No Higher Priority: Fighting Terrorism and Keeping Americans Safe

Neil H. MacBride, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of VirginiaThe Department of Justice has no higher priority than fighting terrorism and keeping the American people safe, while protecting and safeguarding civil liberties guaranteed under our Constitution. The Obama Administration has aggressively used every lawful tool at its disposal to keep Americans safe – military, intelligence, homeland security, law enforcement, diplomacy and financial disruption. Ten years after the September 11th attacks, the Holder Justice Department has played a key role in the U.S. counterterrorism framework and has a proven track record of identifying members of terrorist networks, detecting and disrupting their plots, incapacitating terrorists through successful prosecutions and convictions, collecting valuable intelligence and sharing information with our state and local partners, and creating a dialogue through outreach to our communities, including the American Muslim community.

A few months ago, Americans celebrated the death of Osama bin Laden, who was responsible for murdering thousands of people, not only our own citizens, but also scores of Muslims, including those in his own country. Although bin Laden is gone, core Al-Qaeda remains determined to kill Americans, and we also see an expanding universe of groups and people targeting our country, including Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Pakistani Taliban, and other affiliates, as well as radicalized U.S. citizens and residents. We are also seeing more diversity in terms of tactics with a trend toward smaller, faster-developing plots, rather than larger, longer-term plots like 9/11 – often making them more challenging to identify and counter.

These evolving threats have fueled a level of terrorist activity that has not been seen since 9/11, and the Justice Department has played a vital role in adapting its operations to combat them. The 94 United States Attorneys’ offices around the country have achieved significant success in identifying and prosecuting terrorists. The hard work of our federal prosecutors in building threat-based, intelligence-driven investigations has created a safer, more diverse and resilient America.

First, the hard work of professionals at the Department and our partners at home and abroad has enabled us to disrupt numerous terrorist plots and prosecute those involved. During 2009 and 2010, the Justice Department charged more defendants with the most serious terrorism-related offenses than in any similar period since 9/11. In 2009, federal agents disrupted an Al-Qaeda plot led by Najibullah Zazi to launch a deadly bomb attack on the Manhattan subway system. Last year, the Department successfully prosecuted Faisal Shahzad for attempting to bomb New York’s Times Square, and secured a guilty plea from David Headley for his role in the terror attacks in Mumbai in 2008 and for plotting an attack in Denmark.

Since 2009, the FBI has also conducted successful operations to arrest homegrown extremists who allegedly plotted attacks in Washington State, Maryland, Oregon, Texas, Illinois and Virginia. In the last year, federal prosecutors in the Eastern District of Virginia have disrupted terrorist plots by several homegrown jihadists, successfully prosecuting Faroque Ahmed for plotting to bomb the D.C. metro rail system, Zachary Chesser for supporting Al-Shabaab and issuing “domestic fatwa’s,” and Emerson Begolly for seeking to advance terrorist causes over the Internet.

Simply stated: since 9/11, under Republican and Democratic Administrations, the government has used the federal court system to convict and incarcerate hundreds of terrorists for offenses that occurred in the U.S. and overseas, including plots targeting civilian and military targets. For example, the Justice Department prosecuted Zacarias Moussaoui for his role in the 9/11 attacks; “shoe bomber” Richard Reid for attempting to blow up an international flight; Ahmed Omar Abu Ali in the Al Qaeda plot to assassinate President George W. Bush; the Holy Land Foundation and five of its leaders for providing material support to Hamas; and Ahmed Ressam in the Millenium bombing plot on the Los Angeles International Airport. These cases prove that terror suspects can be safely and securely tried in federal courts without incident or disruption. In not one instance since 9/11 has a judicial district been subject to retaliatory attacks by terrorists, and no terror suspect in custody has escaped.

Second, as a counterterrorism tool, the criminal justice system is incredibly effective not only in incapacitating terrorists but also in collecting valuable information needed to protect our country. In case after case, we have used the criminal justice system to collect valuable intelligence from and about terrorists. The criminal justice system provides powerful incentives for suspects to provide accurate and, reliable information, and for the FBI and other Justice Department components to work with the intelligence community to maximize the information and intelligence obtained.

Third, our partnerships are critical to understanding the threat environment and essential to protecting our nation and its citizens. The Justice Department, through the U.S. Attorneys’ offices and the National Security Division, continues to work with partners in the intelligence community, law enforcement, and with our allies overseas to combat terrorism. The Justice Department directs the Anti-Terrorism Advisory Council program, providing national collaboration between federal prosecutors and their federal, state, and local law enforcement partners nationwide on terrorism matters, cases, and threat information. Moreover, the FBI has joined with federal, state, and local partners in more than 100 Joint Terrorism Task Forces to prevent and dismantle terrorist plots. The Department also established the Intelligence Specialist program in each U.S. Attorney's Office to have in-house experts to integrate domestic and foreign intelligence into terrorism investigations.

Finally, while government has an important role, we also view communities and community institutions as key partners in our counterterrorism efforts. In conducting national security cases, the FBI and Justice Department rely on the support, cooperation, and trust of the communities we serve and protect. We engage in extensive outreach efforts with many different communities, including the Muslim and Arab American communities, to improve our ability to perform our duties in a manner consistent with civil liberties, diversity, and commitment to religious freedom. Members of the American Muslim community continue to be strong partners in the fight against terrorism. They have regularly denounced terrorist acts and those who carry them out, and have provided critical assistance in helping to disrupt terrorist plots and combat radicalization.

Attorney General Holder has repeatedly stated that his highest priority is fighting terrorism and keeping the American people safe: “[our] national security efforts are among the most important work we do. As we have learned – in the most painful of ways – our nation is at war with a determined enemy who seeks to strike at American interests – and to harm our people – both here and abroad. But we can defeat this enemy – and we will do so without compromising the values that have made our nation great. Indeed, it is only by upholding our most cherished and sacred principles that we will ultimately be successful in this fight.” The Holder Justice Department is committed to fulfilling its most important mission, aggressively deploying every tool available, and guided by the rule of law.