The man in charge of the FBI office in Dallas says there’s no doubt ISIS is recruiting in North Texas and acknowledges that changing tactics have made it harder to track terrorists online.
Special Agent in Charge Tom Class took over the FBI’s Dallas office this spring. In his first local television interview, a few weeks before the attacks in Paris, he spoke candidly with NBC 5 Investigates.
Class comes to North Texas with more than 25 years of experience with the FBI. Most recently he served as Section Chief of the High Value Detainee Interrogation Group in the National Security Branch at FBI Headquarters.
Even in Dallas, Class said terrorism still occupies most of his time.
“It's the most significant threat to the country -- the most significant threat to our national security and it's the FBI's top priority,” Class said. “We have active investigations, counter-terrorism investigations, every day. We’re fully employed.”
Class sees ISIS recruiting aggressively using social media to target young people and said there’s no doubt they’re recruiting youth in North Texas.
It often starts out in the open on social media, but then ISIS recruiters quickly move the conversations to encrypted websites or "go dark" in spaces on the Internet where technology and U.S. privacy laws limit what agents do and make it harder for the FBI to track what happens next.
Class worries about staying ahead of that technology threat.
“It’s the most significant issue right now with the FBI,” said Class, one that has made his job much more difficult.
The ISIS recruiting message is also different from al-Qaida -- they aren’t just recruiting people to fight overseas anymore.
“If you can make your way over, come fight with us. But if you can't, that's fine as well. Stay at home and conduct attacks at home. And that was a game changer for us. It's a significant difference,” said Class.
The FBI saw it firsthand in Garland last May when two men with assault rifles open fire outside a contest where people drew pictures of the prophet Mohammed – a practice prohibited by many Muslims who believe it draws worship from God.
Garland police thwarted the attack killing the gunman.
Class said the attempted attack was significant because it was an ISIS-inspired event in the United States that showed how quickly chatter can turn to action.
Before the Garland attack, the FBI saw one of the two men discuss the event online. Agents alerted police to the chatter but did not realize the pair would suddenly drive to Texas from Phoenix to carry out an attack.
“The Garland attack was a good example of that. The individuals involved in that came from outside to Garland, Texas but they acted very quickly,” said Class.
More than ever, Class said the FBI needs help from neighbors, parents, friends who see anything suspicious. He said no tip is too small.
“The threat’s not going to go away. It will morph into different areas I’m sure, but we’re in for the battle of a lifetime really,” said Class.
Class said it’s more important than ever for the FBI to reach out into the community making contacts with local mosques and community groups.
Agents want to be part of the conversation, discouraging kids from engaging with ISIS.
They also want to build relationships so that people will reach out to the FBI if they notice concerns, such as sudden changes in a young person’s behavior.