Home News Speeches Countering the Terrorism Threat
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  • Robert S. Mueller, III
  • Director
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation
  • Preparedness Group Conference
  • Washington, D.C.
  • October 06, 2010

Good afternoon. With any ongoing issue of importance, it is useful to reflect on where we are, and where we need to be. That is why conferences like this are so important to our public discourse.

Today, I would like to touch briefly on terrorist threats, the tools we need to be successful, and the growing challenge presented by rapidly changing technology.

Al Qaeda’s intent to conduct high-profile attacks in the United States remains unwavering. And while the structure of the group has been diminished, its power to influence individuals and affiliates around the world has not.

Recent plots suggest that al Qaeda is focused on recruiting and training individuals from Europe and America—individuals who can more readily evade heightened security measures at the border.

We are also concerned with a growing threat from al Qaeda affiliates, from the attempted Christmas Day bombing by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, to the failed Times Square bombing by TTP, a Pakistani militant group.

In each case, these groups were able to recruit individuals committed to attacking the United States, and whose backgrounds were less likely to trigger security scrutiny.

In addition to large-scale attacks, al Qaeda and its affiliates may also attempt smaller attacks that require less planning and fewer operational steps—which results in fewer opportunities to predict and prevent such attacks.

From al Qaeda’s perspective, these smaller attacks—even if unsuccessful—may still generate significant publicity, and therefore might have both a psychological and an economic impact.

Threats from homegrown extremists—those who live in the communities they intend to attack—are also of great concern. Here, too, the threat is quickly evolving. There is no typical profile of a homegrown terrorist; their experiences and motivating factors vary widely.

But these individuals are increasingly savvy. They are harder to detect, easily able to connect with other extremists, and—in some instances—highly capable operationally.

Let me turn to the impact of the Internet.

The Internet has become a primary platform for communication. It has also become a tool for spreading extremist propaganda, and for terrorist recruiting, training, and planning. It is a means of social networking for like-minded extremists...including those who are not yet radicalized, but who may become so through the anonymity of cyberspace.

In other words, the Internet has become a facilitator—even an accelerant—for terrorist and criminal activity.

Let us consider the impact of someone like Anwar Aulaqi—the American-born, Yemeni-based extremist. Ten years ago, Aulaqi would have operated in relative obscurity. Today, on the Internet, he has unlimited reach to individuals around the world, including those here at home.

In short, we are seeing an increase in the sources of terrorism, a wider array of terrorist targets, and an evolution in terrorist tactics and means of communication—all of which does make our job that much more difficult.

Given the nature of these threats, we must focus on the tools we need to keep the American people safe.

Today, the FBI is a threat-driven, intelligence-led organization. We are collecting, analyzing, and sharing intelligence to better understand all threats—those we already know about, and those that are yet developing.

We have identified our top investigative priorities, from terrorism and transnational organized crime, to white collar crime and violent gangs.

And we are working to ensure that we have the appropriate human sources to address these threats. In years past, we built sources inside of cases, to target individuals.

Today, we are building sources around emerging threats.

We are asking ourselves key questions about our investigative priorities. What do we know about pending and potential threats? What do we need to know? Is the threat immediate or unlikely to manifest itself for some time? Who might take action? And where and when might they do so? We understand that we must identify the gaps in our knowledge, and obtain the intelligence to fill those gaps.

Day in and day out, we are working to predict and disrupt threats to the American people, within the constraints of the Constitution.

Three tools are of particular importance to us: partnerships, community outreach, and technology.

First, partnerships. No one agency or department can handle these diverse challenges. Indeed, we have often said that working side-by-side is not only our best option, it is our only option.

The 9/11 Commission recognized the need to break down barriers between law enforcement and intelligence, and between federal law enforcement and our partners on the state and local level, and, indeed, around the world.

We have made great strides in breaking down those barriers, and we are all stronger for it. Today, we routinely share information across the board, about pending cases and emerging threats. And we are working cases together, here at home and abroad.

Since 2001, we have tripled the number of Joint Terrorism Task Forces across the country, to more than 100. These task forces combine the resources of the FBI, the intelligence community, the military, and our state and local partners.

With roughly 4,000 members, these task forces have been essential in breaking up terrorist plots across the country. Such was the case with the arrest of Najibullah Zazi and his co-conspirators, who were operating in both Denver and New York.

But we must also work closely with the citizens we serve. For years now, our community outreach specialists have worked to enhance public trust in the FBI. We host regular town hall meetings with community leaders and concerned citizens across the country. We want to better understand the issues of the communities we serve, and dispel myths about the FBI and the work we do.

We will continue to build on this strong foundation in the years to come, together with our federal, state, and local partners. We all recognize that we cannot be successful against crime or terrorism without the trust of the American people.

Let me turn for a moment to technology.

We have enhanced our technological capabilities in the Bureau in the last nine years. Yes, there is more work to be done. But we have greatly improved the way we collect, analyze, and share information.

Intelligence provides the information we need, but technology further enables us to find the patterns and connections in that intelligence. Through sophisticated, searchable databases, we are working to track down known and suspected terrorists, through biographical information, travel histories, and financial records. We can then share that information with those who need it, when they need it.

And yet, as the 9/11 Commission recognized in 2004, and I quote, technology “can create problems as well as solve them. ...The emergence of the [Internet] has given terrorists a much easier means of acquiring information and exercising command and control over their operations....These changes have made surveillance and threat warning more difficult.”

The commission went on to note that “Americans’ love affair with [technology] leads them to regard it as the solution.” Yet for those of us in law enforcement, rapidly changing technology can present a problem.

One lesson we have learned in recent years is the need to ensure that the laws by which we operate keep pace with new threats and new technology.

By way of example, let us turn to court-ordered intercepts. In some instances, communications providers are not able to provide the electronic communications we seek in response to a court order. Many providers are not currently required to build or maintain intercept capabilities in their operating systems. As a result, they are often not equipped to provide timely assistance.

Critical laws covering this area have not been updated since 1994, when we moved from a copper-wire phone system to digital networks and cell phones. But of course, technology has expanded exponentially in the past 16 years.

We want to ensure that our ability to intercept communications is not eroded by advances in technology—technology we all rely on to communicate.

Our state and local partners face the same challenge. Much like our caseload, the majority of their cases include criminals using some form of electronic means to communicate. And because of this divide between technology and the law, they, too, are increasingly unable to access the information they need to protect public safety, and the evidence they need to bring criminals to justice.

For example, in a recent online child exploitation investigation, the subjects used the latest technology to conceal their activities. We identified key individuals in this ring only because one member agreed to help law enforcement infiltrate the group.

In another case, a Mexican drug cartel was making use of a communications system that we were not able to intercept. We had to use other investigative techniques that were far more risky.

While there are those in the private sector who may have concerns about working closely with law enforcement and the intelligence community, I will say that many of our private sector partners stand ready to assist with solutions to these problems. And we will continue to work together to ensure that providers can readily comply with court-ordered intercepts.

As we address heightened threats to our national security, we must consider the potential impact on our civil liberties, including the right to privacy.

Some have suggested there is an inherent tension between protecting national security and preserving civil liberties. I do disagree. Yes, we have a right to privacy. But we also have a right to ride the subways without the threat of bombings.

It is not a question of conflict; it is a question of balance.

If we safeguard our civil liberties, but leave our country vulnerable to a terrorist attack, we have lost. If we protect America from terrorism, but sacrifice civil liberties, we have also lost. We must work to strike that balance, every day, in every case.

Our world has indeed changed in recent years. Yet even in times of great change, certain constants remain: the desire for safety and security...the hope for peace and prosperity...and the need for solidarity against forces that might otherwise divide us. These constants are the same in communities and countries around the world. And it is these constants that we in the Bureau strive to protect every day.

Thank you for having me here today.

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