Authorities are investigating a handful of people with ties to the New York City area who may have received overseas training by al-Qaida-affiliated extremist groups before returning to the United States, according to law enforcement officials who have knowledge of local and federal counterterrorism efforts.
Investigators are paying particularly close attention to the activities of New Yorkers traveling to and from Syria, according to the officials.
FBI Director James Comey said Thursday that dozens of Americans have gone to Syria to fight in that country's civil war and that conducting surveillance on those who have returned to the United States is one of the agency's top priorities.
"We are focused on trying to figure out what our people are up to, who should be spoken to, who should be followed, who should be charged," Comey said. "I mean, it's hard for me to characterize beyond that. It's something we are intensely focused on."
Who's going, coming back
Syria has become a new hotbed of Islamic extremism, Comey told reporters during a briefing.
"I have a sense of, a pretty good handle on, Americans who have traveled, or tried to travel, but I don't want to be overconfident because, as I said, there are so many ways to get from here to Syria that you never want to have high confidence that you know everyone who's gone," Comey said.
One of the law enforcement officials said a small number of Americans who traveled to Syria are being tracked 24 hours a day because authorities believe they may have been trained by al-Qaida-linked jihadists fighting government forces.
The people with New York ties being tracked by counterterrorism investigators include those who either lived in the metropolitan area at some point before traveling abroad, or those with family in the New York City region.
The investigation into potential recruitment of New Yorkers by al-Qaida affiliates, the officials said, demonstrates the global reach of Islamic extremists and highlights their efforts to attract Americans and other Westerners to their cause.
"They view instability [like the civil war in Syria] as an opportunity," said one of the officials, both of whom spoke to Newsday on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the issue. "This has happened in other conflicts as well."
The NYPD declined to comment on the investigation.
Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) said he does not know about specific local people who went to Syria, but there is "real concern" about Americans traveling to Syria and possibly receiving training. "They're being monitored as carefully as possible," he said. "This is a top priority."
King, who serves on the House Homeland Security Committee, said the New York metropolitan region, including Long Island, remains the No. 1 target for Islamic terrorists.
"In all of these investigations, there's always the assumption that our region is a target," King said. "The FBI has put a top priority on who's going to Syria and who's coming back."
A number of Long Island residents have been arrested and charged with turning to terrorism linked to foreign fighters.
LIers charged with plots
In October, a Brentwood man, Marcos Alonso Zea, 25, was arrested by FBI agents because he attempted to join a branch of al-Qaida in Yemen, as well as because he was conspiring with a previously arrested Babylon man, Justin Kaliebe, 18, to wage "violent jihad," officials said.
Zea pleaded not guilty in federal court in Central Islip to a five-count indictment accusing him of conspiracy to commit murder in a foreign country and attempting to provide material support to terrorists. The other three counts, to which Zea also pleaded not guilty, involved obstruction of justice and attempted obstruction of justice in an effort to conceal his terrorist activities, federal prosecutors said.
Zea is being held without bail while awaiting trial. Federal prosecutors tied Zea's actions to that of Kaliebe, who lived in both Babylon and Bay Shore, and pleaded guilty in June to similar charges. Kaliebe is awaiting sentencing.
Al-Qaida propagandist Samir Khan, 25, formerly of Westbury, was killed in a 2011 drone strike in Yemen. Khan published the Web-based extremist magazine Inspire, which officials say served as inspiration for the Boston Marathon bombers.
Khan lived in Westbury for about a decade, attending W.T. Clarke High School in the East Meadow school district from 1999 to 2003.
Bryant Neal Vinas, of Patchogue, pleaded guilty in 2009 to aiding in a rocket attack on U.S. troops in Afghanistan, training with al-Qaida and supplying information on city subways and the Long Island Rail Road to the terrorist group.