Partnerships Are Key to Disrupting Violent Plots

With the terror threat growing more insular, awareness and reporting are crucial

When acts of terrorism occur, the public sees the FBI respond and investigate alongside our partner agencies. What is less visible to the public is the intense, constant work the FBI is doing to prevent future attacks.

“The more significant part of what the FBI does is get ahead of the attack with intelligence,” said Jill Sanborn, executive assistant director of the FBI’s National Security Branch. “The majority of the FBI’s work—and really where we’ve grown since 9/11 as an intelligence organization—is how we take the intelligence that we have and look for potential threats and then investigate those to disrupt them.”

For example, in 2018, acting on a tip about an individual who expressed a desire to recruit people to kill Americans, the FBI arrested an Ohio man plotting to attack a July 4 celebration.

Sanborn says that the increasingly insular nature of the terrorism threat, however, is a growing challenge for the FBI and its partners as they work to disrupt plots. Individuals or small groups can radicalize and plan an attack with few outside contacts, or, as Sanborn describes it, fewer dots for law enforcement to connect.

This is especially true for domestic terrorism—defined as violent, criminal acts committed by individuals or groups to further ideological goals stemming from domestic influences, such as those of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature.

Because the FBI’s mission includes protecting the free speech rights of Americans, we need a clear reason to act or investigate. A person’s beliefs can never be the sole reason to open an investigation.

As FBI Director Christopher Wray said: “The FBI holds sacred the rights of individuals to peacefully exercise their First Amendment freedoms.” But he also stressed that the FBI will investigate any time an “individual uses, or threatens the use of, force, violence, or coercion, in violation of federal law.”

The FBI is leaning even more on two things that have long been essential to its success: partnerships and help from an aware and informed public.

To get ahead of a threat, the FBI needs evidence that someone is contemplating or moving toward an act of violence. That can be a difficult to attain.

Violence never truly comes out of nowhere, but the signs may be small and subtle or evident to just a few people. Which is why the FBI is leaning even more on two things that have long been essential to its success: partnerships and help from an aware and informed public.

Building Threat Management Teams

Special Agent John Wyman spent the first part of his FBI career working terrorism cases—both international and domestic. He brought that background into his current role as the head of the FBI’s Behavioral Threat Assessment Center (BTAC). In the last several years, BTAC has intensified its efforts to build teams that cross agencies, specialties, and expertise. Teams that give us the best chance of preventing attacks.

BTAC leans on research and diverse expertise to detect threats of violence and lead intervention and management efforts. Using research from past attacks, the center compiled characteristics common to lone offender terrorists and detailed signs that a person may be moving toward violence. Wyman said that while the motivators and drivers for violence are highly individualized, those who commit violence travel an observable and discernable pathway from thought to action.

One of BTAC’s goals is to help the public understand how to recognize these signs and grow confident enough in what they are seeing to report it to the FBI or a state or local law enforcement partner.

You should reach out to law enforcement if someone you know:

  • Voices a belief that violence is necessary and justified or is the only option available to solve a problem
  • Becomes suddenly secretive about certain activities
  • Shows a new, inexplicable interest in developing capabilities or acquiring equipment that could be used in an attack

Wyman describes these signs and others in more detail in this episode of Inside the FBI.

If you notice one or more of these behaviors in someone, you shouldn’t worry about how to characterize or define what you are seeing. “From the bystanders, we don’t need the assessment beyond that this is concerning,” Wyman said. The FBI will take in the tip, assess and investigate it, and determine a course of action.

“When these cases come in, we want to know who this person is and what particularly is making this person move down the pathway toward violence,” Wyman said. “Everyone’s potential journey is going to be highly individualized and specific to that person. It’s the mix between ideologies, past life experiences, past trauma, the existing life stressors. We’ve got to understand that to make sound and effective management decisions.”

“We are investigating this for a law enforcement purpose, but at the same time, we know that not all of the solutions are law enforcement solutions. These are complex problems that require complex solutions.

John Wyman, unit chief, FBI Behavioral Threat Assessment Center

Some tips may be sent to one of our Joint Terrorism Task Forces for further investigation. Other cases may go to state or local partners to work with the FBI’s support. Others, according to Wyman, may be worked mainly by entities outside of law enforcement.

“We are investigating this for a law enforcement purpose, but at the same time, we know that not all of the solutions are law enforcement solutions,” he said. “These are complex problems that require complex solutions. We will lean on a host of services including, mental health, social services, and probation and parole.”

Wyman said that the biggest challenge to the approach is in building connections and opening up communication among and between agencies and groups. “There are so many areas where information can be gathered but not shared,” he explained. “We need to break down traditional barriers to information sharing.”

The FBI is working to make connections among school and community groups, social workers, and mental health services and then ensure those are integrated with the FBI and other law enforcement partners.

BTAC also provides specialized training to agents serving as threat management coordinators in each of the FBI’s 56 field offices, so they can build those teams and relationships in local communities.

The system will never be perfect. But the more aware each person is of the signs that someone may be moving toward violence, the more connected agencies and entities are to one another, and the more engaged all of society is in providing services and support to someone who thinks violence is a solution, the more effective our prevention efforts will be.

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.