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FBI Participates in Nation's Largest Ever Mock Terrorism Event


TOPOFF exercise photographDid you hear? This past April 4, international terrorists launched major, simultaneous attacks in three countries: the U.S., Canada, and the United Kingdom. Here in the U.S., a chemical bomb exploded at a waterfront festival in southern Connecticut, causing a huge fireball that burned bystanders and exposed others nearby to noxious fumes. At the same time, a deadly biological agent—later found to be the pneumonic plague—was released at a New Jersey university. Hospitals quickly filled up with the sick and injured, and within days, thousands of Americans had died from the attacks.

The incidents weren't real, of course. They were part of TOPOFF 3—short for "Top Off(icials)"—the third in a series of week-long, congressionally mandated anti-terrorism drills staged every two years by the Department of Homeland Security.

Their purpose? To improve our nation's ability to prevent and respond to major terrorist attacks involving a weapon of mass destruction (nuclear devices or chemical, biological, or radiological agents).

How realistic was the drill? Very. No chemical or biological agents were released and no one was hurt, of course. But real-life investigators, emergency and health care workers, major officials, and others participated in the drill, using existing partnerships, technologies, facilities, and equipment to respond. To make the attacks seem real, make-up artists applied fake wounds to hired actors. An actual fireball went up in Connecticut, buses were overturned, and emergency workers donned actual hazmat suits. More than 10,000 people nationwide participated in the test.

What was the FBI's role in the exercise? Same as in real-life: we served as the lead investigative agency, working closely with our partners to assess the situation, round up evidence and intelligence, find the culprits, and communicate threat information and vulnerabilities nationally and internationally. Specifically, we:

  • Sent dozens of agents from our New Haven and Newark field offices to the scenes to interview victims, collect evidence, and pursue leads;
  • Quickly arrested 5 "terrorists" in a house raid, including the alleged mastermind of the New Jersey attack, and provided information and warrants to our partners, who arrested 3 "suspects" in the Connecticut attack;
  • With our partners, located a hose nozzle sticking out of the window of an SUV in New Jersey that enabled us to determine how the plague was released;
  • Worked with the Red Cross to set up a Family Assistance Center that provided victim and family services and counseling; and
  • Used intelligence to head off more possible attacks...and shared information on the attacks and potential future targets with our partners around the world.

More than 600 FBI employees participated in the exercise, including agents, analysts, victim specialists, evidence experts, and SWAT and crisis response professionals from New Jersey, Connecticut, our Critical Incident Response Group in Virginia, and FBI Headquarters. Our Counterterrorism Division, Office of Intelligence, and Strategic Information and Operations Center command post at FBI Headquarters coordinated our overall response to the events.

Next steps? Federal officials will study the findings and issue an assessment in several weeks. This review will help improve our nation's response capabilities and enable everyone to do a better job in TOPOFF 4!

Links: Dept. of Homeland Security TOPOFF 3 web site