INDIVIDUALS INSPIRED by the Islamic State, who are hard to detect and scattered across the world, are “not only the future but the now of terrorism”, Andrew McCabe, Deputy Director of the FBI, has warned in an exclusive interview to The Indian Express. McCabe, the senior-most civil servant in the FBI and former head of its counter-terrorism division, called for greater cooperation from information technology firms, and more international cooperation, to address the growing threat.
“It’s kind of the crowd-sourcing of terrorism. It happened in the United Kingdom last week, I guess you have experiences along those lines in India as well, it’s happening in the United States,” said McCabe. “We are seeing it because the Islamic State has been so adept, and distributing radical propaganda on the Internet with an effectiveness and a professionalism that we have never seen before,” he said.
“This has brought legions of new supporters and adherents to their cause, some of whom are able to travel to Syria and Iraq, but others who are consuming that propaganda and individually affiliate themselves with the ideology, the practice, the violence — whatever draws them in. These folk act where they are”.
Even though older, more structured organisations like al-Qaeda continue to pose a potent threat, McCabe argued that law-enforcement agencies had succeeded in making large-scale plots harder to execute. “This is because as they have evolved, so have we. In the intelligence and law-enforcement fields, we are cooperating with each other better across national boundaries. We exchange information more rapidly and effectively, and all these things help us get ahead of these so-called spectacular attacks,” he said.
“It doesn’t mean that our adversaries have given up on spectacular attacks. We know that al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the other major groups have an enduring interest in attacking democracies across the world,” he said.
Key among the FBI’s concerns, McCabe said, was terrorists “going dark” — or using encrypted communications and other online secrecy tools to mask their communications and activities. In spite of the FBI’s ability to secure access to an iPhone 5c used by Syed Rizwan Farook, a terrorist who killed 14 and injured 22 in California’s San Bernardino on December 2, 2015, McCabe said access to encrypted data remained “very much a live issue for the FBI”.
Responding to a question, McCabe said, “I’m glad you mentioned law-enforcement in this context, because we believe this issue impacts law-enforcement at a state and local level even more severely than it affects us.”
“The fact is that every day, that shadow of darkness over communications, over data — and by shadow I mean that portion of communication which is beyond legal process — grows larger and larger. The simple fact is this is making the job of law enforcement and intelligence agencies that much more difficult every day,” he said.
FBI officials, McCabe said, “advocate a very open dialogue with information technology companies to try and find common ground” on the issue. “I think we’ve seen some incremental cooperation from the information technology industry over the last few years. Some service providers have, in particular, been more forward-leaning in removing content that they believe violates their terms of service; content which may be in line with terrorist propaganda,” said McCabe.
“I think it is also incredibly important that we maintain a free and open line of communication with our foreign partners on this. There are no national boundaries when it comes to technology and data. We need to make sure we’re all on the same page,” he said. The cooperation, McCabe said, had led to “several notable successes over the last few years and the FBI very much wants to keep these lines of communication open”.
Faced with an ongoing investigation of possible ties between President Donald Trump’s campaign team and the Russian government, the FBI now occupies centrestage in US politics. Last month, FBI Director James Comey — McCabe’s immediate superior — told the House Intelligence Committee his officers would pursue the case “no matter how long that takes”.
Like its Indian counterparts — the NIA, Intelligence Bureau and CBI — the FBI has frequently found itself mired in allegations of political partisanship. Asked how the FBI had institutionally protected itself during politically-fraught investigations, McCabe explained that the organisation was “very fortunate in having very, very clear legal authority, a very clear position within the federal government, and an entirely professional cadre of men and women”.
There was, he explained, only one political appointee in the FBI, the Director, who held office for a ten-year term to ensure political independence. “For 109 years, we have maintained our commitment to do our job professionally, competently, and apolitically. We pursue every case, whether it’s a counter-terrorism matter, or a counter-intelligence matter, or a criminal matter, or a public corruption matter, in exactly the same way: we follow the facts wherever they lead us,” said McCabe.
Law-enforcement approaches to terrorism, McCabe noted, had been proven to be effective — even though, faced with new and evolving challenges, some political leaders have been calling for extra-constitutional approaches.
“It is an essential piece of our government’s efforts against terrorism. Having said that, it’s not the only tool against terrorism. We work very closely with our intelligence colleagues, and our military colleagues, to position us to succeed as a nation”. McCabe said he was “very happy to note India-United States counter-terrorism cooperation was on the rise”. “We have great appreciation of the partnership, the openness, the cooperation that we have received from our Indian colleagues,” he said.
The highest-level FBI official to visit India since former director Robert Mueller in 2011, McCabe will be meeting senior officials to discuss means to deepen cooperation with the Intelligence Bureau and NIA, Indian government sources said.
Indian intelligence and police agencies have long complained that US-based information technology firms are slow to respond to terrorism-related data requests, and officials are expected to flag the issue during the Deputy Director’s visit.
Law-enforcement agencies in the US, McCabe noted, also grappled with special challenges dealing with self-motivated terrorists — a problem their counterparts in India and several European countries have also encountered. Notably, the mere act of reading online jihadist propaganda does not necessarily constitute a crime. However, police and intelligence resources have been stretched thin by the task of attempting to find out who among thousands of readers might pose a terror threat.
“In the United States, it is not a crime to read or consume propaganda or any other material, for that matter. The way we have tried to approach it is to intervene when an individual takes steps to mount an attack in the United States, or to travel overseas to join the Islamic State, or to support the Islamic State, or any other designated terrorist organisation,” said McCabe. Like other countries, McCabe said, “we have laws on the books that make it illegal to support a designated terrorist organisation, and we try to use those as aggressively as possible”.