The terrorist threat posed to the homeland that Western nations faced on September 11, 2001 (9/11), was much different than the threat we face today. What we experienced on 9/11 was a terrorist organization, al-Qaeda, possessing the ability to have a group of their jihadists successfully carry out a devastating attack on U.S. soil. Although they still desire to perpetrate similar attacks, al-Qaeda no longer has the capacity to do so. Other prominent terrorist groups like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and al-Shabaab, each aspire to carry out terrorist attacks in the West. However, none of these groups possess the likely capacity to execute attacks in the U.S. or other Western nations in the near term. Although there is a major and necessary emphasis on terrorist organizations, the most significant threat to Western nations comes from individuals in the homeland who follow the calling of these organizations.
Groups like AQAP and ISIL have developed extremely sophisticated Internet recruitment mechanisms through social media and other platforms to recruit at-risk and troubled individuals to join their cause. They have succeeded by reaching a wide swath of individuals on the Internet who are susceptible to being radicalized and carry out violent acts. Akin to a cult, this at-risk population has been or is being conditioned or brainwashed to convert to a false representation of Islam. Some of these individuals have traveled to Syria to join ISIL or the al-Qaeda franchise in Syria, the al-Nusra Front. Other troubled individuals have been, or are in the process of being radicalized to stay home and commit jihad in their home countries. This was evidenced in Canada in October 2014, in Paris in January 2015 and Copenhagen in February 2015.
In a speech given on March 13, 2015, to the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE), FBI Director James B. Comey stated that the terrorist threat today is very different than the terrorist threat the U.S. faced on 9/11. Director Comey advised that groups like ISIL have gotten very slick at social media and are spreading a poisonous message on the Internet. He stated that “ISIL is issuing a siren song to troubled souls.”1 Director Comey added that the FBI is conducting investigations regarding the threat of homegrown violent extremists in all 50 states of the U.S. He further commented that people in all 50 states are in some stage of consuming the poison toward radicalization. This is not just a U.S. problem—it permeates throughout the Western world and presents Western countries with significant national security concerns. These concerns warrant more proactive and innovative counter-terrorism responses.
So, how do we deal with the cancerous spread of this homegrown radicalization problem?
There are three rings of defense. Each plays an equally important role in addressing and working toward eliminating the homegrown violent extremist threat. We must develop reactive and proactive strategies within the three rings of defense to deal with the changing threat posed by homegrown violent extremists. Since 9/11, our focus has primarily been looking outward at the organizational threat posed by terrorist groups outside the homeland. The threat has evolved to become an inward threat caused by wayward individuals drawn to the false recruiting messages of foreign terrorist organizations. As we turn our focus inward, state and local police agencies become important cogs in our effort to thwart the homegrown extremist threat.
The three rings of defense are similar for all Western nations. Their application will differ from country to country depending on their legal and regulatory framework, as well as the composition of their federal, state and local law enforcement jurisdiction. Using the U.S. as an example, the three rings of defense should function as follows.
First Ring of Defense
The first ring of defense is to continue to contain and disrupt the global threat of terrorism through military, diplomatic, intelligence, law enforcement and sanctions counter-terrorism measures. This requires a cohesive and coordinated interagency collaboration that relies on the capabilities of each government participant. One important area of interagency collaboration is to identify foreign fighters from the U.S. who traveled to Syria and who may return to the U.S.
Regarding the homegrown threat within the U.S., the FBI has primary investigative responsibility for counter-terrorism. They need the support of the interagency community to identify domestic threats, especially through global intelligence links. More than anything, it is imperative that the FBI partner with state and local law enforcement agencies to identify and disrupt homegrown violent extremists. In FBI Director Comey’s speech before NOBLE on March 13, 2015, where he discussed the homegrown violent extremist threat, the Director noted that this is a very different threat than we faced on 9/11. Director Comey noted that it was highly unlikely that federal agents would hear about an individual becoming radicalized. He stated that deputy sheriffs and police officers on neighborhood patrol—who know their neighborhoods—are more likely to be able to identify individuals who have become or are in the process of becoming radicalized.
From a domestic point of view, regarding this first ring of defense, state and local police officers serve as our first line of defense in identifying homegrown violent extremists. What can state and local law enforcement officers—especially those in smaller departments and more rural areas—do to learn more about identifying terrorist threats? This is an important question and one that could be the difference between a successful terrorist attack and the disruption of an attack. Director Comey and the FBI are committed to sharing as much intelligence information as possible with state and local police agencies. Two important mechanisms to achieve this information flow are state and major urban area fusion centers (fusion centers) and Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTFs). All state and local law enforcement agencies should leverage the information sharing platforms and expertise of fusion centers and JTTFs.
Fusion centers are owned and operated by state and local entities. They are intended to be uniquely situated to empower front-line law enforcement, public safety, fire services, emergency response, public health and private sector security personnel to lawfully gather and share threat-related information. Fusion centers are a platform for the FBI and other agencies to provide actionable intelligence information for dissemination. State and local police officers should take advantage of this source of threat-related information. Some fusion centers are very effective and some not as effective. The reason for the variance is the human factor, which equates to the level of cooperation, communication and coordination at each fusion center. The more consistent the commitment, capacity and collaboration, the more effective the fusion center will likely be.
JTTFs have been a valuable front-line law enforcement counter-terrorism tool since the formation of the first JTTF in New York City in 1980. Today, JTTFs are located in 104 cities, including one in each of the FBI’s 56 field offices. JTTFs are comprised of about 4,000 members nationwide. They hail from 500 state and local agencies and 55 federal agencies. JTTFs provide one-stop shopping for information regarding terrorist activities. They enable a shared intelligence base across many agencies. Since their inception, JTTFs have been extremely successful. One of the keys to success has been the ability to provide state and local police officers with security clearances allowing them to share classified information. Another key to success is the training afforded to JTTF members. JTTFs function as the tip of the spear for terrorism investigations.
Most counter-terrorism investigations are conducted by JTTFs. Although the FBI has primary jurisdiction in counter-terrorism investigations, other federal, state and local law enforcement agencies conduct investigations that have a nexus to terrorism and likely to homegrown violent extremists. It is important that those investigations be coordinated with JTTFs in the venues in which investigations are being conducted. Some police departments like the New York Police Department and Los Angeles Police Department operate highly effective counter-terrorism bureaus to safeguard their cities and coordinate the exchange of intelligence information with fusion centers and JTTFs.
Second Ring of Defense
The second ring of defense is the government interagency community with outreach responsibilities to establish community outreach initiatives with a broad spectrum of diverse community leaders. This would represent an extremely important public and private sector partnership. To truly succeed, any such initiative should be as diverse as possible. This would lead to access to more people, particularly those at risk.
The State Department, Treasury Department and FBI each have outreach programs. They should work with communities to educate and promote the counter-radicalization of homegrown violent extremism. This initiative should focus on countering the venomous recruitment messaging from groups like ISIL and AQAP. In addition, diverse communities should be looking inward toward identifying and interdicting at-risk individuals susceptible to radicalization.
Leveraging the experience and contacts of government outreach professionals, community leaders and local police officers would enhance our ability to identify individuals susceptible to radicalization
From a domestic perspective, as with the first ring of defense, state and local law enforcement patrolling in neighborhoods and communities throughout the U.S. are on the front line within this circle of defense. This is also where state and local law enforcement personnel serving on JTTFs can make significant contributions. Front-line law enforcement officers should be included in this type of community outreach initiative. In many instances, they know the community they work in better than anyone and are in the best position to identify at-risk individuals and the behavior changes of those being radicalized. Leveraging the experience and contacts of government outreach professionals, community leaders and local police officers would enhance our ability to identify individuals susceptible to radicalization.
Groups like ISIL, with their Internet publication Dabiq, and AQAP, with Inspire, have demonstrated that they are Internet savvy. Our community outreach public and private collaboration to reach disenfranchised and at-risk individuals must be at least as polished as our adversaries. One strategy we employ should be to exploit the rift between ISIL and al-Qaeda. This rift has exposed these groups to the falsity of their social media representations. Government and community outreach should strive to exploit the rift and emphasize the fallacy of the propaganda being presented.
Third Ring of Defense
The third ring of defense is to identify financial red flags or anomalies identifiable with homegrown violent extremists and individuals recruited as foreign fighters who either attempt, or succeed, at traveling to join ISIL or other groups in Syria. Without other intelligence or indicators, it is extremely difficult to identify homegrown violent extremists through transaction monitoring or other financial red flags. Red flags and patterns of activity associated with foreign fighters are more discernable than for homegrown violent extremists who do not travel overseas. This ring of defense requires a strong public-private partnership primarily involving law enforcement, the Treasury Department and the financial service industry.
For the domestic terrorist threat involving homegrown violent extremists and foreign fighters, the FBI, Treasury Department and the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) are the pivotal government players. It is incumbent on them to share intelligence information with financial institutions, to the maximum extent allowable. This would enable financial institutions to develop more proactive mechanisms to identify homegrown threats. Within the FBI, JTTFs and the Terrorist Financing Operations Section (TFOS) are responsible for terrorism and terrorist financing investigations. The mission of TFOS is to lead law enforcement and intelligence agencies in the U.S. to defeat terrorism through the application of financial investigative techniques and the exploitation of financial intelligence. TFOS supports JTTF cases by either conducting financial investigations or providing JTTFs with actionable financial intelligence to augment their investigations.
TFOS is in the process of developing intelligence information that it plans to push out to financial institutions on a recurring basis. This is an encouraging sign for financial institutions who would benefit from this type of information sharing. Likewise, TFOS and FinCEN are working on an initiative to assess the characteristics of all identified foreign fighters who have traveled from the U.S. to Syria. This has the potential to be a very significant initiative to develop meaningful intelligence that financial institutions could use for targeted monitoring purposes.
Red flags for foreign fighters traveling to Syria from Western countries include:
- IP logins in areas of conflict such as near the Syrian border, to include Jordan and Lebanon, but particularly in Turkey
- Periods of transaction dormancy, which could be the result of terrorist training or engagement in combat
- ATM cash withdrawals in areas of conflict
- Wire transfers to areas of conflict
- Social media postings (many Western foreign fighters use social media)
- Student loans, stipends or entitlement money or account closures associated with purchase of airline tickets for overseas travel
With respect to terrorist financing, state and local law enforcement officers should seek guidance from JTTFs or directly from the TFOS, at FBI Headquarters. In addition, state and local law enforcement officers should participate in grassroots working groups with financial institutions in their jurisdictions and in outreach with fraud and anti-money laundering (AML) investigators at specific financial institutions.
Due to the focus on the homeland, there should be a greater emphasis placed on law enforcement, particularly at the local level
As we face changing terrorist threats to the homeland, with the emphasis shifting to homegrown violent extremists and foreign fighters, we must ensure our counter-terrorism defenses adapt to address the evolving threat. There are three rings of defense that are equally important. The first involves the public sector with the interagency community responsible for the global threat of terrorism. Due to the focus on the homeland, there should be a greater emphasis placed on law enforcement, particularly at the local level. JTTFs are the lynchpin to our domestic operational national security. Fortunately, JTTFs have been a model for law enforcement collaboration and success. The second ring of defense is diverse community outreach to identify and interdict those individuals susceptible to radicalization. This represents a significant challenge, but if successful, could yield the best long-term results to diminish the homegrown threat. The third ring of defense is to identify homegrown violent extremists and foreign fighters through financial analysis. Encouragingly, TFOS and FinCEN are engaged in analytical initiatives to identify patterns of activity. Likewise, many financial institution compliance professionals are engaged in internal initiatives to identify homegrown violent extremists and foreign fighters.
There is much we should be concerned about regarding the changing terrorist threats we face. They are daunting. At the same time, we should be comforted by the dedicated professionals in both the public and private sectors who are working diligently to ensure the three rings of defense against the threat to the homeland can protect us from attack. I have had the unique privilege to be associated with many dedicated professionals in both sectors. They work tirelessly with passion and commitment to minimize the challenging terrorist threats we face. Whether working in law enforcement, government community outreach and other government positions or in private sector compliance or outreach, these dedicated professionals deserve our gratitude and respect. Keep fighting the good fight.
- James B. Comey, Law Enforcement and Race: Continuing the Conversation speech, Federal Bureau of Investigation, March 13, 2015, http://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/2015/march/law-enforcement-and-race-continuing-the-conversation