Countering the Terrorist Threat Through Partnerships, Intelligence, and Innovation
Remarks prepared for delivery.
I thought I’d talk a little this morning about how the FBI has transformed as an agency since 9/11. I’d also like to discuss the terrorism threat, as the FBI sees it, and my view going forward.
My view of how the Bureau has transformed since 9/11 is shaped in a very personal way by my previous experience in government, when I was at the Department of Justice.
On September 11, 2001, I was actually in the operations center at FBI Headquarters, with then-Director Mueller and then-Attorney General Ashcroft. The place was packed like sardines, with people spilling out of every corner, and more joining by the minute.
And although it was a chaotic, horrifying time, it was also a time of incredible solidarity.
Everyone there that day had one purpose—to make sure it never, ever happened again. To keep people we will never know, and families we will never meet, safe from harm.
For a long time, we lived in a haze that seemed like September 12, day after day after day. Every lead, every tip, every threat seemed like it could signal the next attack.
We kept asking ourselves, “What could we have done better? What should we have done better?” But we picked ourselves up, fiercely determined to prevent an atrocity like that from ever happening again.
Today at the FBI, when we think back to that fateful September, we move forward with the benefit of knowing what did happen that day, and what could happen—if not for the work of everyone in this room and all our partners—on any day. We wake up every morning asking ourselves, “What do we need to do to keep people safe today, and tomorrow, and the day after that?”
Under Director Mueller’s leadership, the FBI made a transformation that was just in its infancy when I left DOJ back in 2005. We had dramatically expanded national security operations, but there was still a lot more to be done. Now as Director, when I take stock of where things stand today, all these years later, I’m inspired by the progress. It’s remarkable to see firsthand the capabilities we’ve built with our partners, both here and around the world. Today, we’re all stronger, smarter, and better able to confront the threats we face. And those threats are many.
Everywhere I turn, someone’s identified something they think the FBI should do more of. I haven’t yet met anyone with responsible ideas of things they think the FBI should do less of. I’m sure many of you feel similar pressures. National security remains our top priority, and counterterrorism, of course, is still a paramount concern. But the terrorist threat has morphed significantly since the last time I was in government.
We continue to worry about the threat posed by foreign terrorist organizations like al Qaeda. Al Qaeda is nothing if not patient. They still want to carry out large-scale, spectacular attacks in our country. But in the near term, they’re also focused on small-scale attacks targeting American interests overseas, to increase their chance of success. And we’re particularly worried about the threat to the homeland from al Qaeda’s affiliates, like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and al Qaeda in Syria.
We’re also worried about groups like ISIS. ISIS has lost territory and leadership, but their innovative use of social media to recruit supporters and inspire attacks means they continue to pose a significant threat. They continue to encourage their supporters to take action wherever they are. No need to train with us or get our approval before you kill in our name, they say. And we’ve seen the results of this in recent attacks across Europe. We’re also increasingly concerned about ISIS affiliates in Africa and Asia, where they’ve attempted attacks against locations known to be gathering spots for Americans and Westerners.
But the primary terrorist threat to the homeland today, without question, is homegrown violent extremists. That’s what keeps us up at night—and no doubt many of you, too. The FBI defines a homegrown violent extremist as someone based here in the United States, who has been inspired by the global jihadist movement. They’ve radicalized here, in most cases, and most of them haven’t actually traveled outside our borders.
And these folks are typically not collaborating directly with a foreign terrorist organization.
Right now, we’re currently investigating about 5,000 terrorism cases across America and around the world. About 1,000 of these cases are homegrown violent extremists—and they’re in all 50 states. The HVE threat is a new constant, and it has created a new set of challenges: a much greater number of potential threats, each with far fewer “dots” to “connect,” and much less time in which to prevent or disrupt an attack.
Their attacks can be planned with fewer participants, and executed in a matter of days or even hours instead of weeks or months. And unlike the more traditional al Qaeda model, they use crude but agile methods of attack, from guns to knives to cars to primitive IEDs they can build from recipes they find on the Internet.
HVEs are increasingly favoring so-called “soft targets”—a term I’ve always despised. These targets may appeal to them because of some sort of personal significance, or because they think the security will be lax. Or they may have seen extremist propaganda glorifying recent attacks.
But that doesn’t mean we can take our eye off our government, military, and law enforcement facilities, because they could strike there, too. The fact is, they could strike anywhere, from big cities to small towns. And they’re hard to identify, because there’s no profile of a typical homegrown violent extremist. Most are male. And most were actually born here in the United States. But their ages vary widely, they have varying levels of education and types of occupations, and their ethnicities are all over the map.
And we’re definitely seeing a worrisome trend of people being radicalized at younger and younger ages. You’ve seen an example of some of these trends recently right here in Utah. On a February night earlier this year, someone tore down the American flag from the flagpole at a high school in Hurricane, just a few hours south of here. In its place, they raised a homemade black flag representing ISIS and spray-painted “ISIS IS COMING” on the side of the school building.
A few weeks later, a student at Pine View High School in St. George was caught bringing a backpack with an explosive device to his school. He confessed that he wanted to harm and kill students. He also confessed to posting that replica ISIS flag at Hurricane High School. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but this underscores how these sorts of attacks can happen anywhere. It also shows the reach and influence of social media propaganda on our youth.
Since 2014, ISIS has been encouraging Western followers to conduct attacks on their behalf—and a number of successful HVE attackers have pledged allegiance to ISIS before, during, or even after their attacks. In most cases, HVEs are inspired by a mix of ideological factors and personal grievances or setbacks. Some recent HVE attackers have lost jobs, dropped out of school, or been arrested for other offenses unrelated to terrorism in the weeks or months before their attacks. But even when we know and are on the lookout for all of this, HVEs are still hard to identify—and hard to stop.
Finally, in addition to the threats from al Qaeda, ISIS, and HVEs, we’re keeping our eye on the threat of domestic terrorism. We define that as attacks carried out by people inspired by, or associated with, U.S.-based movements that promote violent extremist ideologies. That’s everything from militias and anarchist groups to race supremacist groups and environmental extremists.
Right now, we’re investigating about a thousand domestic terrorism cases. Given the current lack of nationally organized domestic extremist groups or influential leaders driving their agendas, we think these sorts of attacks are now more likely to come from people who self-radicalize. People who come up with their own customized belief systems and hope to advance them through violence.
To confront all these threats successfully, I believe three things are crucial: partnerships, intelligence, and innovation. Our success is going to depend on strong partnerships with our partners in the community; with our state and local law enforcement partners; and with our intelligence community partners, both here at home and around the world.
That’s one thing that’s really jumped out at me since becoming Director. The Bureau’s approach to partnerships has evolved tremendously, especially compared to the way partnerships were managed before 9/11, and in the immediate aftermath. Today, partnerships are much more part of the Bureau’s DNA, and it’s a real point of pride in every field office I visit. It’s a mindset of: What can we bring to the table? What can they bring to the table? How can we match strengths, so that when we put the FBI’s “two” together with the “two” that each of our partners has, it makes not four, but five or six or seven?
Our Joint Terrorism Task Forces are a great example. They are, in many ways, our first line of defense against terrorism here in the U.S. If someone sees something, that information moves quickly—far more quickly than it used to—to everyone who needs it. And that’s the way we need it to be. We’re sharing information and working together.
And to reduce the threat, we’re taking terrorism subjects off the streets using every tool we’ve got. Not only federal terrorism charges, but also other federal, state, and local charges, along with other disruption and mitigation strategies. Our partnerships are not limited just to other law enforcement agencies. Many of the cases we’re seeing now of potential homegrown violent extremists involve people dealing with mental health issues. So we in law enforcement need to reach out proactively to our partners in the mental health field.
When I visited our Portland Field Office earlier this month, I was briefed on the Portland JTTF’s efforts to do just that. In one case, they dealt with a potentially violent subject who’d expressed violent ideology against the United States and was physically abusive toward his wife and kids. JTTF members worked closely with local partners to find appropriate resources in the community and successfully got him placed into mental health counseling and a treatment plan.
We’ve also got to keep building good relationships with all the communities we serve. We’ve got to earn their trust and encourage them to contact law enforcement when they see or hear something that doesn’t seem right so we can intervene before homegrown terrorists emerge to kill innocent people.
The reality is that most HVEs aren’t entirely unknown. There’s usually a family member or a friend or someone in the community who saw the radicalization happen. We need those people to speak up. Everyone’s heard the phrase, “If you see something, say something.” When most of us think of that phrase, we picture an unattended bag on a train. But to my mind, it’s much more than that, and more nuanced.
What if we notice a disturbing change in a family member, a friend, or a member of the community? What if we see that person becoming more withdrawn, more isolated? What if we see that they’re beginning to embrace a violent ideology? We’ve got to ask ourselves, as members of the community, what’s our role? What’s our responsibility?
The threats we face are bigger than any one of us. So we’ve got to work together and do everything we can to keep people safe from harm.
We also need to continue to focus on leveraging intelligence. The FBI is doing a much better job these days of integrating intelligence and operations, but we need to push ourselves even further. For the last few years, our new agents and intelligence analysts have trained together from day one at the FBI Academy in Quantico. That way they can hit the ground running, together, when they graduate and go to their field offices.
On one of my first visits to the FBI Academy for a graduation, I was walking through a courtyard and noticed a small engraved stone, nestled in a corner. I walked over to take a look. The engraving is the unmistakable image of the Twin Towers, and underneath are two simple but profound words: “Intelligence Matters.” That’s as true today as it was on 9/11—maybe even more so.
But today we know that if we’re to be truly effective with intelligence, we’ve got to get even better at collecting, analyzing, and sharing intelligence across everything we do. That’s a lot easier said than done. But we’re determined to keep pushing ourselves so that we can stay ahead of the threats coming down the pike.
Finally, we’re increasingly focused on innovation. The terrorist threat doesn’t stand still—so we can’t, either. One of my priorities as Director is to make the FBI more agile and resilient. An organization that’s nimble, one that fosters creativity and ingenuity. One that creates more, and tries more. Even one that embraces the risk of failure, where it’s part of a process to improve. We’re thinking inside the rules, but outside the box.
When I say innovation, I’m not just talking about technology. It can be anything that helps us bridge a gap in an operational need, or that makes us more effective in carrying out the mission. For example, the JTTF concept itself was an innovation when first launched—and now, we can’t imagine doing counterterrorism without it.
If the evolution of the terrorist threat has taught the FBI anything, it’s that we need to adapt to whatever challenges are coming around the bend, quickly and fluidly. The same could be said for everyone here today. We need to have the right tools, the right technology, and the right people to meet our mission—tomorrow, next year, and in the next decade. If we don’t, the consequences could be dire indeed.
There’s no doubt that the terrorist threat has evolved. What hasn’t changed is terrorists’ commitment to do us harm. Fortunately, the other thing that hasn’t changed, almost 17 years after 9/11, is our resolve to stop them. And we’re doing just that, by working together as one team.
We at the Bureau know that we couldn’t do what we do without our large and growing team of partners. You can call it interagency cooperation, you can call it information-sharing, or you can call it driving synergies and collaboration. The label isn’t important, frankly. What matters is that we get the job done and keep our country safe.
So thank you all for working with us in our shared mission. And thank you for having me here today.