Kyle Shideler, Director and Senior Analyst for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism at the Center for Security Policy, spoke to a March 14 Middle East Forum Webinar (video) about the politicized bureaucracy of federal law enforcement agencies in counterterrorism cases. After diagnosing the problem, he proposed solutions.
Shideler said federal law enforcement did not always follow the "failed model" we see today. After 9/11, the FBI was effective in handling terrorism cases and was guided by the 9/11 Commission Report, which provided information about the threat from al-Qaeda and the supporting role in jihadist terrorism played by such groups as the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat-e-Islami. The FBI thwarted many terrorist attempts, but according to Shideler, "the high-water mark" for the agency was its counterterrorism success in the Holy Land Foundation case, in which the fundraisers of a U.S. charity were found guilty of providing material support to Hamas, a U.S.-designated terror organization. Following the trial, the bureau severed formal contact with the Council for American Islamic Relations (CAIR), "a Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas-linked, Islamist lobby group in the United States," identified in the trial as an unindicted co-conspirator.
During Obama's terms the FBI increasingly denied any terrorist motive for attacks that were "obviously" jihadist-motivated.
This effectiveness waned significantly in early 2009 during the transition from the Bush to the Obama administrations, Shideler said. "We start to see a really considerable drift in the way that ... all federal law enforcement starts to handle terrorism." Subsequently, there was a rise in "known wolf attacks," those committed by terrorists previously identified by law enforcement. There was also a "growing trend of the FBI effectively denying" that what were "obviously" jihadist-motivated attacks were acts of terrorism.
Shideler gave several examples of the FBI's failure to thwart jihadi attacks between 2009 – 2016, including:
2009: The FBI interviewed Carlos Bledsoe, a.k.a. Adbulhakim Mujaid Muhammad, upon his return from a known al-Qaeda recruitment school in Yemen, but then "dropped the case" and "lost interest in him." Bledsoe then attacked a military recruiting station in Little Rock, Arkansas, killing one and wounding another. The FBI and the Department of Justice (DOJ) refused to prosecute Bledsoe on terrorism charges, even though he identified himself as an al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadist, and he was charged in state court.
2011: Nidal Hasan, a commissioned U.S. Army officer, killed thirteen people in Fort Hood, Texas. The FBI knew prior to the attack that Hasan had been in contact with al-Qaeda ideologue Anwar al-Awlaki, and had even presented a PowerPoint presentation to U.S. military members describing Sharia as the motivation for jihadi attacks. Yet, the FBI classified the attack as "workplace violence."
2015: Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez killed four Marines and wounded a police officer at a recruiting station in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He had attended a Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated mosque, and the media reported that he and his father might have been on a "terrorism watch list" prior to the attack. Nonetheless, the DOJ told the victims' families afterward that "the motive ... may never be known."
2016: Omar Mateen massacred forty-nine people at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. The FBI, which had engaged Mateen's father as an FBI informant, released the killers' partially edited 911 call to omit his "oath of allegiance to the Islamic State" on the recording. The media then promoted the attack as a "homophobic hate crime" instead of a jihadi terror attack.
Shideler: Countering Violent Extremism "treats terrorism as an attitude or personality trait unconnected to ideology."
The consequences from these failures reverberate today. Instead of investigating a Syrian immigrant's [Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa] 2021 attack on a kosher grocery store in Boulder, Colorado, as terrorism, law enforcement is treating it as a "mental health issue." Moreover, such federal failures are bipartisan: "It's not just a political problem, but it's clearly a bureaucratic problem," Shideler said, adding that a principal weakness stems from federal law enforcement's embrace of the "Countering Violent Extremism" (CVE) program instituted in 2016 under the Obama administration. CVE, he said, "eliminates the traditional understanding of terrorism as politically motivated and replaces it with a psychological model of extremism, which treats terrorism as an attitude or personality trait unconnected to ideology."
Federal law enforcement's handling of terrorism has "devolved" under the Biden administration's counterterrorism strategy, said Shideler. It conflates hate crimes, terrorism, and other violent crimes, when in fact the motivations and means of detecting and preventing them differ. Thus, the CVE approach obfuscates rather than illuminates jihadists' motives.
Federal law enforcement's failure to recognize jihadi terrorism has spread to its handling of left-wing violence by antifa and Black Lives Matter.
The failure of federal law enforcement agencies to recognize jihadi terrorism has spread to the FBI's and DOJ's handling of politically motivated left-wing violence perpetrated by groups such as antifa and Black Lives Matter. Shideler said that anarchists and Marxist groups who torch "police officers and courthouses" are clearly guilty of "federal felony arson [that] is a terrorism predicate [a crime that is a component of a larger crime] at the federal level." Proving a political motive would allow prosecutors to level terrorism charges against the groups committing these violent acts, but the FBI and the DOJ do not bring "those kinds of cases."
As a result of federal law enforcement's inaction, the public has lost trust in government institutions because they give the "appearance" of being politically motivated by ignoring criminal acts. A Rasmussen poll found that two-thirds of Republicans and "almost a third" of Democrats agree that the FBI is "heavily politicized" and is acting as President Biden's "gestapo." A significant example was the DOJ's unleashing of the FBI on parental "protests at school boards."
Shideler recommends that state governments, while "certainly [liaising] with the feds," "take a far more active role investigating and prosecuting terrorism offenses." Terrorism statutes that exist in thirty-five states are "comparable to existing federal law. That means it requires a violent criminal act to serve as a predicate crime." States with successful terrorism laws include Arizona, where terrorism statues are "tougher" than the federal laws. In New York State, authorities successfully brought terrorism charges against a suspect who "targeted multiple synagogues." But, Shideler said, there are numerous instances where federal agents are opting to "hand over their case to state prosecutors" in states with weaker terrorism laws rather than deal with the hurdles of "federal bureaucracy."
Yet state and local law enforcement cannot adequately deal with terror threats because they must go through the Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTFs), "which are led by the FBI." JTTF expanded greatly after 9/11 to build "good relationships" and greater coordination between local, state, and federal law enforcement. Unfortunately, they have resulted in "major distrust between the FBI and local law enforcement" because the latter was either restricted in intelligence sharing by non-disclosure agreements, or the JTTF's were "unwilling to share information" with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) fusion centers.
Because the FBI is "manifestly failing" in its duties, states should develop their own processes to deal with terrorism.
Shideler argues that because the FBI is "manifestly failing" in its duties, states should enforce their own laws against terrorism and "start developing their own processes." This approached worked well after 9/11 when the New York Police Department (NYPD) issued its Shield report on homegrown radicalization, which details, Shideler said, how "individuals are radicalized to become jihadists." The NYPD instituted additional steps to generate leads for the global scourge of terrorism, going as far as to embed "local police officers in foreign city police departments."
States can strengthen their terror statutes by passing Andy's Law. Named for Private Andy Long, the terror victim killed by Bledsoe in the Little Rock, Arkansas attack, the law "allows for both states and terrorism victims to file suit, to target the assets both of individuals who conduct terror attacks or to file suit against entities who provided material support" for attempted or realized terror attacks. Adopted by six states, the law encourages civil attorneys to "take these suits up" and apply pressure on groups that "provide material support for terrorism." Shideler advises states lacking a "material support for terrorism statute" to update their laws to "mirror" those at the federal level.
Shideler worries that soon "we are going to see convicted terrorists released from prison in record numbers" when those convicted shortly after 9/11 have served their sentences. He encourages states to "consider adopting a terrorist offender registry for convicted terrorists" modeled on the sex offenders' registry by requiring convicted terrorists to "notify local law enforcement when they move to a new jurisdiction." By identifying "recidivous terrorists," law enforcement could preempt terror attacks in the U.S.
Reforming the FBI is difficult because its DC field office is politicized, bureaucratized, and powerful.
Reforming the FBI to prevent future failures is difficult because the "FBI's structure gives a great deal of power to the Washington field office," which is "deeply bureaucratic." Field agents across the U.S. who must "do tours" through the D.C. office are constrained by the "politicization" of its bureaucrats, who can retard an agents' promotion. Shideler advocates "structural changes" in the FBI since its leadership too often ignores congressional oversight. Reducing the bureaucratic stranglehold of the D.C. office requires Senate confirmation of "local FBI field office supervisors." Shideler believes these reforms are imperative to restore the citizenry's trust in federal law enforcement.
Absent extensive changes to federal law enforcement, state and local agencies are "not going to be able to rely on anybody else" and will have to do the work themselves. Shideler's recommendations offer "alternatives to the failed [federal] model" to get "state and local law enforcement engaged in the fight against terrorism."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.