Special Agents in Hallway

May 7, 2021

Combating Terrorism

The Changing Nature of the Threat and How You Can Help


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Steve Lewis: Previously on Inside the FBI, we looked back at the investigation that led to the arrest of Ted Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber—one of the nation’s most notorious domestic terrorists.

When the FBI closed the UNABOM case in 1996, it didn’t tuck it away in a closet.

The investigation taught us lessons that are still evident in today’s FBI. The UNABOM task force brought together personnel from counterintelligence and criminal investigations, a successful combination that helped inform the makeup of the FBI’s dedicated counterterrorism unit when it was created in 2000.

The Unabomber also helped the FBI better understand the lone offender—a threat that has continued to grow in the decades since his arrest.

On today’s episode, we’ll discuss the current counterterrorism landscape and how the FBI is always working to stay ahead of the threat.

I’m Steve Lewis, and this is Inside the FBI.

* * *

Kristen Fletcher: For many of us, the word terrorism calls up memories of specific events. We think about the Unabomber’s mailed explosives. We remember that gaping hole in the federal building in Oklahoma City. We replay those images of the World Trade Center’s collapsing.

And then what you see after one of these tragedies is the response—the investigation.

Jill Sanborn was the assistant director of the Counterterrorism Division and recently took on the role as the executive assistant director of the National Security Branch. She says that investigating events like those after they happen is something the FBI is very good at.

Jill Sanborn: Everybody knows that we’re the premier law enforcement agency in the country, if not the world, and we can put any of the puzzles back together after an attack. We can figure out who did it and take that case to court. We’ve done it and shown our success in the time and time and time again.

Fletcher: But what you don’t see is how the FBI works the threat every single day to prevent violence. Sanborn says that means never focusing on one threat at the expense of another and never, ever getting complacent.

Sanborn: What the American people need to rely on us for is what are we doing to prevent the next attack, and I think that’s really important because that requires not only an embracement of intelligence, but it also requires us to be imaginative and creative and challenge ourselves. We all come up with analytical assessments that maybe were true yesterday that are different than today, and we all have ways in which we think terrorists could attack, but they could get creative in their thoughts and plans. And we need to be equally as creative.

Fletcher: For those of us who are not counterterrorism experts, the threat from foreign terror groups is perhaps an easier one to understand. Foreign terrorism has its roots overseas. It is inspired, funded, or directed by groups the U.S. government has identified as foreign terrorist organizations.

Domestic terrorism can feel harder to define. And it can leave us puzzled about why one crime is ruled domestic terrorism and another isn’t. So, we asked Jill Sanborn to help clarify that for us.

Sanborn: First, I’d start by saying domestic terrorism is defined by statute. So, it’s not the FBI’s definition of domestic terrorism, but actually the U.S. Code.

It’s not always that clear cut whether this is a domestic terrorism act or not. Particularly, if an individual dies in an attack, there may always be questions about why someone mobilized to violence on the day they chose to mobilize. But that’s another reason it’s so important that we, we here at the FBI, focus on the act or threat of violence, because that’s actually what we have to work to prevent in the future.

Fletcher: The statute Sanborn references is part of Title 18 of the U.S. Code. It says essentially this: Domestic terrorism means activities that involve acts dangerous to human life that violate our criminal laws. But those acts must also appear to be aimed at intimidating or influencing a civilian government or population.

Sanborn stresses that the intent of the violence is really important. But that intent is also what makes domestic terrorism more challenging for the Bureau. Because we don’t police belief—any belief.

Sanborn: So, I think when people think about free speech and then how the FBI stays ahead of the threat and protects us from threats of violence is really important, because the FBI has a dual-headed mission. And a lot of people don’t probably understand that. They understand that our mission is to protect America and the American people, but equal is our mission to uphold the Constitution.

Not one is more important than the other, but they’re both important at the same time. So, dual and simultaneous, is what we like to say. Not one at the expense of the other. And I think that’s probably the most important aspect for me, is protecting the American people is not more important than protecting the rights of the American people and upholding the Constitution.

That is the most challenging aspect about the domestic terrorism fight that we face, because many of the people who have ideologies that could turn to a mobilization to violence are exercising and believing in their ideologies because it’s their First Amendment-protected right to. And the FBI has to be cognizant that our job is to protect that right, your belief, your speech, as much as it is to protect the American people from the act that you may conduct. So what we try to do is look for indications when that belief or ideology is headed towards violence and disrupt it—go after it, investigate it, and prevent it from happening.

Fletcher: So how do we spot those early indications of violence? Sanborn says it’s getting harder and harder.

Sanborn: When you think about the threats that we’re faced with today, it’s a much more insular threat. That is either the lone actor, which is actually the greatest threat we face. Or a small cell—San Bernardino is a good example of that, where you have a husband and wife. Very insular in that the two of them planned their attack without ever having to reach outside the home.

Not only is that probably the biggest change, it is what makes combating terrorism the most challenging for us now. It’s much fewer dots to connect. We don’t have the same sort of tripwires to look for. Where we’re looking for communication with and from and across waters with individuals because that communication is happening either a) inside a home, b) in private conversations, and even c), and probably the most challenging, is inside encrypted conversations.

Fletcher: So, that’s why the FBI is not taking on the threat alone. We work across the intelligence community. We seek help from our law enforcement partners and from community groups. And we really need help from you—the friends, coworkers, and family members who are most likely to notice something that could help us prevent violence.

Sanborn: So we need the community to understand the threats we face and to really pay attention to what [an] individual’s baseline is—everybody has a baseline—and when you see somebody acting differently that’s concerning and possibly report it.

When we go back and we look at cases post-attack—almost every single case, in fact, I can’t think of one that didn’t have this—somebody knew something and did not say something. So, we have gone back and studied the attacks and what led up to it and what people knew. And every single one, every single instance, had a family member, a friend, a coworker, somebody close to them that saw something and didn’t report it.

Fletcher: So what exactly should you be looking for? What does Sanborn mean when she says “a change in baseline?” And how do you know when something you observe is something you should report?

For help on that, we called on John Wyman, a special agent who spent years investigating both foreign and domestic terrorism for the FBI. He now leads the Bureau’s Behavioral Threat Assessment Center. It’s part of the Behavioral Analysis Unit, which you may think of as the profiling group.

Despite what you see on TV or in the movies, profilers don’t see into the minds of criminals. They rely on research and draw on expertise from across law enforcement, psychology, and social work. They also deploy after attacks to both help in the investigation and to learn more about the circumstances and who committed the crime.

When the unit went back and studied offenders in domestic terrorism incidents or other targeted violence—things like school and workplace shootings—they found some similarities and some signs that provide opportunities for bystanders to observe troubling behavior.

Wyman says that someone who could be prone to violence may have a series or pattern of failed relationships—personal and professional—and may have also experienced rejection from peers. They are likely to be experiencing multiple life stressors—things like financial strain, personal problems, job loss, divorce. Wyman says sometimes that combines with a certain personality trait, one he calls “grievance collecting,” referring to the tendency to blame others for one’s problems.

Now, that could describe a lot of people at some point in life. But here’s the difference when we are talking about someone who may move to commit a violent act: That person comes to believe that violence is necessary and justified to solve a problem, whether the problem is an ideological one or a personal grievance, or in many situations, both.

Wyman says they may share this feeling or talk about an impending crisis or a last resort. And they may start to do things that indicate they could be planning for the end of their own life.

Here’s John Wyman with more.

John Wyman: To give you, you know, kind of an easy, theoretical model that we use is this pathway to violence. So, it starts off, as I said, for a number of different reasons, and it evolves to the idea, ideation phase, where someone thinks that violence is necessary and justified.

But then they have to research and plan. They have to think through, “Okay, how am I gonna do this? What will I use? Where will I go?” These provide opportunities for observation. They have to prepare. They have to get the equipment, instruments, whatever it is that’s gonna be important to their attack. And they have to maybe have to do practice runs and things like that.

Other opportunities: concealment. You know, contextual changes in someone’s behavior can be really, really key. Are there areas in their life that they’re now trying to block off from other people? Or are they trying to develop capabilities that they’ve never had in the past and that don’t appear contextually appropriate. You know, if they’ve never had an interest in guns, now all of a sudden they’re trying to learn about them and go acquire more. Or they’ve never had any interest in how to build explosives and now that’s become a passion of theirs.

Fletcher: In addition to those key changes in behavior, Wyman says to keep an eye out for something he calls “leakage.”

Wyman: If someone is moving along this pathway, it takes a lot of time and energy. This is a very important thing for them. And it would be counterproductive obviously to then go post or say directly to others that I’m gonna go, you know, do this attack on this date and this time. But, right, they do. They might leak out other information that is more nuanced, more ... a little more challenging to see in the moment, but in hindsight becomes 20/20.

And so things that they might post on social media, online, on forums, or maybe even in journals that they write or school assignments—things like that—where these ideas of violence being necessary, end of life, you know, that impending crisis or last resort. The idea that violence is coming, but not real specific, and that’s where the challenge is for getting people to recognize and report those behaviors.

Family, friends, and peers are gonna be really in that best position to see those early indications of that change and maybe that movement down the pathway. But they’re also gonna be the most naturally resistant to reporting. They’re not—you know, the family members, friends, and peers, they’re gonna take more of a caretaking approach lots of times, and we’ve seen through our research and experience is they might even confront the person of concern.

Or they might rationalize it away. They might think, “Wow, that’s just, you know, just, he’s just having a bad day,” or, “That’s just the way he always is. He’s never done anything in the past, so it’s okay. I don’t have to be worried about it.” We have to get those bystanders more confident in what they’re seeing is important and needs to be reported to an entity that can actually take some action and start putting that data together with other data to get a better sense.

Fletcher: Wyman says a bystander should not try to diagnose or define the nature of the threat. The bystander also shouldn’t be worried about what belief or ideology could be motivating the person or what the target may be. We just want to hear about those troubling signs if you are observing them.

And even though the FBI is a law enforcement organization, Wyman says many cases don’t require a law enforcement response. The FBI is working to take a full view of the person of concern, with the goal of preventing violence and providing help.

Wyman: When these cases come in, we’re trying to take this holistic, 360-degree view of who this person is. We’re looking at their, you know, it’s, we call it bio-psycho-social. We want to know who that person is and what is particularly making them move down this pathway towards violence, because by knowing that, then we can make sound and effective decisions.

Fletcher: Which is why the Behavioral Threat Assessment Center relies on a number of experts and partners. That includes our traditional law enforcement partners, but also extends to schools and community groups, mental health resources, and beyond.

So pay attention to those around you. And in the rare instance that you observe these signs in someone close to you, report it. Being tuned in and aware can help prevent violence from devastating another family, another community.

Wyman: It’s a difficult task but there are a lot of people working really hard on it. And some of those key concepts that I mentioned, that information sharing, that collaboration, is so critical. And the bystanders are just really, really imperative to successful prevention.

Fletcher: To report a tip or concern to the FBI, you can go to tips.fbi.gov or dial 1-800-CALL-FBI. You can also reach out to law enforcement in your community.

We have more information about our counterterrorism work on fbi.gov. You can also read more about the work being done by our Behavioral Threat Assessment Center there. If you are interested in speaking with the FBI about ways to build threat-assessment and threat-management teams in your community, reach out to your local field office and ask for the FBI Threat Management Coordinator.

Finally, thank you to Jill Sanborn and John Wyman for taking time to speak with us about how the FBI is working to protect the nation—and how the public can help.

This has been a production of Inside the FBI. I’m Kristen Fletcher with the Office of Public Affairs. Thanks for listening.

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