Why you should care
The world of near-disasters, as described by those who watched them unfold.
Just three days before the eighth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, authorities intercepted an email between an American terrorist in Aurora, Colorado, and an al-Qaida courier — asking for a recipe requiring “flour and oil.” It was a code: blueprints for a bomb.
Hours later, anti-terrorism officials were tracking the suspect’s car as he barreled toward New York City at 90 miles per hour. They knew where he was and even set up a police checkpoint over the George Washington Bridge to try to stop him from entering the Big Apple. But bomb-sniffing dogs didn’t catch a whiff of the still-to-be-completed explosive. In the ensuing hours, local police, the FBI and others watched nervously as the terrorist met with two compatriots, planning to send suicide bombers into the New York subway system and potentially kill hundreds of people.
Much of what goes into intelligence work happens behind the scenes, out of sight of the average person. But there are countless cases being tracked at any time, at least 25,000 general threats and as many as 6,000 “open” cases, which rise to a higher level of scrutiny. When ISIS was at its height between 2014 and 2016, there could be as many as two cases a week where investigators made arrests or stepped in to stop an attack, says Steve Hersem, a two-decade FBI veteran. “There isn’t a terrorist or jihadist or Nazi behind every tree, that’s not true. But it’s important to refresh the American people’s memory or recollection that the threat is genuine,” he says.
We could be living in a more dangerous world because of American politics’ recent failings in keeping secrets.
In the NYC backpack bombing mentioned above, authorities tracked the main culprit for days, at one point even wheeling his parked car off secretly, making a digital copy of his laptop hard drive and replacing it to its original location without a single alarm bell going off. “The clock is ticking,” says Don Borelli, a former lead special agent with the New York Joint Terrorism Task Force, as he describes the incident on the Netflix documentary series Terrorism Close Calls. “This is like, you know a real-life episode of 24, and you’re starring in it.”
Even though agents had all the proof they needed to arrest him, they had to hold off … because they needed to track him to his colleagues, creating a harrowing window of watch-and-wait that only ended after a high-speed car chase through the streets of Queens.
There are other wild scenarios, the details of which are only made clear in subsequent court hearings and later declassified documents. In one case, Israeli forces used a love triangle to track down and kill top Hamas terrorists. In another, a 14-year-old in England who threatened to behead his teachers was discovered to be orchestrating an attack against Australian police officers on the country’s national remembrance holiday, Anzac Day – and was doing so with the help of his 24,000 jihadi-inspired Twitter followers.
There are often common threads to these under-covered incidents. They show the increasing danger of those local terrorists radicalized via the internet by groups like ISIS and al-Qaida based thousands of miles away. America lacks “a really well-developed, proven warning system” for homegrown terrorists, “the kind of person who shows up in Florida or New Jersey and drives a truck into a crowd,” explains John McLaughlin, the former acting director of the CIA. Perhaps the only way to suss out every terror incident would be to greatly expand intelligence gathering rights by groups like the National Security Agency, a proposition McLaughlin admits “we wouldn’t be able to sustain politically.” In a 2014-2015 Pew Research poll conducted since whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed the massive scope of NSA spying, 57 percent of respondents said it was unacceptable for the government to monitor the communications of citizens.
Information sharing also plays a key role in stopping terrorists. In one case, Saudi Arabian intelligence helped seize printer cartridge bombs that were being carried on UPS and FedEx planes before they could wreak havoc. While many repeats of incidents potentially on the scale of 9/11 have been thwarted, we could be living in a more dangerous world because of American politics’ recent failings in keeping secrets. Leaks happen in every presidential administration, but they have proliferated noticeably under President Donald Trump. His political attacks on the intelligence community have encouraged members of Congress to wage ideological wars with military secrets. When Republican chair Devin Nunes and Democrat Adam Schiff released dueling memos about FBI operations in February, experts worried it would make authorities and foreign nations less willing to share information with American lawmakers and agencies in the future.
“I don’t want to address that because there is already a tenuous relationship between the FBI and this administration,” Hersem says, but adds that “in general … it hurts our ability to get between terrorists and innocent people.”
Sometimes no amount of intelligence sharing is enough. “Occasionally, even in our highly developed system, someone can get through,” McLaughlin warns. In the case of a Northwest Airlines flight that almost blew up over Detroit, there were “10 to 12 reports” that could have tipped authorities off. But with a potential Times Square bombing, there was no smoking gun — only the smoking van that a vendor noticed and called the police about. When the stakes are so high, sometimes it truly is better to be lucky than good.