks. Watching in the way our media allows us, up close, this pain and tragedy in San Bernardino, has given folks a sense that the waters are rough and maybe we’re going under. Everybody who lived in New York on September 11 knows that feeling.

There was a great feeling in this city that the water is high and waves are rough and are we going to go beneath the waves? New York did not. Fourteen years later, I think this great city is smarter and stronger and a little bit less naïve, a little bit more focused on the threats, as the Commissioner said, but not bitter, not resigned, not cynical, and certainly not suffering.

On September 11, I believe this entire country, this entire world thought of themselves as New Yorkers. I think a month ago, we all thought of ourselves as Parisians. I think a week or so ago, we were all part of San Bernardino community. I think today, we are all Americans and citizens of the world. I think that we are people who understand that we must work together, we must grow together, we must stand together, and that is the answer despite the tossing of the waves, keeping ourselves well above water.

We will never ever be sunk because of the quality of the people in this city and around this country who care so much. The FBI meets the challenges we face all day long. NYPD does it all day long. This country is better because we do it together because of what’s been built here over the last three decades. We have the FBI and NYPD partnership and I look forward to our conversation.

Thank you very much.