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U.S. Government's Response to International Terrorism

U.S. Government's Response to International Terrorism

Statement of Louis J. Freeh, Director, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Before the Senate Judiciary Committee, United States Senate, Washington, D.C., September 3, 1998.

Good Morning Chairman Hatch and Members of the Judiciary Committee. I am pleased to be with you this morning as you explore the U.S. Government's response to International Terrorism.

I will focus on three specific areas this morning. First, I'd like to briefly discuss the threat posed by international terrorist groups.

Second, I will provide an overview of the response to international terrorism--focusing both on the countermeasures adopted by the U.S. Government and the efforts the FBI has implemented to respond to the terrorist threat.

Finally, I will discuss aspects of the government's counterterrorism efforts that can be strengthened in response to the continually evolving international terrorist threat we face.

The threat of international terrorism directed at American Nationals and U.S. National interests is following a general pattern we've identified in terrorist activity worldwide. Although the number of attacks directed at American interests remains comparatively low, the trend toward more large- scale incidents designed for maximum destruction, terror, and media impact actually places an increasing proportion of our population at risk. As you are aware, and as the bombing of the World Trade Center in February 1993, Khobar Towers in 1996, and the recent tragedies in East Africa demonstrate, this threat confronts Americans both here and abroad. America's democratic tradition and global presence make Americans a fast, and often all-to-easy, target for opportunists who are willing to shed the blood of innocents for their causes.

For many of us in this room, the threat of international terrorism was literally brought home by the bombing of the World Trade Center on February 26, 1993. Although the plotters failed in their attempt to topple one of the twin towers onto the other, an outcome which could have produced thousands of casualties, they succeeded in causing millions of dollars worth of damage in a blast that killed 6 people and wounded more than 1,000. Two years later, a Sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subways demonstrated the wide range of weapons available to contemporary terrorists. This attack resulted in the deaths of 12 commuters and injured thousands, including 2 Americans. It also raised the specter of a similar attack being carried out in the United States.

The November 1997 attack on foreign tourists in Luxor, Egypt, underscores the savagery in which radical terrorists can engage. Although Americans were not among the victims, there is an indication that the attack may have been carried out in an attempt to force the release of convicted terrorist Shaykh Omar Abdel Rahman from an American prison.

Shaykh Rahman was convicted in 1995 for masterminding a planned reign of terror in New York City. He and his followers had plotted to assassinate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in New York in 1994. The group also plotted to bomb several New York City landmarks, including the United Nations building and the Holland and Lincoln tunnels. Working together in a joint terrorism task force, the FBI and New York City Police Department foiled the plot. Ultimately, Shaykh Rahman and his co-conspirators were convicted of seditious conspiracy and other federal charges. Had their plot been carried out, it could have been the most lethal act of terrorism ever to occur on American soil.

As these cases illustrate, the threat of terrorism is real. And as the trend toward more destructive terrorist plots continues, the threat to Americans will increase. In fact, the random victimization that large-scale terrorist attacks produce plays to the insidious strengths of terrorists. They have learned that widespread and random victimization yields a greater degree of terror. Today, Americans engaged in activities as routine as working in an office building or commuting home during the evening rush hour can become innocent victims to the aims of international terrorists. Americans traveling and working overseas, unfortunately, may face heightened risks.


The current international terrorist threat can be divided into three general categories. Each poses a serious and distinct threat.

The first category, State-Sponsored Terrorism, violates every convention of International Law. State sponsors of terrorism include Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Cuba, and North Korea. Put simply, these nations view terrorism as a tool of foreign policy. In recent years, the terrorist activities of Cuba and North Korea have declined as their economies have deteriorated. However, the activities of the other states I mentioned continue, and in some cases, have intensified during the past several years.

The second category of international terrorist threat is made up of formalized terrorist organizations. These autonomous, generally transnational, organizations have their own infrastructures, personnel, financial arrangements, and training facilities. They are able to plan and mount terrorist campaigns on an international basis, and they actively support terrorist activities in the United States.

Extremist groups such as Lebanese Hizbollah, the Egyptian Al-Gama'Al-Islamiyya, and the Palestinian Hamas have supporters inside the United States who could be used to support an act of terrorism here. Hizbollah ranks among the most menacing of these groups. It has staged numerous anti-American attacks, including the 1983 truck bombings of the U.S. Embassy and the U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon and the bombing of the U.S. Embassy Annex there in 1984. Elements of this group were also responsible for the kidnapping and detention of U.S. hostages in Lebanon throughout the 1980s.

The third category of international terrorist threat stems from loosely affiliated extremists--characterized by rogue terrorists such as Ramzi Ahmed Yousef and international terrorist financier Usama Bin Laden. These loosely affiliated extremists may pose the most urgent threat to the United States because groups are often organized on an ad-hoc, temporary basis, making them difficult for law enforcement to infiltrate or track. They also can exploit the mobility that technology and the lack of a rigid organizational structure offers.

The FBI believes that the threat posed by international terrorists in each of these categories will continue for the foreseeable future. As attention focuses on Usama Bin Laden in the aftermath of the East African bombings, I believe it is important to remember that rogue terrorists such as Bin Laden represent just one type of threat that we face. It is imperative that we maintain our abilities to counter the broad range of threats that confronts us.


In the face of these threats, the United States has developed a strong response to international terrorism. Legislation and Executive Orders enacted over the past 15 years to expand the FBI's role in investigating international terrorism directed at American interests has strengthened the ability of the U.S. Government to protect its citizens. For this, Congress and the Executive Branch deserve the gratitude of the American people. We cannot accurately gauge how many potential strikes our strong stand against terrorism has discouraged. We can, however, measure with considerable satisfaction the success we have had in preventing plots detected in the planning stages and our success in investigating and prosecuting individuals who have carried out terrorist activities.

In the 15 years since President Reagan designated the FBI as the lead agency for countering terrorism in the United States, Congress and the Executive Branch have taken important steps to enhance the federal government's counterterrorism capabilities. The FBI's counterterrorism responsibilities were further expanded in 1984 and 1986, when Congress passed laws permitting the Bureau to exercise federal jurisdiction overseas when a U.S. National is murdered, assaulted, or taken hostage by terrorists, or when certain U.S. interests are attacked. Since the mid 1980s, the FBI has investigated more than 350 extraterritorial cases. Several ongoing extraterritorial investigations are currently among the FBI's most high profile cases, including our investigation into the 1996 bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, which killed 19 U.S. servicemen, and the August 7, 1998 bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed 12 Americans.

More recently, the Antiterrorism and Intelligence Authorization Acts and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 have broadened the FBI's ability to combat International Terrorism.

But the threat of international terrorism demands continued vigilance. Today's terrorists play by a different set of rules than those of years past. The terrorists of tomorrow will have an even more dizzying array of weapons and technologies available to them. As I will discuss in a moment, specific initiatives can help further strengthen our ability to counter the wide range of terrorist threats we face.

Terrorism is perpetrated by individuals with a strong commitment to the causes in which they believe. An action in one location can bring about a reaction somewhere else. The web-like nature of terrorism underscores the need for vigilance in counteracting terrorist groups. Unfortunately, American successes can spur reprisals. As the United States develops a stronger investigative and prosecutorial response to terrorism, we may witness more attempts at reprisal both here and abroad.

There are five traditional offensive ways through which the U.S. Government fights terrorism: diplomacy, sanctions, covert operations, military options, and law enforcement action. Some of the measures in place span more than one of these areas. For example, the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) of 1996 includes both diplomatic and law enforcement provisions.

Antiterrorism and effective Death Penalty Act of 1996

Enactment of the AEDPA will enhance the ability of the U.S. Government to respond to terrorist threats. As I mentioned, this act includes a wide range of counterterrorism provisions. For example, section 302 of the Act authorizes the Secretary of State, in conjunction with the Attorney General and Secretary of the Treasury, to designate as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs) groups that meet certain specified criteria. This designation means that funds raised in the United States by FTOs can be blocked by U.S. financial institutions.

The FBI provided information concerning various organizations to the State Department to assist it in compiling the list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. However, in keeping with the provisions of the Act, the FBI did not make recommendations concerning which groups should be designated as foreign terrorist organizations. The Act provides law enforcement with a potentially powerful tool. Among other things, it gives us a means to disrupt the ability of terrorist organizations to fund their destructive activities.

However, it would be overly optimistic to consider this Act a panacea to the problem of international terrorism. Financial investigations are by their nature personnel-intensive and time-consuming. Investigations into the financial operations of clandestine organizations on the shadowy fringes of transnational politics can be particularly complex. It will take time for the AEDPA to have significant impact on the 30 groups designated as foreign terrorist organizations. I encourage the Congress to give the AEDPA time to work. As with many measures of this type, its most powerful impact may stem from its deterrent effect. As investigators build successful cases and prosecutors develop sound prosecutorial strategies to enforce the provisions of the AEDPA, targeted groups may decide that fund-raising activities in the United States are not worth the risks.

In a recent test case, the FBI used the new law to disrupt terrorist operations by seizing assets. On July 23, 1998, the FBI arrested Fawzi Mustapha Assi, a procurement agent for a foreign terrorist organization, in Dearborn, Michigan. The FBI and U.S. Customs Service seized $124,000 in sensitive night vision and navigational devices. Assi was charged with Title 18, United States Code (U.S.C.) 2339(B) (Material Support to a Foreign Terrorist Organization), Title 22 U.S.C. 277(B) (Export of Materials on the Munitions Control List), Title 50 U.S.C. 1704(B) (International Emergency Economic Powers Act), Title 22 (Export Violation), and Title 15 CFR 774 (Export Violation).


During the past decade, the United States has successfully returned 13 suspected international terrorists to stand trial in the United States for acts or planned acts of terrorism against U.S. citizens. (This figure includes the renditions of two suspects in the August 7, 1998, bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Mohamed Rashed Daoud al-'Owhali and Mohamed Sadeek Odeh). Based on its policy of treating terrorists as criminals and applying the rule of law against them, the United States is one of the most visible and effective forces in identifying, locating, and apprehending terrorists on American soil and overseas.

The majority of terrorist renditions engaged in the United States Government have been accomplished with the cooperation of the foreign government in whose jurisdiction the terrorist suspect was located. The rendition process is governed by Presidential Decision Directive (PDD) 77, which sets explicit requirements for initiating this method for returning terrorists to stand trial in the United States. Despite these stringent requirements, in recent years, the FBI has successfully used renditions to bring international terrorists and criminals to justice in the United States. These include Ramzi Yousef, mastermind of the World Trade Center bombing, who was rendered to the United States from Pakistan on February 7, 1995; Mir Amil Kansi, who shot and killed two CIA employees in Langley, Virginia, in 1993, and who was rendered from Afghanistan to the United States on June 17, 1997; and Tsutomo Shirosaki, suspected Japanese Red Army member, who was rendered to the United States on September 20, 1996, more than 10 years after firing rockets at the U.S. Diplomatic Compound in Jakarta, Indonesia, on May 14, 1986. This last case demonstrates the FBI's long memory when it comes to terrorist acts committed against U.S. interests.

The FBI Counterterrorism Center

Established in 1995, the FBI Counterterrorism Center combats terrorism on three fronts: international terrorism operations both within the United States and in support of extraterritorial investigations, domestic terrorism operations, and countermeasures relating to both international and domestic terrorism.

The FBI Counterterrorism Center represents a new direction in the FBI's response to terrorism. Eighteen federal agencies maintain a regular presence in the center and participate in its daily operations. These agencies include the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the United States Secret Service, among others. This multi- agency arrangement provides an unprecedented opportunity for information sharing, warning, and real-time intelligence analysis.

Interagency Cooperation

This sense of cooperation also has led to other important changes. During the past several years, the FBI and CIA have developed a closer working relationship that has strengthened the ability of each agency to respond to terrorist threats and has improved the ability of the U.S. Government to respond to terrorist attacks that do occur.

An element of this cooperation is an ongoing exchange of personnel between the two agencies. Included among the CIA employees detailed to the FBI's National Security Division is a veteran CIA case officer who serves as the Deputy Section Chief for International Terrorism. Likewise, FBI Agents are detailed to the CIA, and several serve in comparable positions.

To further enhance operational cooperation, the FBI and CIA also hold Joint Counterterrorism Training Conferences. To date, four regional conferences have been held, and additional conferences are being planned.

Threat Warning

Because warning is critical to the prevention of terrorist acts, the FBI also has expanded the Terrorist Threat Warning System first implemented in 1989. The system now reaches all aspects of the law enforcement and intelligence communities. Currently, more than 45 federal agencies involved in the U.S. Government's counterterrorism effort receive information via secure teletype through this system. The messages also are transmitted to all 56 FBI Field Offices and 32 Foreign Liaison Posts.

If threat information requires nationwide unclassified dissemination to all federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, the FBI transmits messages via the National Law Enforcement Telecommunications System. In addition, the FBI disseminates threat information to security managers of thousands of U.S. commercial interests around the country through the Awareness of National Security Issues and Response (ANSIR) program. To date, the FBI has disseminated eight separate information cables via the Terrorist Threat Warning System, NLETS, and ANSIR concerning the bombings in East Africa and related events. These communications have helped keep the nation's law enforcement and security officials informed of the latest developments relating to potential threats to our nation's security.


The FBI's counterterrorism capabilities also have been enhanced by the expansion of our Legal Attache--or Legat Offices--around the world. These small offices can have a significant impact on the FBI's ability to track terrorist threats and bring investigative resources to bear on cases where quick response is critical. As I've mentioned, the FBI currently has 32 such Legat Offices. Many of these have opened within the past 3 years in areas of the world where identifiable threats to our national interests exist. We cannot escape the disquieting reality that in the late 20th century, crime and terrorism are carried out on an international scale. The law enforcement response must match the threat. By expanding our first line of defense, we improve the ability of the United States to prevent attacks and respond quickly to those that do occur. Given the nature of the evolving terrorist threat and the destructive capabilities now available to terrorists, the American people deserve nothing less.

The value of this "forward deployment" of FBI investigative resources was recently demonstrated in the immediate aftermath of the U.S. Embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam. FBI Agents from the Pretoria, South Africa, Legat were able to quickly deploy to Nairobi and establish an almost immediate FBI presence there that greatly enhanced the initial stages of the investigation. Likewise, an FBI Agent from the Cairo, Egypt, Legat was the first U.S. law enforcement official on the scene in Dar Es Salaam. Responding Legat personnel quickly established a cooperative working relationship with police authorities and assisted in establishing logistical support for the FBI Evidence Response Teams and other investigative personnel that subsequently arrived at both locations.

Terrorism is increasingly an indiscriminate crime. Those who bombed the U.S. Embassies in East Africa exhibited little concern about who their victims would be. Their primary interest seemed simply to ensure a high number of casualties. Likewise, Ramzi Yousef and his co- conspirators in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing gave little thought to their potential victims. Again, the nature of the attacks indicate that the primary goal was to cause as much destruction and as many casualties as possible.

How does a free society respond to such threats? That is a question that the Congress has addressed in years past and undoubtedly will continue to confront for years to come. During the past five years, the United States has made great strides in strengthening its counterterrorism capabilities. But, there is more to be done.

The Future

I would like to close by talking briefly about steps we can take to further strengthen our abilities to prevent and investigate terrorist activity.


One of the most important of these steps involves the FBI's Encryption Initiative. Communication is central to any collaborative effort-- including criminal conspiracies. Like most criminals, terrorists are naturally reluctant to put the details of their plots down on paper. Thus, they generally depend on oral or electronic communication to formulate the details of their terrorist activities.

For this reason, the law enforcement community is very concerned about the serious threat posed by the proliferation of encryption technology. Current standards do not allow for law enforcement access or the timely decryption of critical evidence obtained through lawful electronic surveillance or search and seizures.

The FBI supports a balanced encryption policy that satisfies Fourth Amendment concerns for privacy, the commercial needs of industry for robust encryption, and the government's public safety and national security needs.

The encryption capabilities available to criminals and terrorists today effectively thwart the ability of law enforcement agencies to implement the court-ordered surveillance techniques that have helped put some of the nation's most dangerous offenders behind bars. Whether a state police department is racing the clock to find a kidnapped child or the FBI is attempting to track and prevent the destructive ambitions of an international terrorist group, the need for timely access to legally obtained electronic surveillance cannot be overstated.

Weapons of Mass Destruction

Another area of vital interest to the FBI is the proliferation of chemical, biological, and nuclear materials within the criminal and terrorist communities. These weapons of mass destruction represent perhaps the most serious potential threat facing the United States today. In response to this threat, the FBI has significantly expanded its investigative capabilities in this area.

Prior to the Oklahoma City and World Trade Center bombings, the FBI had dedicated a very small staff to investigations of WMD terrorism. Those two investigations, which required thousands of FBI Agent and support personnel, prompted the Attorney General to authorize an increase in the number of Field Agents dedicated to the WMD Program by 175. To coordinate the activities of these personnel, the FBI has created two WMD Units at FBI Headquarters. One unit addresses operations, cases, and threats, which have tripled in 1997 over 1996 figures--in 1997, the FBI investigated over 100 WMD cases. The other unit implements our Countermeasures Program, which coordinates exercises, deployments, and the first responder training initiatives.

A successful WMD terrorist attack could prove catastrophic, and would require a unified response from various agencies at the federal, state, and local levels. To improve response capabilities on a national scale, the FBI is working closely with five other federal agencies--the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, the Public Health Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency--that make up the nucleus of the response to WMD incidents. The FBI also maintains extensive liaison with members of the intelligence community, including the CIA, the National Security Agency, and others involved in WMD and counterproliferation matters.

Joint Terrorism Task Forces

Cooperation among law enforcement agencies at all levels represents an important component of a comprehensive response to terrorism. This cooperation assumes its most tangible operational form in the Joint Terrorism Task Forces that exist in 16 cities across the nation. These task forces are particularly well-suited to responding to international terrorism because they combine the international investigative resources of the FBI with the street-level expertise of local law enforcement agencies. This cop- to-cop cooperation has proven highly successful in preventing several potential terrorist attacks. Perhaps the most notable cases have come from New York City, where the city's Joint Terrorism Task Force has been instrumental in thwarting two high-profile international terrorism plots--the series of bombings planned by Shaykh Rahman in 1993 and the July 1997 attempted bombing of the New York City subway.

Not only were these plots prevented, but today, the conspirators who planned them sit in federal prisons thanks, in large part, to the comprehensive investigative work performed by the Joint Terrorism Task Force.

Given the success of the Joint Terrorism Task Force concept, the FBI plans to develop additional task forces in cities around the country. By integrating the investigative abilities of the FBI and local law enforcement agencies these task forces represent an effective response to the threats posed to individual American communities by international terrorists.

Expansion of FBI Legats

Likewise, the expansion of the number of FBI Legats around the world has enhanced the ability of the FBI to prevent, respond to, and investigate terrorist acts committed by international terrorists against U.S. interests worldwide. As evidenced by developments in the Embassy bombing cases in East Africa, the ability to bring investigative resources to bear quickly in the aftermath of a terrorist act can have significant impact on our ability to identify those responsible. I encourage Congress to support our efforts to counter the international terrorist threat by continuing to support expansion of our Legat Program.


To adequately understand the international terrorist threat currently facing the United States, we must appreciate the unique position America occupies in the world today. As the sole super power, the policies of the United States are viewed with intense interest by nations and individuals around the world. To individuals and groups who feel powerless to effect their own destinies through legal means, the breadth of influence and power wielded by the United States represents a stunning contrast--and an attractive target for their frustrations.

The FBI has developed a broad-based response to the many external threats that confront the United States today. Due to the measures I've discussed and several other initiatives, we are much better prepared to address the international terrorist threat than we were just a few years ago. But as the bombings of our Embassies in Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam demonstrate with brutal clarity, the United States confronts determined and very capable enemies who will resort to terrorism against innocent victims to achieve their goals. The United States must continue to move toward strengthening its capabilities to confront this threat. The FBI welcomes the commitment of the Judiciary Committee to this objective and looks forward to cooperating with it to further enhance our response to international terrorism.


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Directeur de la publication : Joël-François Dumont
Comité de rédaction : Jacques de Lestapis, Hugues Dumont, François de Vries (Bruxelles), Hans-Ulrich Helfer (Suisse), Michael Hellerforth (Allemagne).
Comité militaire : VAE Guy Labouérie (†), GAA François Mermet (2S), CF Patrice Théry (Asie).