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Fighting terrorism in the 21st century.

Although not new to the United States, the threat of terrorism is changing and becoming more deadly. Over the last several years, the FBI has noted a new trend in terrorism within the United States that involves a transition from more numerous low-level incidents to less frequent but more destructive attacks, with a goal to produce mass casualties and attract intense media coverage. While the number of terrorist attacks in the United States has declined in the past decade, the number of those killed and injured in distinct acts has increased.(1) A single attack in 1993 killed 6 people and injured nearly 1,000 when terrorists bombed the World Trade Center in New York City. Less than 2 years later, an attack in Oklahoma City resulted in the worst act of domestic terrorism in the United States and the deaths of 168 people. The number of attempted terrorist acts in the United States remains equally alarming to the law enforcement community.

The FBI, working in conjunction with its state and local counterparts, prevented 5 acts of terrorism in 1996(2) and 20 acts in 1997.(3) How can law enforcement agencies best work together to fight terrorism today and into the 21st century? Investigators must consider the sources of today's international and domestic terrorism threats.


International Terrorism

International terrorism against the United States is foreign-based or directed by countries or groups outside the United States. In past decades, international terrorists have attacked the United States primarily by targeting U.S. citizens and interests overseas. The most memorable attacks include the abduction of hostages in Lebanon in the mid-1980s; the December 1988 bombing of Pan American Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 189 Americans; the June 25, 1996, detonation of an explosive device outside Al-Khobar Towers in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, in which 19 U.S. military personnel were killed; and the August 7, 1998, bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, which resulted in the deaths of 12 Americans. With one exception, no attacks by international terrorists were recorded in the United States between 1984 and 1992.(4) All of this changed, however, on February 26, 1993, when foreign terrorists bombed the World Trade Center in New York City. The suspects intended to destroy the tower and murder over 35,000 people.

The FBI divides the current international terrorist threat to the United States into three categories. The first threat to Americans comes from the activities of foreign sponsors of international terrorism. The U.S. Department of State has designated seven countries as state sponsors of terrorism: Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Cuba, and North Korea. These sponsors view terrorism as a tool of foreign policy. However, their activities have changed over time. Past activities included direct terrorist support and operations by official state agents. Now, state sponsors generally seek to conceal their support of terrorism by relying on surrogates to conduct operations. State sponsors remain involved in terrorist activities by funding, organizing, networking, and providing other support and instruction to formal terrorist groups and loosely affiliated extremists.

Formalized terrorist groups, such as Lebanese Hizballah, Egyptian Al-Gama'a Al-Islamiyya, and Palestinian HAMAS, pose the second threat to the United States. These autonomous organizations have their own infrastructures, personnel, financial arrangements, and training facilities. They can plan and mount terrorist campaigns overseas, as well as support terrorist operations within the United States. Some groups use supporters inside the United States to plan and coordinate acts of terrorism. In the past, these formalized terrorist groups engaged in criminal activities in the United States, such as illegally acquiring weapons, violating U.S. immigration laws, and providing safe havens to fugitives.

The third category of terrorist threats stems from loosely affiliated international radical extremists, such as those who bombed the World Trade Center. These extremists do not represent a particular nation. Loosely affiliated extremists may pose the most urgent threat to the United States at this time because they remain relatively unknown to law enforcement. They can travel freely, obtain a variety of identities, and recruit like-minded sympathizers from various countries.

Domestic Terrorism

The devastating bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, and the pipe bomb explosion in Centennial Olympic Park during the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, underscore the ever-present threat that exists from individuals determined to use violence to advance their agendas. From 1982 to 1992, a total of 165 terrorist incidents occurred domestically.(5) The majority of these attacks were conducted by domestic terrorist groups, particularly Puerto Rican groups, left-wing extremist groups, and special interest groups.

Domestic terrorism involves groups or individuals who operate without foreign direction entirely within the United States and target elements of the U.S. government or citizens. Domestic terrorist groups represent extreme right-wing, extreme left-wing, and special interest beliefs. The major themes espoused today by extremist right-wing groups include conspiracies regarding the New World Order, gun control laws, the approach of the millennium, and white supremacy. Many of these extremist groups also advocate antigovernment, antitaxation, or antiabortion sentiments and engage in survivalist training to ensure the perpetuation of the United States as a white, Christian nation.

One current troubling branch of right-wing extremism is the militia or patriot movement. Militia members want to remove federal involvement from various issues. They generally are law-abiding citizens who have become intolerant of what they perceive as violations of their constitutional rights. Membership in a militia organization is not entirely illegal in the United States, but certain states have legislated limits on militias, including limits on the types of training (e.g., paramilitary training) that militias can offer legally. The FBI bases its interest in the militia movement on the rise of violence or the potential for violence and criminal activity stemming from the movement.

Experts have traced the growth of the militia movement in part to the effective use of modern communication mediums. Videotapes and computer bulletin boards and networks, such as the Internet, have been used with great effectiveness by militia sympathizers. Exploiting yet another medium, promilitia facsimile networks disseminate material from well-known hate group figures and conspiracy theorists. Organizers can promote their ideologies at militia meetings, patriot rallies, and gatherings of various other groups espousing antigovernment sentiments. Left-wing extremist groups generally profess a revolutionary socialist doctrine and view themselves as protectors of the American people against capitalism and imperialism. They aim to change the United States through revolutionary means rather than participating in the established political process.

During the last 3 decades, leftist-oriented extremist groups had posed the predominant domestic terrorist threat in the United States. Beginning in the 1980s, however, the FBI dismantled many of these groups by arresting key members for their criminal activities. The transformation of the former Soviet Union also deprived many leftist groups of a coherent ideology or spiritual patron. As a result, membership and support for these groups has declined.

Special-interest terrorist groups differ from extreme left- and right-wing terrorist groups because members of these groups seek to resolve specific interests rather than pursue widespread political changes. Members of such groups include animal rights advocates, supporters of environmental issues, and antiabortion advocates.

While some consider the causes that special-interest groups represent understandable or even noteworthy in nature, they remain separated from traditional law-abiding special-interest groups because of their criminal activity. Through their violent, criminal actions, these terrorist groups attempt to force various segments of society, including the general public, to change their attitudes about issues they consider important. Therefore, special-interest groups will continue to present a threat.

Unconventional Weapons

Along with the risk posed by groups and individuals, both foreign and domestic, a threat stemming from the choice of weapon used also exists. Although terrorists continue to rely on such conventional weapons as bombs and small arms, several cases suggest that terrorists and other criminals may consider using unconventional chemical or biological weapons in an attack in the United States at some point in the future.

The Cyberterrorism Threat

The FBI defines cyberterrorism as terrorism that initiates, or threatens to initiate, the exploitation of or attack on information systems. The U.S. government, state and local governments, and the private sector have become increasingly dependent on computer hardware, software, networking, and communications technologies for accomplishing operational and administrative goals. However, greater infrastructure sophistication presents new vulnerabilities and cyberterrorism threat scenarios. Compromise or damage to critical computer systems can jeopardize public safety and U.S. national security. In February, March, and June of 1998, the FBI's Terrorist Threat Warning System disseminated four separate warnings related to threats received against computer systems in the United States.

As the 21st century approaches, the FBI has prepared to address this new and growing threat in a variety of ways. The FBI's National Infrastructure Protection Center (NIPC) has developed the capability to identify, analyze, and characterize specific cyber threats and incidents. The NIPC uses the FBI's criminal investigative and counterterrorism resources and expertise in carrying out its mission. The center works proactively to monitor all physical and cyber threats, to maintain relations with the greatest number of federal government agency watch centers, and to disseminate infrastructure threat information to government agencies, state and local law enforcement, and corporate security directors and executives.

Criminal and national security issues have converged in the cyberterrorism threat. Law enforcement can achieve success against this and other terrorism threats by forging strong links among law enforcement at the federal, state, and local levels, and through broad federal government agency and public sector participation.


Just as the threat from terrorism has changed over the last several years, so has the FBI response to this serious national security threat. In preparation for the next century, the FBI continues to bolster its ability to prevent acts of terrorism before they occur and to effectively respond to such acts once they have taken place.

An example of the FBI's readiness for the next century is the Strategic Information and Operations Center (SIOC) at FBI Headquarters. This 24-hour operations center was recently enlarged and modernized with state-of-the-art technology. SIOC is available for use by FBI employees and representatives from other federal, state, or local agencies during times of national crisis, such as following the commission of an act of terrorism.

The linchpin of FBI efforts remains promoting its counter-terrorism capabilities and strengthening its ties with other agencies on the federal, state, and local law enforcement levels.

FBI Counterterrorism Mission

The FBI counterterrorism mission is to prevent acts of terrorism before they occur or to react to them after they happen by bringing the perpetrators to justice. To enhance this mission, the FBI established a Counterterrorism Center in 1996 to combat terrorism on three fronts: international terrorism operations, domestic terrorism operations, and countermeasures pertaining to both international and domestic terrorism. The center helps law enforcement and intelligence communities to more effectively counter threats of terrorism within the United States by combining the experience and special skills of each represented agency in a coordinated effort directed at the threat of terrorism or in response to a terrorist act.

Twenty other federal agencies participate in the FBI center, and their representatives are fully integrated into its operation. These representatives serve as specific points of contact for their agencies, thereby enhancing the flow of intelligence and allowing for a collaborative exchange of information. The FBI believes that this interaction has increased the ability of the U.S. government to counter domestic and international terrorism, both at home and abroad.

Objectives of the FBI Terrorism Program

Major objectives within FBI domestic and international terrorism programs include identifying and preventing the activities of terrorists prior to the commission of terrorist acts and pursuing the arrest and prosecution of responsible individuals. As part of this prevention effort, the FBI collects foreign intelligence information relating to those international terrorist groups and individuals whose activities threaten the security of the United States. Pursuant to attorney general guidelines, the FBI analyzes the information collected and works with other members of U.S. intelligence agencies and law enforcement and counterterrorism communities to fully exploit such information.

In the fight against terrorism, the FBI Counterterrorism Center uses various resources, which include multiagency task forces; ongoing liaison with all federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies; its Legal Attache program; the Terrorist Threat Warning System; and the introduction of new federal legislation.

Joint Terrorism Task Forces

The FBI combats terrorism through its participation in 16 formalized Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTFs) around the country. The JTTFs, composed of federal, state, and local law enforcement personnel, strive to increase the effectiveness and productivity of limited personnel and logistical resources. They avoid duplication of investigative effort and expand cooperation and liaison among federal, state, and local law enforcement.

JTTFs have been highly successful in several critical operations around the country. The FBI-New York City Police Department Joint Terrorism Task Force, for example, has worked on many critical cases, including the massive World Trade Center bombing investigation, the plot to bomb major New York City landmarks, and the crash of TWA Flight 800.

Legal Attache Program

The FBI currently counters global terrorism threats through meaningful cooperation with allied governments around the world. In coming years, the FBI anticipates a greater number of terrorist attacks aimed at U.S. citizens and interests abroad. Cooperation with other governments remains indispensable in countering this heightened threat of global terrorism. The FBI presently has 36 Legal Attaches overseas, and the program's success has resulted in the recent establishment of new offices in Israel, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Egypt. The trust and good faith developed through this cooperation are hallmarks of FBI relationships overseas. Among the many benefits of establishing Legal Attaches is the close working relationships FBI personnel form with the local law enforcement agencies, which have practical and operational familiarity with terrorist organizations that may pose a threat to Americans. These relationships further enhance the ability of the FBI to maintain a proactive, rather than reactive, posture in addressing terrorist threats. If a terrorist attack targeting U.S. citizens or interests does occur, Legal Attaches can provide the FBI with an immediate on-scene presence in the first critical hours of a post-incident investigation.

Additionally, the presence of Legal Attaches abroad has proven crucial in facilitating U.S. criminal extraterritorial jurisdiction. The U.S. government has successfully returned terrorists from other countries to stand trial for acts or planned acts of terrorism against U.S. citizens. There have been over 350 extraterritorial jurisdiction cases since legislation was enacted in 1984 and 1986.

One recent case involved the rendition of a subject from Pakistan wanted for the shooting deaths of two CIA employees in Langley, Virginia. The Legal Attache in Islamabad, Pakistan, coordinated extensive liaison with various foreign entities and U.S. intelligence agencies. Ultimately, the Legal Attache coordinated the delivery of the subject to an FBI arrest team in Pakistan. The Legal Attache's on-scene role was critical to the successful rendition of the subject to the United States, where he stood trial.

Domestic Preparedness Program

The Domestic Preparedness Program represents a major part of FBI liaison with state and local law enforcement agencies. The FBI coordinates efforts with other U.S. government agencies to train federal, state, and local emergency response personnel to deal with terrorist events involving weapons of mass destruction. Over the next 5 years, this initiative will support the training of emergency responders in approximately 120 cities, selected according to population density, upcoming large-scale security events, critical infrastructure, and geographic orientation. Workshops and seminars include 1 week of training curriculum that addresses various levels of instruction.

To further facilitate this major outreach effort, the FBI has established a National Domestic Preparedness Office (NDPO). The NDPO will serve as a clearinghouse for information on weapons of mass destruction training programs and will work to spur development of other national preparedness assistance initiatives.


Terrorism has become a worldwide problem, and a major threat to U.S. national security. FBI Director Louis J. Freeh has stated that law enforcement agencies must do everything within their power to prevent terrorist incidents from occurring.(6)

The FBI remains committed to its leadership in counterterrorism - a vital part in maintaining the security of the United States. The steps federal, state, and local law enforcement take today will strengthen the fight against terrorism in the 21st century. Effective means of identifying and preventing terrorist acts before they occur, enhanced communication and liaison with various levels of law enforcement, close cooperation with agencies of the federal government, timely dissemination of threat information, and effective analysis of trends and developments have better prepared the law enforcement community in addressing terrorist threats. With the continued cooperation of law enforcement at all levels, the FBI will continue to enhance its ability to protect the American people from the threat of international and domestic terrorism.

Terrorist Threat Warning System

Warning remains critical to the terrorism prevention effort. In 1989, the FBI developed its Terrorist Threat Warning System to transmit information and intelligence to other members of the law enforcement community. Acting as the lead federal law enforcement agency in combating terrorism in the United States, the FBI manages this system to ensure that vital information regarding terrorism reaches those in the U.S. law enforcement and counterterrorism communities. The warning system ensures the accurate, timely, and orderly dissemination of new information to those responsible for countering terrorist threats against individuals, property, and facilities within the United States. All federal government agencies and departments are reached through the warning system. If the threat information requires nationwide unclassified dissemination to all federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, the FBI can transmit such messages via the National Law Enforcement Telecommunications System, or NLETS.

The Awareness of National Security Issues and Response (ANSIR) Program is designed to provide unclassified national security threat and warning information to as many as 40,000 U.S. corporate security directors and executives, law enforcement personnel, and other government agencies. ANSIR represents the first initiative by the U.S. government to provide this type of information to individual U.S. corporations with critical technologies or sensitive economic information that foreign governments or organizations may target. Each FBI ANSIR coordinator meets regularly with industry leaders and security directors for updates on current national security issues.

The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act

Federal law enforcement efforts received a significant boost in the fight against terrorism with the passage of The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996.(7) This law, enacted and signed by President Clinton on April 24, 1996, includes several new measures aimed at countering terrorism. Highlights of the law include measures that enhance the powers of the federal government to deny visas to individuals belonging to groups designated as terrorist and that simplify the process for deporting aliens convicted of crimes. The new law also bans all U.S. aid to countries that provide assistance or military equipment to terrorist states, allows U.S. citizens to sue foreign nations in federal court for terrorist acts committed against U.S. nationals abroad, and authorizes approximately $1 billion over 4 years to strengthen federal law enforcement in the fight against terrorism. Additionally, the omnibus law broadened federal jurisdiction over crimes linked to terrorism and included new federal criminal statutes for participating in international terrorist activities in America.

A key provision of the law authorizes the secretary of state, in conjunction with the attorney general and the secretary of the treasury, to designate an organization as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO). By designating an FTO under the law, the United States seeks to hinder the fund-raising ability of terrorist organizations. The law allows law enforcement to seize the funds of designated terrorist organizations. Because FTO branches within the United States function primarily as fund-raising arms for the overseas parent organization, the law could have a significant impact on their terrorist activities within the United States.


1 Officially classified acts of terrorism include four attacks in 1993, no attacks in 1994, one attack in 1995, three attacks in 1996, and two attacks in 1997.

2 U.S. Department of Justice, FBI, Terrorism in the United States: 1996 (Washington, DC: FBI, 1998), 5.

3 U.S. Department of Justice, FBI, Terrorism in the United States: 1997 (Washington, DC: FBI, in press).

4 U.S. Department of Justice, FBI, Terrorism in the United States: 1982-1992 (Washington, DC: FBI, 1992), 14.

5 Ibid., 8.

6 "What Can Be Done About Terrorism?" USA Today Magazine, January 1996, 24.

7 Public Law 104-132.
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Title Annotation:includes related articles
Author:Lewis, John F., Jr.
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:Mar 1, 1999
Previous Article:The Bulletin Notes.
Next Article:Confronting terrorism on the state and local level.

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