Director Christopher Wray's Remarks at the 2023 International Counterterrorism Conference
Remarks as prepared for delivery.
It’s great to be here with the LinCT Alumni Association.
And I’m especially grateful to be joining you here in Vegas, at an event cosponsored by the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, a partnership that’s particularly meaningful to me, but more on that in a moment.
It’s true that terrorism is no longer a topic we hear as much about on the news or in the media. In fact, many of the departments and agencies we work with in the national security arena would tell you that the Great Power Competition—the strategic struggle with China and Russia— now dominates. And we are, of course, laser-focused on the threats posed by the PRC and Russia, as well as on a whole host of other emerging threats.
But the potential for destruction and loss of life that a terrorist attack poses hasn’t gone away—if anything, changes in technology and recent events have made the terror threat more complicated, not less.
So, I want to be clear here, as I’ve been clear with our leadership and our partners and our oversight committees: Terrorism—both international and domestic—remains the FBI’s number one priority. That was the case when I became Director, and it hasn’t changed. And I don’t see it changing any time soon, either.
Like so many you, I vividly remember when terrorism became the Bureau’s top priority in September 2001. A little more than two decades ago, I was in a leadership position in the Justice Department, as we all came to grips with the fact that 19 terrorists had carried out a coordinated attack from within our own borders.
In the days and weeks that followed, we all grappled with what that meant, and how it had happened. But we also saw the country united behind a common purpose. All levels of government removed barriers that had stifled collaboration and prevented information sharing—including across international borders. Federal agencies strengthened relationships with state and local partners, whose front-line observations proved essential
And the Bureau worked with its partners to focus on disruption—gathering intelligence to stop bad actors before they could attack—"left of boom,” as we say.
And with the backing of the American people—really, the world—a generation of public servants answered the call to tackle the new terrorism threat. That sense of urgency left a lasting impression on me when I was working with the Bureau in the early 2000s.
So in 2017, when I was asked to come back to service, I remembered that urgency and how it had translated into unity and action, into a fierce determination to prevent something like that from ever happening again. And having seen the FBI’s initial transformation efforts up close, I looked forward to the opportunity to help the Bureau continue on that path.
So, this afternoon, I want to start by talking briefly about a couple of things that had my attention in the first couple of months after I became Director, because I think those two things in particular sort of frame the discussions you’re having here this week.
I was sworn in as FBI Director in August of 2017, just before the 16th anniversary of 9/11, and one of the earliest things I did was meet with the 9/11 Memorial and Museum staff in New York, where I’d been asked to provide remarks.
Those remarks were scheduled for October 2, 2017. As many of you in this room know all too well, October 1 became the date of the deadliest mass shooting by a lone gunman in U.S. history. So, on October 2, I found myself traveling to the site of the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil, thinking about the senseless violence and horror that had happened here in Las Vegas the night before.
As you might imagine, the visit and remarks in New York that evening were solemn, perhaps more so, given the events of the night prior. Right before the event, I took a tour of the museum with my wife and daughter, then 22. As we took the ramps down, under the foundations of where the World Trade Center buildings had stood, I kept an eye on my daughter.
You see, she’d been in elementary school in 2001, too young to really remember and understand the attacks. On the tour, we looked at artifacts recovered from Ground Zero, saw images of the victims, and heard audio recordings from witnesses. We saw the structural beams where each plane impacted the buildings, the emergency vehicles crushed when the buildings collapsed, and the sea wall that barely held back the East River from flooding the subway system.
And it seemed to me that every time we turned a corner, my daughter had another “aha” moment. And I could see her experiencing the gravity of that day. I watched it all become more real for her.
And I realized that evening, that I needed to take my experience watching her experience that day back with me to the FBI somehow, where you could say we have three generations of Bureau employees: Those who remember what they were doing at the FBI on 9/11, those motivated to join the FBI because of 9/11, and those who really only know about the terrorist attacks as a historical anecdote.
I knew then that I wanted our newer agents and analysts to not only remember 9/11 as a historical moment, I wanted them to understand and feel the urgency of that moment, the senseless violence and what it cost our nation, to have their own version of those “aha” moments I saw in my daughter’s face, because they need that deeper understanding of just how much is on the line, and what a tremendous responsibility we have in our mission. So, I started thinking about how we could accomplish that.
I haven’t talked much about it publicly, but in the days that followed the shooting, I came out here to meet with the FBI special agents, evidence response team, and victim specialists, and with the Las Vegas MPD and other first responder units that worked on scene. Meeting and talking with you was both moving and inspiring. I visited the command post and went over to the venue that became the site of the horrific attack.
And as I walked around, I was struck by the emotion in the faces and the eyes of the people processing the scene, those working through the exhaustion—mental and physical—to respond to what had happened. And as I processed their reactions, and my own, as I spoke with partners and first responders, as I heard them describe the way the shooting was hitting them in the gut, and the way they were pushing through it to get the job done, I realized that I was seeing the same phenomenon here, at that crime scene, and in that command post, that I had seen captured so well in New York.
And as I flew home a few hours later, I became more convinced than ever that the idea that had started forming after our 9/11 tour needed to become a reality.
I noticed that in your official invitation to this event, you tied your conference theme, “The Courage to Continue” to a lot of challenging circumstances:
- The pandemic
- Spikes in crime, disorder, and civil unrest
- Global migration
- Societal fragmentation
- Information operations from adversarial governments and others
- And of course, the unrelenting threat posed by terrorism
The conference site also includes a few lines about the October 2017 shooting. It references how what has happened since that day serves as a reminder of “the irreversible damage that follows the loss of life” but how it also represents “the courage, initiative, and resiliency of the Las Vegas community, and this nation as a whole.” And I firmly believe your conference theme applies to everyone who responded that day. You showed a “courage to continue” under fire, you ran toward the bloodshed and the chaos, you directed people to safety, tended to the wounded, and comforted those experiencing terror and grief, you made a tremendous difference to so many people. So for those here today who responded, I’m glad—and I’m grateful—that your courage to continue has endured over the past five-and-a-half years, and I’m honored to continue to serve alongside you.
Now while the feeling of senseless tragedy is the same, what happened in October 2017 was a very different kind of violence than that we experienced on 9/11. There were no communications to intercept beforehand, no networks to infiltrate. The attacker didn’t even have a particular ideological goal or agenda—he was just an angry man who wanted to cause pain. So while the motivation for that attack was different in some ways than the terrorism threat we experienced on 9/11, what you experienced here in October 2017 looks a lot like the terrorist activity we’ve seen since then, in that it was horrific bloodshed inflicted by an attacker using easily obtainable weapons aimed at what we all refer to as “soft targets,” but that we know really just means everyday people, living their everyday lives.
And as I know you’ve been talking about throughout the conference so far, when it comes to lone actor violent extremists, whether that person is inspired to violence by al Qaeda or ISIS or is radicalized by racially motivated or anti-authority violent extremist ideologies. It’s very hard to identify, investigate, and disrupt someone like that before they take violent action, especially when they’re only talking about their potential plans with other like-minded individuals online and not doing so on public pages or forums, but instead behind the veil of encryption, beyond our lawful access.
So, what do we do?
This is where I think we need to go back to basics, because a lot of the lessons we learned from the international terrorism fight still apply. We have to work hard to expand and sustain our partnerships across our communities. Of course, with everyone in this room—our state and local law enforcement counterparts and our international partners in law enforcement and intelligence but also with other kinds of government agencies, academic institutions, the private sector, mental health facilities, to bring together all the resources we can to mitigate the terrorism threat and keep Americans safe.
We also have to continue working on partnering with the public. After 9/11, we heard the refrain “See something, say something” everywhere, but we need to think about that as more than just the unattended backpack in the train station, because a lot of times when it comes to the lone actor threat, it’s someone’s friend or neighbor who has the pertinent information. They hear the person saying things that are scary or see they’re stockpiling ammo or are gearing up for something. So, at the FBI we’re working hard to make sure people feel safe to come to us with tips. I know you’re undertaking similar efforts to build trust and communication with your communities, and I appreciate that.
I want to go back for a moment. I started by saying I was going to talk about two things that had my attention early in my tenure as Director. I was fixating on reinforcing that deeper, almost visceral, understanding of how and why the Bureau transformed after 9/11, when we suddenly had to face the horror of another attack here in Las Vegas, and I mentioned that on my way home, I decided I needed to do something to harness that deeper awareness and urgency I’d witnessed in the faces of the people confronting so much loss.
It was then that I instructed my team to find a way for all new FBI Academy classes to visit Lower Manhattan. And now, as part of their basic training, every agent and intelligence analyst tours the 9/11 Memorial and Museum and takes a class with the staff there. Today, more than 3,000 trainees have experienced the memorial, and I’m proud that thousands more will have the opportunity in the years to come, because anyone who witnesses it comes away from that visit understanding better: why we’re so focused on integrating intelligence into everything we do, why we emphasize partnerships, why it’s so crucial that we approach every task with rigor and urgency, why we’ve always got to be willing to adapt and innovate to meet new threats, and why we have to work together—leveraging our collective strengths and resources and authorities—to stay ahead of the threat—every threat—all the time. And I firmly believe the only way we’re going to be able to do that is if we do it together.
Because for perhaps the first time in our history, the FBI’s counterterrorism operational tempo remains high across the board—for international terrorism, state-sponsored terrorism, and domestic terrorism simultaneously.
ISIS continues to pose a threat to US interests in their ability and desire to direct, enable, and inspire attacks inside the United States. Al Qaeda and its global affiliates remain committed to attacking U.S. and Western interests domestically and abroad, and they continue to call for lone actor attacks in the West, and al Shabaab attacks on Western interests in places like Kenya and Somalia.
All at a time that our intelligence collection against threats from groups like al Qaeda and ISIS has been further strained without a military presence in Afghanistan, challenging our ability to detect operational plotting against the West, which makes working with our partners throughout the U.S. and internationally—people like you—more important than ever before.
We absolutely rely on the law enforcement and intelligence capabilities of our close partners—particularly our Five Eyes partners—to keep up our situational awareness. We have to continue to be creative and leverage the partnerships we’ve built so we can keep getting the best intelligence possible about what’s actually happening on the ground. I’m not sure where we would be without the insight from those partnerships.
For instance, I won’t hesitate to heap praise on the U.S. interagency for conducting the tremendous intelligence operation against Ayman al-Zawahiri. And everyone who is part of the United States’ CT mission should be proud of that.
But we also can’t lose sight of the fact that he was located in Kabul, that he was found in Afghanistan reinforces our concern about the ability of our enemies—foreign terrorist organizations like al Qaeda—to reconstitute there, and demonstrates our critical need to stay vigilant to the enduring threat, and then we can’t forget the state-sponsored terrorism threat.
The Iranian regime is a prime example: They’ve shown themselves to be increasingly brazen in their plotting against Western interests and Western-aligned Iranian citizens located abroad. Last fall, we federally charged an Iranian national and a member of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as part of a conspiracy to murder a former US national security advisor. And this January, we arrested three men involved in a plot to assassinate a U.S. journalist in New York. Now this wasn’t the first time we’ve uncovered Iranian efforts to exact revenge against individuals, but these latest plots represent a huge escalation, and you can be sure the Bureau and the U.S. government are going to be relentless about holding accountable those who threaten the safety of our citizens.
And should anyone doubt the depth of our commitment to this mission, I want to close with just one counterterrorism success story. There are many to choose from, thanks to the years of dedicated work represented by the folks in this room, but this is one that took generations of FBI employees—working with partners all over the world—to bring about. This one definitely fits your conference theme of “Courage to Continue”
This past December, Abu Mohammad Mas’ud Al-Marimi appeared in D.C. circuit court 34 years after the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.
It took 34 years to get the guy who made the bomb that destroyed that plane and killed 270 people just days before Christmas, but our investigation remained open for the past three-plus decades, and we worked closely with our Scottish counterparts—and even worked through the Libyan civil war. We never stopped pursuing justice in this case.
Over 34 years, six primary case agents have worked the investigation, and hundreds of FBI employees have contributed, both in the U.S. and overseas. In 2017, we received a copy of a 2012 interview in which Mas’ud admitted to building the bomb that brought down Pan Am 103 and to helping execute the plot. And over the past few years, we’ve worked closely with the Justice and State Departments, with the cooperation of the Libyan and Scottish Governments, to obtain lawful custody of Mas’ud.
In 2020, the U.S. Attorney General announced a criminal complaint against him. This past November, he was indicted. On December 11, he was transferred to FBI custody in Libya. We transported him back to the U.S. to stand trial. And on December 12, his indictment was unsealed.
I chose this particular example because to me, the Pan Am 103 case demonstrates that while the Bureau has adjusted to the post-9/11 world, integrating intelligence from global partners into all of our work, working closely with partners from local police chiefs to Five Eye intelligence agencies, and working to get left of boom and prevent bad things from happening.
We have lost none of the tenacity that we felt in the aftermath of 9/11—and in the days that followed the shooting here on October 1, 2017. If anything, working together in the CT fight has made the same approach second nature in our other missions, and that’s made us more effective—for each other, for the American people, and for our fellow citizens around the world—across the board.
So, thank you. Thanks for the work we’ve done together and will continue to do together and for taking the time this week to think about how we can make our partnerships and our efforts to counter the threat of terrorism even more effective going forward.