20 Years Since the September 11 Attacks: Reflections from a Counterterrorism Investigator

The Past

It has been twenty years since the attacks of September 11. That day 2,977 innocent lives were lost, and another 6,000 people were injured. As of late 2019, it was reported that 1,101 or 40% of victim’s remains from the World Trade Center have yet to be positively identified.  

On September 11th, I reported to my assignment with the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) organized crime task force. The task force was wrapping up a successful yearlong Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) investigation that brought to justice those responsible for the largest unsolved armor car robbery in U.S. history worth US$10.2 million. Amid the celebratory pat on the backs and the mundane work that follows the conclusion of a major criminal investigation, the unthinkable happened. The task force sat in the FBI conference room and watched a foreign enemy kill thousands of U.S citizens on U.S. soil. Our ad hoc organized crime task force became the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF).

I spent roughly the next 13 years of my professional law enforcement career as an FBI JTTF Officer. I worked primarily on foreign terrorist organizations that self-identified with Sunni Islam. As a result, I had to change the only policing paradigm I was familiar with, reactive to proactive. Prevention supplanted arrests, and actionable intelligence took priority over criminal prosecution. I embraced the change and spent those years working on national security investigations utilizing the most sensitive investigative techniques authorized by law; I became a counterterrorism investigator. However, as a counterterrorism investigator, I learned that working knowledge of the Attorney General’s Guidelines for National Security Investigations and the FBI’s Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide was a technical solution to a holistic problem.  

Terrorism, one form of targeted violence, requires an adaptive solution that involves changes in values, beliefs, roles, relationships and approaches to work. I needed to combine investigative techniques and skills with cultural competence and integrated system responses. I saw the importance and the cross-sector applicability of Behavioral Threat Assessment and Management (BTAM) as the primary methodology for prevention. The motives of criminal greed and money were replaced with biopsychosocial risk factors that enabled mobilization to a violent extremist narrative. 

I also learned that adaptive solutions require a change in numerous places, including across organizational boundaries. During my tenure with the JTTF, which ended in 2014, I saw the terror threat evolve and evolve again. Religious, revolutionary and nihilist terror landscapes became dominated by lone actors with frustrated minds and unmet psychological needs. What became evident was that counterterrorism strategies did not evolve as quickly as the terror strategies that threatened world security. As a result, working to construct systemwide responses that involved crossing public safety organizational boundaries proved more elusive than it should be. On the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, we must ask ourselves, have we embraced a fully adaptive solution to prevent another attack? 

The Present

Violent extremism from the left, right and in the name of faith continues to threaten domestic and world security. According to the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) database, between 2002 and 2019, there have been over 500 terrorist incidents in the U.S. That is an average of 29 attacks per year or nearly 2.5 attacks a month. So again, I ask, are we more capable now than we were 20 years ago to prevent acts of terror on U.S. soil?  

While the data presents a grim picture, all is not lost. Near the end of my career, I saw an openness to adopt multidisciplinary prevention methods. The FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit 1 was formed to support prevention, and organizations such as the Association of Threat Assessment Professionals (ATAP) gained in membership and influence. The work of ATAP, the FBI, the United States Secret Service, operational and forensic psychologists, and threat assessment professionals has pushed the paradigm pendulum in the right direction; however, collectively, we remain reluctant to embrace adaptive solutions. This fact is evidenced by the stalled congressional effort to develop a national strategy to prevent targeted violence through behavioral threat assessment and management. Bill H.R. 838 – Threat Assessment, Prevention, and Safety (TAPS) Act of 2019 was introduced to the House of Representatives on January 29, 2019 and was referred to the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security on March 25, 2019.  The TAPS Act remains stalled in committee despite bipartisan support. 

The Future 

A change in values, beliefs, roles, relationships and approaches to the problem involves expanded efforts toward educating policymakers at all levels on the value of behavioral threat assessment and management methodologies. Awareness of the benefits of BTAM and clarity on BTAM philosophies and assessment principles will dispel misconceptions commonly used to devalue BTAM as the most promising prevention model. 

I have not abandoned my dedication to protecting the public, I have simply joined another task force of dedicated public safety professionals. Through my work with AT-RISK International and ATAP, I am involved in helping schools, businesses, communities, private and public safety organizations see the value of adaptive solutions through violence prevention gap analysis, BTAM training and programmatic builds that embrace multidisciplinary holistic responses to threats. One case at a time, one more violent act prevented and another potentially violent perpetrator restored to wellness is the way we prevent the next act of targeted violence.