US Department of Homeland Security(NEW YORK) — Federal authorities are worried that Americans or other Westerners who have trained with terrorists in war-ravaged Syria may slip back into the United States looking to strike the U.S. homeland, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson told ABC News in an exclusive interview.
“We’re very concerned about Syria foreign fighters, people who are going into Syria, who are being recruited by extremists there and who then may leave Syria with a different purpose in mind,” Johnson told ABC News’ Pierre Thomas for This Week, in his first network interview since becoming Homeland Security secretary in December 2013.
Several Americans have already been arrested inside the United States for joining terrorist groups in Syria, though none of them have been accused of actively trying to carry out any attacks inside the U.S. homeland.
“Syria has become a matter of homeland security,” Johnson told ABC News. “We are continually monitoring the situation, and we are concerned.”
“And so with my European counterparts and counterparts from other parts of the world, we’ve been working together on sharing information [and] tracking these individuals,” Johnson added.
Johnson said another way to address a homeland threat like the one emanating from Syria is to fight radicalization at home – particularly self-radicalization online – with community outreach efforts and other programs.
“In many respects, the homegrown lone-wolf threat is the hardest to detect,” Johnson said. “Particularly since 9/11 [we have] become pretty good at detecting potential threats from overseas. We need to engage the public here in the homeland in helping us detect domestic-based threats from independent actors.”
Johnson called the Boston Marathon bombing a year ago “a perfect example” of the threat posed by “lone-wolf” terrorists.
Nevertheless, Johnson warned that Al Qaeda affiliates still pose a serious threat to the U.S. homeland, and he said Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula – the Yemen-based affiliate behind the failed Christmas Day “underwear bombing” in 2009 and a cargo-based plot the next year – is “still very active.”
“They’re still making efforts to attack the homeland,” he said.
Johnson, who previously served as general counsel in the Department of Defense, now leads an agency borne out of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks – a nightmare he experienced firsthand in an intensely personal way.
Not only is Sept. 11 his birthday, but he was in New York that tragic day watching it all unfold in front of him from his law office in Manhattan.
“I was looking forward to a quiet birthday dinner with my family that evening,” Johnson recalled. “And I remember looking out the window, and I could see the World Trade Center on fire. And within minutes, I saw the second plane hit… And [then] I saw the buildings collapse.”
Johnson left his office building “and literally wandered the streets asking, ‘What can I do?’” he told ABC News. “And so since that day, I’ve tried to answer the question, ‘What more can I do?’ And so I’m here in the Department of Homeland Security. I didn’t expect to be here, but I’m here and I believe very much in the mission of homeland security.”
But to accomplish that mission, Johnson said he needs to address a serious issue within his own agency: employee morale.
That’s why on Friday, he sent a message to his entire workforce of 240,000 men and women.
“Let us not forget that the Department was founded in reaction to the most horrendous terrorist attack in our nation’s history and that more than a decade later, threats to our homeland security remain real,” Johnson said in the message. “There is no room for complacency. I need your continued dedication, I need your help.”
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