Home News Speeches The Threat of Homegrown Terrorism
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  • Director Robert S. Mueller, III
  • Director
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation
  • The City Club of Cleveland
  • Cleveland, Ohio
  • June 23, 2006

Good afternoon. I am honored to join you today. My thanks to Jim Foster for inviting me to be a part of this well-respected series.

In recent weeks, we have watched the Toronto terrorism investigation unfold. To date, 17 suspects have been arrested in an alleged terrorist plot to bomb several prominent buildings in Toronto and Ottawa and to behead the prime minister.

These men did not merely talk of taking action; they tried to purchase three tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer. That is three times the amount used in the Oklahoma City bombing.

Although the Canadian authorities uncovered this plot before these men harmed anyone, we face the sobering fact that yet another group of extremists planned a terrorist attack and took steps to execute that attack.

Like the terrorists responsible for both the London and the Madrid bombings, the Toronto suspects lived in the area they intended to attack. They were not sleeper operatives sent on suicide missions; they were students and business people and members of the community. They were persons who, for whatever reason, came to view their home country as the enemy.

I want to talk today about the changing shape of terrorism and, in particular, the threat of homegrown terrorism. I want to talk about the radicalization process—how an extremist becomes a terrorist—and what we in the FBI are doing to address this new threat.

For more than a decade, al Qaeda has been the driving force of terrorism—moving thousands of people through training camps in Afghanistan and providing the motivation, the money, and the management for worldwide attacks.

In the past five years, with our military, law enforcement and intelligence partners around the world, we have disrupted al Qaeda's central operations. We have captured or killed many key leaders, including the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, as well as al-Zarqawi and many of his associates in Iraq.

We have destroyed their training camps, and disrupted both their funding and their means of communication. Through these efforts, we have transformed al Qaeda from a strong hierarchy that plans and executes attacks to being a decentralized and amorphous group.

Unfortunately, while al Qaeda may be weakened, it is not dead. We continue to face threats from al Qaeda and its offshoots in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and East Africa. Their plots have included blowing up a Columbus area shopping mall in 2004, as well as the recently reported plot to release cyanide gas in the New York City subway system in 2003.

We also face threats from organizations affiliated with al Qaeda, like Ansar al-Sunnah in Africa and Jemmah Islamiya in southeast Asia. These groups continue to train, recruit, and plan attacks, but their chains of command are fractured and they are not as stable as they were five years ago.

While we have made great strides in disabling traditional terrorist models like al Qaeda, the convergence of globalization and technology has created a new brand of terrorism. Today, terrorist threats may come from smaller, more loosely-defined individuals and cells who are not affiliated with al Qaeda, but who are inspired by a violent jihadist message. These homegrown terrorists may prove to be as dangerous as groups like al Qaeda, if not more so.

We have already seen this new face of terrorism on a global scale in Madrid, London, and Toronto. We have also witnessed this so-called "self-radicalization" here at home.

In Torrance, California, for example, four men were indicted last year, charged with plotting to attack U.S. military recruiting facilities and synagogues in the Los Angeles area.

In Toledo, three men were recently charged with conspiring to provide money, training, communications equipment, and computers to extremists in the Middle East. As alleged in the indictment, these men taught themselves how to make and use explosives. They conducted their own training exercises. And they did it all here in Ohio.

Just this morning, the FBI and the Department of Justice announced the indictment of seven individuals involved in what appears to be another homegrown terrorist cell. The leader of this cell is a U.S. citizen living in Miami. He and six others are alleged to have plotted to attack the Sears Tower in Chicago and key federal buildings in Miami-Dade County.

These extremists are self-recruited, self-trained, and self-executing. They may not have any connection to al Qaeda or to other terrorist groups. They share ideas and information in the shadows of the Internet. They gain inspiration from radical websites that call for violence.

They raise money by committing low-level crimes that do not generate much attention. They answer not to a particular leader, but to an ideology. In short, they operate under the radar. And that makes their detection that much more difficult for all of us.

To detect homegrown terrorists, it helps to understand the radicalization process. How does an individual become a radical extremist? And how does an extremist then become a terrorist? We have found that radicalization is fluid; it does not follow a set formula or timetable.

Radicalization often starts with individuals who are frustrated with their lives or with the politics of their home governments. They may be U.S.-born, or, as we saw in London, second-generation citizens.

Some may be lonely or dissatisfied with their role in society. Others may have friends or mentors who encourage membership for social reasons.

Once a person has joined an extremist group, he or she may start to identify with an ideology—one that encourages violence against a government and its citizens. They may become increasingly isolated from their old lives, drift away from family and friends, and spend more time with other members of the extremist group.

As they become more and more involved in the group, they may decide to take action to support the cause—actions such as selecting targets, conducting surveillance, raising money, and procuring materials. As talk moves to action, an extremist can become a terrorist.

The evolution from extremism to terrorism can take place anywhere, from academic settings, mosques, prisons, and community centers to the Internet.

Schools and universities, for example, are both open as well as isolated. Many students are at an impressionable age, and are seeking ways to establish their own unique identities.

Prisons are also fertile ground for extremists. Inmates may be drawn to an extreme form of Islam because it may help justify their violent tendencies. These persons represent a heightened threat because of their criminal histories, their propensity for violence, and their contacts with fellow criminals.

The four suspected terrorists arrested last year in Torrance, California were recruited by one Kevin James, the founder of a radical group called J.I.S. James founded J.I.S from his cell in Folsom Prison in California. He recruited fellow inmates and radicals outside prison to join his mission, which was to kill those he saw as "infidels."

We are working with prison officials and academic leaders across the country to identify these potential recruiting venues. But we must also identify the recruiters themselves —who sometimes act as the leaders of these homegrown cells.

In recent cases, we have seen one key person, such as Kevin James, who brought the Torrance group together. These are not always spiritual leaders; they can be mentors or friends. Regardless of their role, they can transform their followers from radicals to terrorists.

Radical fundamentalists are particularly difficult to pinpoint in cyberspace. There are between 5,000 to 6,000 extremist websites on the Internet, encouraging extremists to initiate their own radicalization and to cultivate relationships with other like-minded persons.

Although we have destroyed many terrorist training camps in the past five years, extremists increasingly turn to the Internet for virtual instruction. Of course, not every extremist will become a terrorist. But the radicalization process has become more rapid, more widespread, and anonymous in this Internet age, making detection that much more difficult.

Whether we are talking about al Qaeda's operations overseas, sleeper operatives who have been in place for years, or the emergence of homegrown terrorists, our greatest challenge is in mapping these underground networks. This can be tedious, intricate work, but it is absolutely essential to the safety of this country. We need to see how certain individuals fit into the big picture. We need to know where to set the trip wires to identify the line between the extremist and the operational. To meet that mission, we are relying on three things: firstly, intelligence; secondly, technology; and thirdly, partnerships.

Intelligence is the key to preventing terrorist attacks. We must be able to transform bits and pieces of information into actionable intelligence and then disseminate that intelligence to the people who need it—all within an exceptionally tight time frame.

In the past five years, we have doubled the number of intelligence analysts in the FBI and placed Field Intelligence Groups in every one of our offices. Together, agents, analysts, linguists, and surveillance specialists collect and analyze vital intelligence and share it with our partners in the law enforcement and in the intelligence communities.

As part of this effort, agents and analysts in each of our field offices are taking a good, hard look at their communities. Here in Cleveland, for instance, we have learned more about the mass transit system, the ports on Lake Erie, and the many airports, airstrips, and heliports in the area. We have increased our knowledge of Ohio's agricultural base and its key industries, academic institutions, and people.

We call it "knowing your domain." We need to know the risk factors and the potential targets for criminal and terrorist activity. With this information, we can find and stop homegrown terrorists before they strike.

Intelligence provides the information we need, but technology enables us to find patterns and connections in that intelligence. Using searchable databases, we can track suspected terrorists through biographical information, travel histories, and criminal and financial records.

Using our Investigative Data Warehouse, agents, analysts, and law enforcement officers on Joint Terrorism Task Forces across the country can search more than 50 databases, with more than 500 million terrorism-related documents. In 2005 alone, users ran more than 10 million inquiries, with an average response time of under eight seconds.

Our Terrorist Screening Center provides federal, state, and local officials with real-time connectivity to the terrorist watch list. We maintain a database of more than 200,000 known or suspected terrorists. When a police officer encounters a suspicious person, the officer can access the screening center on the spot for further information and direction.

But we are not the only ones making ready use of emerging technology. Terrorists are doing it as well. To keep pace, we must be able to identify the links between extremists and their activities. Technology provides the means to make those connections.

With the emergence of homegrown terrorism, the role of our partners in state and local law enforcement becomes that much more important. They are the feet on the street – the first to see new trends in crime and terrorism.

The FBI is a relatively small organization with but 12,000 agents, compared to 800,000 law enforcement officers across the United States. That is why partnerships like our Joint Terrorism Task Forces are so vital. Police officers and others from the federal government—including the CIA, the Secret Service, and the Department of Homeland Security, just to name a few—work side-by-side with FBI agents and analysts, cooperating on investigations and sharing information with their own departments and agencies.

In the Torrance investigation, the police officers who arrested two of the suspects in what looked like a routine gas station robbery discovered evidence that they were planning a terrorist attack. The officers passed that information on to the local Joint Terrorism Task Force. Together, they traced the steps of these terrorists and exposed the entire cell.

Without the initial information from the Torrance Police Department, and the work of the Los Angeles Sheriff's and Police departments, we might not have made the connection between the terrorists' criminal activities and their plans for attack.

These partnerships also extend overseas. The ongoing Toronto terrorism investigation is an outstanding example of high-level coordination—coordination between international law enforcement and intelligence agencies in Canada, America, Denmark, Britain, Bosnia, Bangladesh and other countries.

We have come together to share information and to address the terrorist threat. We are investigating possible ties between the Toronto suspects and terrorist cells around the world. We must continue to work together. We cannot stop global terrorism without global cooperation.

Our partnerships with those of you in the private sector are equally important. Countering the spread of global terrorism will take more than just the capture of terrorist leaders. We are doubling our efforts to reach out to communities across the country.

In recent months, we have hosted town meetings from Los Angeles to New York. We are also meeting with community leaders and minority groups to demystify the work we're doing. It's an important step in strengthening bonds between the FBI and the citizens we protect.

There are those who view the FBI with suspicion, and we must bridge that gap. We must build confidence in one another and forge lasting relationships. We want to improve our understanding of our communities by creating an open dialogue. We need to reach the point where you are willing to come forward and say, "I have seen or heard something that you need to know."

We must also build relationships within the Muslim community to counter the spread of extremist ideology. Increasingly, mainstream Muslim leaders are challenging the extremist message of hatred and violence. The radicalization cycle can only be broken if we stand together against terrorism.

Just yesterday, representatives from the Muslim community met with FBI leaders at Headquarters and in the field to talk about sharing information and working together to prevent terrorism and fight crime.

It has been nearly five years since the last terrorist attack on America. Yet there is no room for complacency. As we have seen in recent months, our enemies are adaptive and evasive. They are taking full advantage of technology. They are combining their resources and their expertise to great effect. We must do the same.

Our greatest weapon against terrorism is unity. That unity is built on information sharing and coordination among our partners in the law enforcement and the intelligence communities. It is built on partnerships with the private sector and effective outreach to the public as our eyes and ears. It is built on the idea that, together, we are smarter and stronger than we are standing alone.

No one person, no one agency, no one police department, and no one country has all the answers. We may not always know where and when terrorists will attempt to strike. But we do know they will try again. And we must combine our intelligence, our technology, and our resources to stop them.

We face many challenges today, both from overseas and from those living in our midst. But we must not let terrorism change our way of life.

James Thurber, one of Ohio's native sons and one of the best-known writers and cartoonists of the 20th century, once wrote, "Let us not look back in anger, nor forward in fear, but around in awareness."

We cannot look back in anger. Nor should we look forward in fear. Terrorism is designed to incite both fear and anger. Its very purpose is to make us afraid—afraid of what may happen, afraid of each other.

Instead, let us look around in awareness . . . of our citizens and our communities, and of the dangers we face. Most importantly, let us look around in awareness of the strength of our democracy, the strength of our unity, and the strength of our resolve. Armed with these strengths, we cannot and we will not fail.

Thank you and God Bless.

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