Major Executive Speeches

Robert S. Mueller, III, Director, FBI
Border Terrorism Conference
San Antonio, Texas
September 8, 2003

Thank you, Johnnie [Sutton]. Good afternoon everyone.

It is good to see so many of you here, from so many different agencies responsible for protecting the southwest border. And a special welcome to our friends and partners from Mexico.

In just a few days the second anniversary of the 9/11 attacks will be upon us. Nothing has been easy about the past two years. But I think we can look back and say, we have made a difference. We are working together in ways that we could have hardly imagined on September 10, 2001. And I applaud and thank all of you for coming together this week as we keep looking for new opportunities to protect the border and, by extension, our country.

This afternoon, I want to begin by taking a broad look at the fight against terrorism. Then I want to discuss the focus of this conference — protecting the southwest border against terrorism and how the FBI fits into that picture.

Let me start with the successes, and there have been many — thanks to all of you and your colleagues across the nation and around the world.

In key ways — operationally, financially, and structurally — al Qaeda is a diminished organization.

Thanks largely to the American military, al Qaeda no longer has a safe haven in Afghanistan where it can plan, train, and indoctrinate new recruits. Without a home base, it is much, much harder for al Qaeda to organize and even communicate.

One of the largely untold success stories post-9/11 is terrorist financing. Today, we have an entirely new capability within the FBI, Customs, and Treasury that can chase the terrorist money trail around the globe. We are not only drying up sources of funding from businesses and charities worldwide that are false fronts for terror; we are also analyzing financial activities in ways that enable us to establish links between terrorists, to spot potential planning, and to uncover cells. Following the money trail essentially takes us from one terrorist to the next.

That leads me to my next point, which is our success at dismantling the core leadership of al Qaeda. The running list of high-level operatives killed or captured since 9/11 reads like a "who's who" of terrorism: Mohammed Atef, Abu Zubaydah, Ramzi Binalshibh, and one of al Qaeda's highest ranking operatives, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.

The latest figure to be tracked down is an individual by the name of Hambali. Hambali was picked up in Thailand a few weeks ago. He was al Qaeda's chief operative in Southeast Asia, someone we believe was the architect of the Bali bombing last fall and the attack in Jakarta last month.

The capture of these individuals and many others is important for a number of reasons. It deprives al Qaeda of leadership and years of experience that are not easily replaced. At the same time, for us it has produced a wealth of intelligence. Our interrogations of these individuals have given us important insights into how al Qaeda thinks and operates – as well as the various targets it is considering. In some cases, it has even led us to various operatives who were planning attacks.

Most of the successes I have talked about have been overseas. But there has also been outstanding work here in the United States. We have rolled up a number of terrorist cells and apprehended conspirators from Buffalo to Detroit, from Ohio to Seattle and Portland. Most recently, in New Jersey, a British arms dealer was arrested for allegedly trying to sell the first in a line of shoulder-fired missiles. He thought his customers were terrorists who planned to use the missiles against commercial airliners in the U.S. Instead, they were undercover agents of the FBI and Russian security. Few cases so clearly illustrate the new threats and the new partnerships it takes to defeat them.

The cumulative result of these successes — and many others that will probably never be public — is a terrorist organization that is on the run. Al Qaeda has been stripped of key leadership, major sources of funding, and a secure base from which to operate. As we have seen, al Qaeda is still capable of carrying out attacks, some quite deadly. But these attacks — whether in Indonesia or Saudi Arabia or Morocco — have only served to further galvanize those nations and the larger world community. The cooperation and intensity of focus that we in the FBI have seen from Africa to the Middle East to the islands of Southeast Asia has been unprecedented. And that is making an important difference.

None of this, however, means that we can afford to let our guard down. The al Qaeda network has been compared to a virus – and that is probably a good analogy in that al Qaeda keeps adapting. If we harden one set of targets, it goes after another. If we knock out one capability, it develops another.

With each passing week, I feel more comfortable that we are addressing the threat here in the U.S. — that we know who is here and what they are up to. But, there may be terrorists in this country — lying low in cells waiting to be activated — that we do not yet know about. And there may be operatives waiting to slip across our borders in ways we have not foreseen. It is these possibilities that call for our continuing vigilance.

Now, let me turn to another front on the war on terror, and that is the southwest border. The events of 9/11 clearly changed our view of our nation's borders. The 19 hijackers all came into this country legally and without great difficulty. We now know that our borders must be our first line of defense. The American people expect us to stop those who would do us harm from entering the United States — without hindering the free flow of immigrants and imported goods that are part and parcel of having an open society and a strong economy.

None of the 19 hijackers came through the southwest border. But they did live along the border in cities like Phoenix and San Diego. Al Qaeda also has a presence in the Tri-Border Region in South America. We all know that it is not too difficult to get a tourist VISA and come into the U.S. across the border. And there are plenty of targets in this part of the world. So clearly, your collective efforts here in the southwest cannot be understated.

When it comes to working with you to protect the border, the FBI's focus is essentially two-fold:
First, in partnership with all of you, particularly through our Joint Terrorism Task Forces, our job is to run down each and every threat — quickly and without fail. That means getting the facts, conducting the interviews, doing the polygraphs, and the like. Terrorism is our top priority, and it is clear within the FBI: there must not be a single counterterrorism lead or threat that goes unaddressed.

In some cases, we may have to pull an Agent off a bank robbery or a drug case to make that happen. But I assure you, we are not backing off our criminal responsibilities – not only because they strengthen our ties with you, whether it is at the local, state, federal, or international level, but also because of the growing link between criminal and national security threats. We know, for example, that terrorists use credit card frauds and narcotics to generate money for their operations. We also see — particularly at the border — how international organized crime and drugs threaten national security. So we will stay engaged where we bring something unique to the table — whether it is helping with the sniper case in West Virginia or supporting a drug task force on a major narcotics investigation.

Second, it is important for the FBI to provide you with threat information that impacts your agencies, your departments, and your communities. The new, interconnected world we live in — and the threats posed by global networks of terrorists and criminals — means that what happens in Riyadh or Buenos Aires or New York City may impact your work here at the border.

We in the FBI recognize that because we have a foot in both worlds, we are a bridge between law enforcement and the intelligence community. And because of our physical presence across the border and overseas, we are also a bridge between law enforcement in the U.S. and worldwide. The FBI is and has to be a key conduit for sharing threat information.

That said, I can tell you that the FBI is taking and has taken a number of steps to improve our ability to share information. In the short term, we have done things like granting thousands of security clearances to law enforcement executives, producing weekly intelligence bulletins, and increasing the number and the size of our JTTFs.

We are also standing up an intelligence program in the FBI that will be on par with our other investigative programs. Spearheading that effort is a long-time expert that we brought over from NSA — Maureen Baginski. Maureen believes — as I do — that the FBI has historically done a good job at gathering intelligence and analyzing threats. What we have not done as well is to recognize that you are key consumers of that information and that we have to meet your needs just as surely as we meet our own. That is driving much of the change in the Bureau. Most importantly, we are working to build pipelines that will give you direct access to threat information and web-based access to FBI intelligence products.

We can now build those pipelines thanks in large part of the USA Patriot Act, which removed the legal barriers that had prevented the full exchange of information between law enforcement and the intelligence community.

Getting information flowing more freely and more quickly between and among our agencies is critical to having all of us on the same page when it comes to understanding and responding to threats. It is critical to our ability to "connect the dots" in ways that are preventative and predictive. And for all of us, it means safer communities, a safer nation, and a safer world. That is why I applaud the formation of a new International Terrorism Task Force with our Mexican counterparts.

The spectre of another 9/11 and all the other interconnected threats we face today compel us to be not just partners, but a community that thinks together, plans together, and acts together. We are becoming that community more and more every day. This conference is another sign of that fact. So thanks again for being here, for all your hard work these past two years, and your continuing support of the FBI.

Have a great conference, and God bless.