The “War on Terrorism”
Beginning in the late 1950s the most serious terrorist threat to U.S. civil aviation came in the form of hijackings of commercial aircraft. In these incidents, the aircraft provided hijackers both transportation to diverted destinations and a ready supply of hostages for leverage in their negotiations with government authorities. By the late 1980s—as seen in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, and in the prevented “Manila Air” plot of 1994—the threat to civil aviation began to include the targeting of commercial aircraft and their passengers and crews for destruction.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, al-Qa’ida directed its ruthless ingenuity toward the further exploitation of civil aviation when 19 of its operatives hijacked four U.S. commercial airliners for use as suicide weapons against selected political, military, and economic targets on the U.S. East Coast. The hijackers used knives, boxcutters, and possibly pepper spray to commandeer the aircraft. Three of the aircraft struck their targets, destroying the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and badly damaging the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. The fourth aircraft crashed into a remote field in Stonycreek Township, Pennsylvania, as passengers attempted to regain control of the airplane. All of the passengers on each of the aircraft were killed in the attack, as were more than 2,500 people in the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. In total, 2,972 people died in the September 11 attack, making it the most deadly act of terrorism ever committed. 10 The September 11 attack also marked the first known suicide terrorist attack carried out in the United States since the FBI began keeping terrorist records.
10This number does not include the 19 hijackers, all of whom died in the attack.
The threat of terrorism is expected to continue from both international and domestic sources. Internationally, at least two operational trends are evident in the militant Islamic jihad movement. First is a preference for high-casualty, high-profile attacks directed against lower-risk, unofficial, so-called “soft” targets, as traditional military and diplomatic targets become increasingly hardened. Second, the dissolution of much of al-Qa’ida’s structure by international military and law enforcement efforts has resulted in the dispersal of its multinational trainees to pursue their own regional agendas. The following terrorist incidents from September 11, 2001, through 2005 may involve both trends:
On October 12, 2002, a nightclub bombing on the Indonesian island of Bali killed approximately 200 people, including seven Americans, and on August 5, 2003, a bombing of the JW Marriott Hotel in Jakarta, Indonesia, resulted in 15 deaths. Both of these bombings have been attributed to members of the Jemaah Islamiyya terrorist organization, a Southeast Asian-based terrorist network with links to al-Qa’ida.
On May 12 and November 9, 2003, al-Qa’ida operatives conducted bombings of residential compounds that housed Western workers in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The first incident claimed dozens of lives and injured nearly 200 others. The second resulted in 18 deaths and over 120 injuries.
On May 16, 2003, five nearly simultaneous explosions in Casablanca, Morocco, killed 41 people and injured approximately 100 others. Although no definitive evidence links al-Qa’ida to the bombings in Casablanca, the Sunni extremist group responsible for this attack may have al-Qa’ida ties.
On March 11, 2004, a series of 10 bombs detonated on four commuter trains in Madrid, Spain. The near simultaneous explosions killed 191 people and injured more than 1,400 others. Spanish police have traced responsibility for the attack to Moroccan Islamic militants with ties to al-Qa’ida.
On July 7, 2005, four coordinated bomb blasts struck London’s public transit system during the morning rush hour. Fifty-two people were killed and approximately 700 injured in the attack, including the death of one American and the wounding of four others. The London bombing was distinctive in having involved “homegrown” jihadist terrorists operating in a Western, predominantly non-Muslim country.
The use of WMD against civilian targets represents the most serious potential international and domestic terrorism threat facing the United States today and provides a glimpse into emerging terrorist scenarios of the 21st century. A variety of intelligence reporting indicates that al-Qa’ida has energetically sought to acquire and experiment with biological, chemical, and radiological weapons of mass destruction. The January 2003 arrests in the United Kingdom of Algerian extremists suspected of producing the biological toxin ricin exemplifies the interest some Islamic militants have in the operational use of such agents. In April 2004, Jordanian authorities disrupted a plot by Islamic extremists to generate a cloud of cyanide gas in Amman.
Ricin and the bacterial agent anthrax are emerging as the most prevalent agents involved in WMD investigations. Prior to the fall of 2001, there had been no criminal cases involving the actual use of anthrax in the United States. In September and October of that year, however, several anthrax-tainted letters were received in Florida, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and the District of Columbia. The contaminations resulted in five fatalities and 22 infections. On February 2, 2004, in an incident for which no threat was made or threat letter identified, ricin was discovered on the automated mail opening system used in the Washington, D.C., office of U.S. Senate Majority Leader William Frist. Both the anthrax mailings of 2001 and the 2004 ricin incident remain under investigation by the FBI, and their connection to domestic or international terrorism has not been determined.
In his September 20, 2001, address to a Joint Session of Congress and the American people, President Bush declared a war to disrupt global terrorism, beginning with al-Qa’ida. The war on terrorism has included military action to overthrow Afghanistan’s Taliban government and Sadaam Hussein’s Baathist regime in Iraq, as well as a multifaceted campaign involving diplomacy, economic sanctions, covert intelligence operations, and law enforcement action. In the weeks immediately following the September 11, 2001, attack, Congress and the President enacted legislation and policies intended to minimize the possibility of another catastrophic act of terrorism from occurring on U.S. soil.
On October 26, 2001, Congress passed the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Interrupt and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001 (USA PATRIOT Act), which includes changes to national security authorities, criminal and immigration laws, and money-laundering and victim assistance statutes. In making these modifications to existing laws, Congress intended to strengthen the capabilities of federal law enforcement in the fight against terrorism while simultaneously protecting civil liberties. The USA PATRIOT Act improved the processes by which federal law enforcement officials obtain legal authority for conducting surveillance and allowed for greater information sharing between criminal investigators and intelligence collectors. The act modified the definition of terrorism as a federal crime to include several offenses likely to be committed by terrorists, including certain computer crimes and a number of violent crimes involving aircraft. New federal offenses include attacks on mass transportation systems, vehicles, facilities, or passengers; harboring or concealing persons who have committed or are about to commit an act of terrorism; expansion of the prohibition against providing material support or resources to terrorists; and possessing a biological agent or toxin of a type or in a quantity that is not reasonably justified for specifically defined purposes. Additionally, the inclusion of the International Money Laundering Abatement and Financial Anti-Terrorism Act of 2001 into the USA PATRIOT Act significantly increased the United States’ ability to combat the financing of terrorism.
On October 29, 2001, President Bush issued Homeland Security Presidential Directive No. 2 (HSPD-2). Among its provisions, HSPD-2 offers federal guidance for keeping foreign terrorists and their supporters out of the United States through entry denial, removal, and prosecution.
On November 27, 2002, Congress and the President created the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (Public Law 107-306) with a mandate “to investigate ‘facts and circumstances relating to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001,’ including those relating to intelligence agencies, law enforcement agencies, diplomacy, immigration issues and border control, the flow of assets to terrorist organizations, commercial aviation, the role of congressional oversight and resource allocation,” and other relevant areas.11
11National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, The 9/11 Commission Report (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2004), preface, xv.
On July 22, 2004, the 9/11 Commission published a summary of its investigative findings along with recommendations designed to guard against future attacks. In response to this report, President Bush signed into law on December 8 the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 (IRTPA). This act instituted reforms to FISA and modifications to material support statutes for prosecuting terrorists. The IRTPA also created the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and established the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) as the head of the U.S. Intelligence Community. In addition, the act created the National Counter Proliferation Center to oversee the Intelligence Community’s efforts against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; the Joint Intelligence Community Council to assist the DNI in establishing a collective national intelligence effort; the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board within the Executive Office; and instituted the joint-agency National Counterterrorism Center as the primary entity for analyzing intelligence pertaining to transnational terrorism.
Director Robert S. Mueller III (2001-present) took office in the FBI on September 4, 2001, with an agenda to restructure the Bureau and upgrade its technology. Seven days later, the September 11 terrorist attack gave greater urgency to this agenda and focused it on the prevention of future terrorist attacks. On May 29, 2002, Director Mueller formally elevated counterterrorism and the prevention of future terrorist attacks against U.S. interests to the FBI’s preeminent mission. In response to this mandate, the FBI moved away from its traditional field-oriented approach to setting priorities and managing cases, to a more centralized national approach in which counterterrorism was the overriding priority in every field office and all international counterterrorism cases were managed centrally by FBI Headquarters. The shift of resources to meet this new priority has resulted in a significant structural reorganization at the FBI that includes a greatly expanded counterterrorism program.
Three factors influence the ranking of priorities: the significance of the threat to the security of the United States; the priority the American public places upon the threat; and the degree to which addressing the threat falls most exclusively within the FBI’s jurisdiction. In executing the following priorities, the FBI produces and uses intelligence to protect the nation from threats and to bring to justice those who violate the law.
1. Protect the United States from terrorist attack.
2. Protect the United States against foreign intelligence operations and espionage.
3. Protect the United States against cyber-based attacks and high-technology crimes.
4. Combat public corruption at all levels.
5. Protect civil rights.
6. Combat transnational and national criminal organizations and enterprises.
7. Combat major white-collar crime.
8. Combat significant violent crime.
9. Support federal, state, municipal, and international partners.
10. Upgrade technology to successfully perform the FBI’s mission.
As the top priority, counterterrorism receives first consideration throughout the Bureau in the allocation of funding, physical space, resources, and the hiring and training of personnel.
The current shape of the Counterterrorism Division reflects the complexity of terrorism as the United States currently faces it, with branches, sections, and units that focus upon domestic terrorism, different global regions of international terrorist activity, and terrorists’ methods of operation, finance, and communication. This reorganization supports the Bureau’s current strategic mission of preventing terrorist attacks while preserving the civil liberties of all American citizens. This strategic mission also identifies the Bureau’s law enforcement and domestic intelligence leadership roles within the U.S. Intelligence Community. In these leadership capacities, the FBI defines the domestic and international terrorism threats to the Homeland, contributes to the Intelligence Community in its evaluation of those threats, and provides investigative and crisis response in the event a terrorist attack does occur. Many of the organizational changes, developments in strategic mission, and the initiatives discussed below anticipated the recommendations made in July 2004, when the 9/11 Commission published its endorsement of the FBI’s continuing role in terrorism prevention and urged the Bureau to institutionalize and cultivate its expertise in intelligence and national security.12
12National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, The 9/11 Commission Report, 423-27.
Focus on Prevention
One of the most effective weapons in the prevention of terrorist attacks involves the gathering, analysis, and dissemination of intelligence and the full integration of that intelligence into investigations, operations, and crisis response. To this end, in December 2001, the FBI merged the counterterrorism analytical activities of the Investigative Services Division into the Counterterrorism Division and established the Office of Intelligence to cultivate the division’s analytical workforce and develop information-sharing policies. In response to the IRTPA and a subsequent Presidential directive, the FBI redesignated the Office of Intelligence as the Directorate of Intelligence and, in September 2005, incorporated it into the newly created National Security Branch, which oversees all of the Bureau’s national intelligence programs, projects, activities, and workforce.
Domestically through its field offices, and internationally through its Legat offices, the FBI has a significant infrastructure in place by which to gather intelligence. Although the FBI has traditionally employed its intelligence analysts in “tactical,” or case-specific support capacities, the mandate to prevent acts of terrorism has led the FBI to develop a professional corps of analysts who study broader terrorism trends and assess priority threats at the “strategic,” or predictive, level. In 2002, the Counterterrorism Division established an Analytical Branch to develop actionable and strategic intelligence for FBI field offices, the U.S. Intelligence Community, and domestic and international law enforcement partners. In September 2003, the FBI established Field Intelligence Groups in each of its field offices to analyze and direct the collection of information, and ensure its appropriate dissemination.
Focus on Partnerships
The timely two-way flow of information between appropriate federal, state, and local partners is a key element in dismantling terrorist organizations and eliminating threats. Whereas the primary consumer of FBI intelligence used to be its field offices, FBI agents and analysts now regularly communicate with the larger U.S. Intelligence Community and other federal agencies, law enforcement partners at the state and local levels, and private and public sectors of society. At the federal level, a new, multi-agency National Joint Terrorism Task Force (NJTTF) was integrated into the Counterterrorism Division at FBI Headquarters in June 2002. Staffed by representatives from more than 40 federal, state, and local agencies, the NJTTF coordinates the flow of information between its participating entities and over 100 JTTFs that were in place nationwide by the end of 2005. In addition, the FBI details agents and analysts to numerous federal agencies, including the CIA, National Security Agency, National Security Council, Defense Intelligence Agency, Department of Homeland Security, and the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). 13
13The Terrorist Threat Integration Center (TTIC) was established by presidential directive and became operational on May 1, 2003. NCTC replaced TTIC on December 6, 2004.
In response to HSPD-2, the Attorney General established the Foreign Terrorist Tracking Task Force (FTTTF) to track and identify terrorists and, on August 6, 2002, consolidated the task force into the FBI. In addition to its federal agency participants, the FTTTF maintains a close liaison with foreign intelligence and law enforcement services. In another terrorist tracking initiative, on September 16, 2003, the President directed the Attorney General, Secretary of Homeland Security, Secretary of State, and Director of Central Intelligence to develop the Terrorist Screening Center (TSC) to consolidate information from terrorist watch lists and provide 24-hour, seven-day-a-week operational support for law enforcement, consular officers, and other officials. The TSC began operations on December 1, 2003.
An example of interagency cooperation led by the FBI involves the analysis of improvised explosive devices (IEDs)—a technology used in most of the terrorist attacks against U.S. citizens and interests during the past five years. These explosives often reflect the unique characteristics, or signature, of the terrorist organizations or individuals who made them. In December 2003 the FBI Laboratory began preliminary operations of the Terrorist Explosive Device Analytical Center (TEDAC) to coordinate and manage a national effort to gather and analyze information on IEDs recovered both inside and outside the United States. TEDAC uses the knowledge gained from its analysis to assist in the investigation of terrorist bombing attacks, to develop countermeasures to defeat IEDs, and to train first-responders in terrorist IED techniques.
Shortly after the events of September 11, 2001, the FBI undertook several initiatives to integrate state and local law enforcement into counterterrorism operations. On February 27, 2002, the Counterterrorism Division issued its first weekly FBI Intelligence Bulletin to provide actionable terrorism-related intelligence to law enforcement partners. The Bulletin currently reaches more than 60 federal agencies, all FBI field offices and Legats, and more than 18,000 state and local law enforcement agencies through secure communication systems. 14 Since September 11, 2001, the Counterterrorism Division has also disseminated Intelligence Assessments and several thousand Information Intelligence Reports to the U.S. Intelligence Community and appropriate state and local law enforcement entities. In spring 2002 the FBI created the Office of Law Enforcement Coordination (OLEC) as a liaison between the Bureau and other law enforcement organizations. In response to a USA PATRIOT Act mandate, the FBI has participated with other federal agencies in the State and Local Anti-Terrorism Training initiative (SLATT), which has raised the level of counterterrorism expertise and developed professional relationships among law enforcement partners.
14Beginning on August 6, 2004, the FBI began routinely disseminating bulletins jointly with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
The investigation into the September 11, 2001, attack—which at its height involved more than 7,000 FBI agents and support personnel, including approximately 700 personnel deployed overseas—underscored the global nature of terrorism and the ability of terrorists to plan, finance, and conduct operations in a variety of countries around the world. The transition in recent decades from terrorism as a primarily domestic concern to one of global implications has led the FBI to develop its intelligence and law enforcement partnerships worldwide.
This has led to new initiatives and the cultivation of old ones, including the continued expansion of the Legat program and the offering of counterterrorism training to international law enforcement agencies at the National Academy at Quantico and International Law Enforcement Academies in Budapest, Hungary; Bangkok, Thailand; and Gaborone, Botswana. Other venues of international cooperation include FBI participation in the Group of 8, the Organization of American States, the NATO alliance, and chairing the International Association of Chiefs of Police Committee on Terrorism.
In October 2001 the FBI established a Most Wanted Terrorists List to engage the international public’s assistance in the war on terrorism. Set at 22 names, this list places a “global spotlight” on indicted terrorist suspects. Those who initially occupied the list took part in the 1985 hijacking of TWA flight 847, the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the “Manila Air” plot, the bombing of Khobar Towers, and the U.S. embassy bombings in East Africa. Usama Bin Ladin occupies a place on this list and on that of the FBI’s list of Top Ten Most Wanted Fugitives.
During the first 75 years of its history the FBI encountered a predominantly domestic terrorist threat that underlay larger criminal trends. Between the World Wars, this threat came primarily from right-wing extremists, then shifted to left-wing, socialist-oriented groups beginning in the 1950s and continuing into the 1980s. In the early 1980s, international terrorism–sponsored primarily by states or organizations–began to impact US interests overseas and led to legislation that extended the FBI’s responsibilities to cover terrorist threats originating outside the United States and its territories. The 1990s saw a new era of domestic and international terrorism in which terrorists sought to inflict massive and indiscriminate casualties upon civilian populations. This threat grew as terrorists began to seek out unconventional weapons and weapons of mass destruction. The 1990s also saw the rise of terrorism pursued by loosely-affiliated extremists, with examples ranging from terrorists involved with domestic special interest causes to militants engaged in international jihad. These terrorism trends combined into the September 11, 2001, attack that has set in motion an international effort to counter the global terrorist threat and elevated counterterrorism to the FBI’s preeminent mission.
In his September 20, 2001, Address to a Joint Session of Congress and the American People, President Bush assured his audience that in the present conflict with terrorism, violence would be met with “patient justice.” The struggle against terrorism—especially that currently waged against al-Qa’ida—is one of endurance, and it is one in which the FBI is prepared to engage with unflagging persistence. Although the preeminent mission of protecting the United States from terrorist attack is changing the character of the FBI as a whole, an abiding strength of the FBI remains its tradition of excellence in vigorously investigating and prosecuting criminal acts. These traditional pursuits are essential to the disruption of terrorist activities, the dismantling of terrorist organizations, and, consequently, the prevention of future terrorist attacks. By combining a willingness to innovate with its traditional law enforcement responsibilities, the FBI continues to evolve in order to counter the varied forms of terrorism that threaten the interests and security of the United States.