The Changing Landscape of Terror

February 27, 2009

Director Mueller discusses the changing landscape of terrorism after a meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Audio Transcript

Mr. Schiff: Hello I’m Neal Schiff and welcome to Inside the FBI, a weekly podcast about news, cases, and operations. The changing landscape of terror. That’s what FBI Director Robert Mueller talked about recently at a meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C.

Director Mueller: “Today, we still face threats from al Qaeda. But we must also focus on less well-known terrorist groups, as well as homegrown terrorists.”

Mr. Schiff: Director Mueller talked about how quickly terrorists can operate and how even technology plays into committing terrorism.

Director Mueller: “Nearly three months ago, several men in a rubber raft landed on the shores of a bustling financial capital as the sun began to set. They scattered in different directions, carrying backpacks with automatic weapons, hand grenades, and satellite phones. Within just a few hours, innocent citizens were lying in the street, buildings were burning, hostages feared for their lives, and a city was under siege. News of the attack quickly circled the globe, from the traditional media coverage to streaming video, blogs, text messages, and even twitters. The attackers used that same technology, not only to monitor the movements of police and rescue teams, but also to evade capture and to communicate with their leaders, who were some distance away. It was an attack both highly coordinated and deceptively simple in its execution.”

Mr. Schiff: Director Mueller was talking about Mumbai. There were 170 people killed and some 300 wounded.

Director Mueller: “This type of attack reminds us that terrorists with large agendas and little money can use rudimentary weapons to maximize their impact. And it again raises the question of whether a similar attack could happen in Seattle, San Diego, Miami, or Manhattan.”

Mr. Schiff: The world has changed. Director Mueller says so have our perceptions.

Director Mueller: “From the integration of global markets and the ease of international travel to the rise and the reach of the Internet. But our perception of the world—and our place in it—also has changed. Last year, scientists captured the first pictures of what they believe to be faraway planets circling stars. Circling stars outside of our solar system. Astronomers have identified more than 300 of these so-called “extra solar” planets in the past 13 years. These modern-day explorers seek to confirm what they believe to be out there—to see what has not yet been seen. These discoveries make our world seem at once smaller and yet infinitely more vast. And they leave us with the feeling that there is much more out there to be found.”

Mr. Schiff: And the FBI Director told the Council on Foreign Relations that there’s more to find from a law enforcement perspective as well.

Director Mueller: “But we are not quite so optimistic about what we will discover—new threats, new technologies, and new targets. The universe of crime and terrorism stretches out infinitely before us, and we, too, are working to find what we believe to be out there, but cannot always see. In the aftermath of September 11th, our worldview was somewhat limited. We were primarily concerned with al Qaeda’s leadership and its structure. Today, we still face threats from al Qaeda. But we must also focus on less well-known terrorist groups, as well as homegrown terrorists. And we must consider extremists from visa-waiver countries, who are merely an e-ticket away from the United States. Our primary threat continues to come from the tribal areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. But we are seeing persistent activity elsewhere, from the Maghreb and the Sahel to Yemen. We are increasingly concerned with pockets of people around the world that identify with al Qaeda and its ideology. Some may have very little or no actual contact with al Qaeda. Yet fringe organizations can quickly gain broader aspirations and appeal. And should they connect with the core of al Qaeda, from training to the planning and execution of attacks, the game becomes radically different.”

Mr. Schiff: The Director talked about facing these threats and keeping ahead of the terrorists.

Director Mueller: “Now admittedly, this overview sounds rather dire. And it does underscore the need for first-rate intelligence and strong international partnerships. Hockey great Wayne Gretzky was once asked how he consistently managed to be at the right place on the ice at the right time. He said that while some players skate to where the puck has been, he skates to where the puck will be. The same is true for those of us in the FBI. We need to know where the threat is moving, and we need to get there first. The tools upon which we built our reputation generally as a law enforcement organization—the development of sources, surveillance, communication intercepts, and forensic analysis—are the very same tools necessary for an intelligence service.”

Mr. Schiff: Director Mueller said that intelligence gathering is important and that asking a lot of questions helps in getting the answers.

Director Mueller: “Our challenge comes in developing the intelligence to disrupt an attack before the fact. To be effective, we must deliberately collect intelligence to fill gaps between our cases, and gaps in our knowledge base. And that intelligence gathering will differ from city to city, and state to state, just as criminal and terrorist threats differ. We must also determine if threats around the world translate to potential threats here at home. If there is a suicide bombing in Somalia, are we at greater risk? Do we understand the full extent of that threat? We must weigh the value of an early prosecution of select individuals against the benefit of collecting the intelligence necessary to dismantle the entire network. As Jonathan Evans, Director of MI-5, has said, ‘Knowing of somebody is not the same as knowing all about them.’ And he is right. In every case where an individual poses a threat, we must ask key questions: Where has this individual been? Who are his associates? Where are they now? What are they doing, and who are they talking to? This targeted intelligence-gathering takes time. It requires patience, precision, and dedication. And it requires a unity of effort, here at home and overseas.”

Mr. Schiff: Saying that the question remains “how to protect ourselves,” Director Mueller told the Council on Foreign Relations that we can’t close the borders and shut down the Internet, but start at the source.

Director Mueller: “The day before the attacks in Mumbai, Special Agent Steve Merrill—our Legal Attaché in the FBI’s New Delhi office—was enjoying his first day off in nearly a month. He was on his way to Jodhpur, India to play cricket on the U.S. Embassy Team in the Maharajah’s annual tournament. For the record, you do not need to know how to play cricket to work in the FBI’s New Delhi Office, but it certainly does not hurt. The moment he learned of the attacks, Steve made his way to Mumbai. All he had were the clothes on his back, the Blackberry, and his cricket gear. He immediately made contact with his Indian counterparts and got to work. No red tape, no turf battles—just first responders working shoulder to shoulder in a time of crisis. For three days, Mumbai was a blur of gunshots, explosions, fire, and confusion. In the midst of that mayhem, Steve helped to rescue Americans trapped inside the Taj Hotel. He set up lines of communication with his FBI and intelligence community counterparts. And he coordinated the arrival of our Rapid Deployment Team. Even before the crisis ended, the investigation had begun. Agents from FBI offices in New Delhi and Islamabad joined forces with the Indian government, the CIA, the State Department, MI-6, and New Scotland Yard. Through these partnerships, we had unprecedented access to evidence and intelligence. Agents and analysts conducted more than 60 interviews, including that of the lone surviving attacker. Our forensic specialists pulled fingerprints and DNA from improvised explosive devices. They recovered data from damaged cell phones, in one case by literally wiring a smashed phone back together. At the same time, we collected, analyzed, and disseminated intelligence to our partners at home and abroad—not only to determine how these attacks were planned, and by whom, but to ensure that if a second wave of attacks was in the offing, we possessed the intelligence to stop it. Our work in Mumbai was not out of the ordinary. To counter these threats, we must first understand them through intelligence. Once we gain an understanding, our law enforcement authorities allow us to move against individuals and networks.”

Mr. Schiff: Reaching out into communities has been important for the FBI and all of law enforcement. Director Mueller said that the FBI’s Community Outreach Program staff are out every day talking with people to earn their trust and to understand the FBI’s role.

Director Mueller: “Together, we are making progress. But there remains much work to be done. The simple truth is that we cannot do our jobs without the trust of the American people. And we cannot build that trust without reaching out to say, ‘We in the Bureau are on your side and we stand ready to help.’”

Mr. Schiff: Director Mueller said crime and terrorism isn’t going away. He said everyone has to work together to make the world safer for all of us. There’s more of FBI Director Robert Mueller’s speech to the Council on Foreign Relations on the Internet at That concludes our show. Thanks for listening. I’m Neal Schiff of the FBI’s Office of Public Affairs.

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