A Conversation with Robert S. Mueller III

Friday, September 28, 2007

Two weeks ago, not far from here, bells tolled at Ground Zero.  We commemorated the sixth anniversary of the September 11th attacks.  And we marked the passage of another year without a terrorist attack on American soil. 

It is important to pause and reflect on how we reached this milestone, so that we can better understand what we must do to reach another one.  This task grows more complicated with every passing year.

            In the wake of the September 11th attacks, the focus of the nation was crystallized.  Our objective was clear:  We knew who, and where, our enemies were, and we had to go after them — from their training camps to their finances to their leaders.  In many ways, the solution was straightforward.  This is no longer the case.

            Six years later, the fight against terrorism has evolved in ways both subtle and dramatic.  It is far from over.  The terrorist threats we face have changed, but they have not diminished. 

And so today, I’d like to re-crystallize our understanding of those threats by giving you my perspective on where we are now, and where the FBI needs to go in order to defeat them. 

* * *

In the past, it was said that al Qaeda’s sanctuary in Afghanistan had been largely disrupted, its finances damaged, its communications diminished, and its hierarchy diffused. 

Today, the horizon looks somewhat different. Al Qaeda is not an organization that will go quietly into the night.  Just as the FBI has changed and developed new tactics to confront al Qaeda’s asymmetrical warfare, al Qaeda has also adapted.  We now confront a three-tiered threat.

At the top is the traditional al Qaeda organization.  As reported in the National Intelligence Estimate, al Qaeda has found new sanctuaries in the ungoverned spaces, tribal areas, and frontier provinces ofPakistan.  As a result, al Qaeda is regenerating its capability to attack. 

From al Qaeda’s perspective, the destruction of their camps in Afghanistan, the freezing of their finances, and the elimination of many top leaders were setbacks, but not death blows.  Theirs is a lifetime mission, and they will continue to make every attempt to regain strength.

The middle layer is perhaps the most complex.  We are finding small groups who have some ties to an established terrorist organization. They may even receive some amount of training or funding from it, but they are largely self-directed.  Think of them as al Qaeda franchises.

Such groups are a hybrid of homegrown radicals and more sophisticated plotters, and are harder to track.  And this trend continues.  The arrests earlier this month of small groups in Denmark and Germany are good examples.

The third layer of the threat comes from self-radicalized, homegrown extremists.  They have no formal affiliation with al Qaeda, but they are inspired by its message of violence. 

The information age means you don’t need training camps to become a terrorist; all you need is an Internet connection.  The web is terrorism’s new frontier, offering both persuasive inspiration and practical instruction. 

We are not focused on just one of those threats, but all three simultaneously.  WhenAmerica’s hammer fell on al Qaeda, al Qaeda broke into a hundred pieces.  Some of our adversaries were stopped; but others spread.  The network is now diffuse.  We have persistent links to places such as East Africa.  And we now also have links in areas such as North Africa and the Sahel.  These extremists are attracted to the al Qaeda brand-name and ideology, and openly affiliate themselves with al Qaeda.  “Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb” is a recent example.

Our adversaries are evolving, and so are their tactics.  We must anticipate that terrorists will try to obtain Weapons of Mass Destruction, but also that they will turn cars into bombs and drive them into airports.  We must prevent extremists from building suicide vests, but must also stop them from gunning down soldiers at Fort Dix, or blowing up a pipeline at JFK.

* * *

Our current landscape remains treacherous.  So what do we do?  There is no simple answer.  Dozens of papers and books have been written about potential solutions — many of them by you.

 One critical aspect of our response is intelligence, especially intelligence that we gather from sources and wires.  Our primary goal is the same as it has always been: to find out what terrorists are planning by intercepting their communications and working with human sources.

This has become more difficult due to advances in technology, from untraceable cell phones to undetectable online communications.  We need our laws to be as modern as our technology so that we can do our jobs, while always respecting the civil liberties we are sworn to protect. 


We have dramatically improved our recruitment and use of human sources since 2001.  Human sources have provided us with valuable information, and the need for these assets continues to grow.  But we are witnessing the evolution of terrorist cells that are increasingly immune to traditional intelligence collection.  We need stronger weapons to find and neutralize them.

We in the FBI believe the most effective of these weapons is our partnerships.  Not just here within the United States, but partnerships that stretch across the globe, from a Joint Terrorism Task Force inAlbanyto a battlefield in Afghanistan.

            Combating terrorism is not a matter of applying either military strength or intelligence assets or law enforcement tools.  The old dichotomies between law enforcement and intelligence, and between law enforcement and the military, no longer apply.  Combating terrorism requires a combination of all these resources, and not just within our borders.  Threats can originate from anywhere on the map.  And they often overlap the jurisdictions of militaries, intelligence services, and law enforcement agencies. 

Let me give you a real-life example of how our interests — and our cases — are intertwined.  

In April 2005, two college students from Atlanta allegedly traveled toWashington, D.C., to record videos of potential targets, including the Capitol and the World Bank headquarters.  One of them subsequently traveled to Pakistan to seek terrorist training. 

The other traveled toBangladeshto continue his terrorism-related activities.  They have since been arrested and indicted on charges of conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists.  That’s one thread.

Six months later, a Swedish national and a Danish man were arrested inBosnia.  They were found with plastic explosives and were preparing to bomb targets inEurope . That’s our second thread.

And in June 2006, Canadian officials arrested 17 individuals, who were part of a homegrown cell known as the “Toronto 17.” This group had acquired bomb-making materials and planned to attack a number of targets in Canada.  That’s the final thread.

Three different cases, spanning at least seven countries.  These individuals seemed unrelated — but they were not.  At the center of this web was a figure that seemed to exist only in cyberspace.  He called himself “Irhabi 007.” Translated, this means “Terrorist 007.”

This individual facilitated communications among the groups.  He then posted thousands of files online, from videotaped beheadings to detailed manuals for constructing car bombs and suicide vests.  He taught not just the ideology, but the technology of terrorism.

Who was this terrorist facilitator?  One might think he was a veteran of the Afghan training camps, or a lieutenant to Osama bin Laden.  Instead, a phone number found in the safe house used by the Bosnian terrorists led to a basement apartment in London .  There, British authorities found Irhabi 007.  His real name was Younis Tsouli.  He was then a 22-year-old student.  He is now a guest of Belmarsh Prison in the U.K.

While examining his computer, authorities discovered the surveillance videos of the Washington targets that had been filmed by the two subjects from Atlanta.  Investigators also found that Tsouli had been in steady communication with the plotters inCanada , Denmark , Bosnia , and the United States.  

He used his computer skills to develop a global virtual network for terrorists and their supporters.  And it took a global network of law enforcement and intelligence agencies to unravel these disparate plots and bring those responsible to justice.

Officials from the United States toBritain, from Denmark to Canada, and from Bosnia to Bangladesh all coordinated our respective investigations.  We made joint decisions as to when to move in and disrupt the plots, so as to protect the integrity of each other’s operations.

This is the future of counterterrorism.  We are seeking terrorist leaders in foreign bases, and also lone actors in suburban basements, and also small but sophisticated groups who want to carry out terrorist attacks.  The threat exists not only in the mountains of Pakistan, but also in the shadows of the Internet.

No one agency or country can do it alone.  And this is where the FBI can play a critical role.  Our responsibilities place us at the intersection of the military, intelligence, and law enforcement communities.

            For example, the FBI has many employees currently stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan.  They work side-by-side with the military on the front lines.  They work as a team to interview detainees, search safe houses, collect biometric evidence, analyze explosive devices, and trace terrorist financing.

            We are also fully integrated in the Intelligence Community, under the Director of National Intelligence.  We work shoulder-to-shoulder with the CIA and the Department of Homeland Security. 

And just as important, we share information on a daily basis with our intelligence counterparts on every continent, from MI5 in Britain to the Mabahith inSaudi Arabia.  The Saudis have been particularly strong partners in addressing terrorism and terrorism financing in the Kingdom and around the world.

We have 56 field offices throughout the United States, and we work closely with our 800 thousand state and local law enforcement partners.  But we also have 60 offices in cities around the world.  Our agents and analysts in these Legal Attaché offices work closely with their foreign counterparts, acting as liaisons, sharing intelligence, and providing investigative support.

The intelligence we need to prevent a terrorist attack here in New York might well come from a source in the Netherlands or a fragment of a note found in Najaf.  The FBI’s operational responsibilities span the realms of America ’s law enforcement, intelligence, and military operations— and extend across the globe.  And so our goal is to be an effective bridge.  Our mission is to serve all our partners, so that together, we may protect all our citizens.

* * *

As members of the Council on Foreign Relations, you have long understood that the answers to America’s most pressing concerns would lie in great part outside our borders. The incorporating charter of the Council describes your mission this way: “to afford a continuous conference on international questions affecting the United States.” 

For more than 85 years, the Council has done just that.  It has laid the groundwork for critical public discourse.  And it has provided a forum for the best minds to come together and discuss the most important foreign policy issues facingAmerica.  When the Council was established back in 1921, the FBI had only been in existence for 13 years.  No one could have imagined the changes that lay ahead, or the grave threats that we would face in the next century. 

Today, those threats emanate from both inside and outside our borders.  And combating them defies traditional metrics of war.  We like to measure progress: How many terrorists have we caught?  How many plots have we disrupted?  How much money have we frozen?

But it is difficult to measure progress in counterterrorism.  We cannot quantify freedoms protected and lives saved. We cannot gauge the absence of fear.  We cannot measure the lack of damage — other than saying, “None of our cities was attacked; none of our citizens was harmed; none of our security was penetrated today.”

Yet this is our definition of success, however imperfect.  Over the past six years, we have made substantial progress against our enemies.  But we cannot allow ourselves to become complacent.  While we guard against terrorism every day, we must recognize that we may be attacked again.  Terrorists have attacked other nations.  And they still want to attack us. 

 We are safer.  But we are still not safe.  And yet our path is clear.

            President Woodrow Wilson once said, “The history of liberty is a history of resistance.” 

Weare on the side of liberty.  And so we will continue to resist oppression, and guarantee safety. We will continue to resist tyranny, and secure justice.  We will continue to resist terrorism, and defend liberty.

The struggle against terrorism will not end in a single, decisive battle.  It may persist for generations, and we may have setbacks along the way. It will demand more than technology and intelligence and even partnerships.  It will demand the continued resolve and resistance of the American people and the FBI.

This struggle will be hard fought, and hard won — but it will be won.  And we in the FBI will do everything in our power to continue to write the history of liberty.

Top Stories on CFR

South Korea

In seventy years, the U.S.-South Korea alliance has evolved from a patron-client relationship to a global comprehensive strategic alliance.


Far-right candidate Geert Wilders emerged as the biggest political force in Dutch politics in November’s general elections. What does his win mean for the Netherlands and Europe?


Myanmar's military has recently suffered a string of defeats—but the U.S. government seems unprepared to face the country's potential state collapse.