The threats that face the United States today are the same threats that we faced on 9/11,” says  Michael McGarrity, Assistant Director for the Counterterrorism Division of the FBI.  “Of course they have evolved over the years. We still have threats from Al Qaeda, but other new groups have formed and evolved, such as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and ISIS.”

McGarrity stresses that today’s threat environment is complex and dynamic. The primary international terrorism threat to the United States has evolved from the sophisticated, externally directed plot to the individual, inspired attack. The groups, how they operate, and their targets have all changed over the last few years. What hasn’t changed is the commitment to do harm.

The most imminent threat to the United States comes from Homegrown Violent Extremists; usually individuals inspired by on online propaganda from terrorist organizations like ISIS and Al Qaeda.  Homegrown Violent Extremists may mobilize to violence quickly and act without devising an elaborate plot. The FBI response to any threat, McGarrity says, is the same: “Whether it’s a terrorism incident or an active shooter mental health issue or just someone who wants to kill people, it doesn’t matter in our response. We will work the case and look for motivation. Our initial response is to save lives and try to figure out the who and the why.”

McGarrity has spent more than 22 years working terrorism cases and seeking answers to the motivation behind terrorist thinking, motivations and actions. His career began as a New York City prosecutor, and before 9/11, he was based out of Six World Trade Center. At the FBI he was a member of the Joint Terrorism Taskforce in New York, the FBI detailee to the Bin Laden Unit at the CIA’s Counterterrorism, Deputy on Scene Commander in Afghanistan with the Joint Special Operations Command, a unit chief in the FBI’s International Terrorism Operations Section, and an Acting Assistant Section Chief for in the FBI’s International Terrorism Operations Section. He led the FBI Extraterritorial Squad in the field, going after Al Qaeda senior leadership, in addition to bombings and terrorists in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Israel.

He also served as Director of Counterterrorism for the White House National Security Council; Assistant Special Agent in Charge, Washington Field Office for violent crime, gangs, drugs, and crimes against children. He managed the Navy Yard shooting and stood up the U.S. Government Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell. The mission of the HRFC was to coordinate a whole government response to safely recover Americans taken hostage or kidnapped outside of the United States.


Fighting Terrorism

What does a terrorist look like, if that is something that can be identified? McGarrity has studied terrorists and terrorist groups for many years, and he notes that today’s Homegrown Violent Extremists are radicalized and mobilized to violence very quickly, “And that mobilization of violence could be a grievance and a personal situation,” he says. “But sometimes it’s just violence.”

In addition, he says that “Some of these terrorists don’t ‘look’ like a terrorist. They are U.S. born, educated and younger (the average age is 19 to 25). But that doesn’t matter. What they all do have in common is their need to commit violence and mobilize to that violence fairly quickly.”

There are several methods that the FBI and its field agents use to fight terrorism, McGarrity says, and among the very best is U.S. government and law enforcement partnerships. In fact, it’s the FBI’s main tool. “There are more than 100 joint terrorism taskforces that we have in the U.S.  That is our number one tool to go after terrorism here in the U.S. and overseas. There’s nothing we do in the FBI in regards to counterterrorism that we do alone. Our federal, state and local law enforcement teams are helping us identify homegrown violent extremists, anomalies and threats that they get through their 911 call centers and their local police who see something that’s not right in their communities. That is our number one tool.”

“Through the Joint Terrorism Task Forces, we can leverage the tools of our other partners, he adds “Everything we do we do together.  We look to see where there’s a comparative advantage where one department or agency might do something better, and we look to leverage that.  And sometimes that’s not the FBI. If you look at a threat in a smaller rural community, that’s where we are going to rely heavily on the state and local police to help us work that case.”

These partnerships very heavily rely upon the “See Something Say Something” mentality, McGarrity explains. “For example, someone working a register at a store might see a customer purchasing specific items that could be used to make a bomb. That should result in a call to the local police or to the FBI.  If we can educate the private sector better on specific behaviors or the things that homegrown violent extremists look to buy or rent, we’re more likely to get better leads to solve cases and prevent terrorist attacks.”

Another strong private sector partnership is enterprise security. “More than just the need to educate chief security officers, we need to provide them with relevant information to train their workforce who might come into contact with threats, information and customers.”

For example, in banking, says McGarrity, “It’s all about knowing your customer. Over the last 10 years we have stressed to banks and financial institutions the need to know who is opening accounts, why they are opening them, and have interactions with the customer. Are there unique transactions that are taking place? The same can be said for other sectors. Educate your employees and team so that they know the customer. This mindset will form the basis for better tips to law enforcement to prevent an attack.”

The work that enterprise security does to know customers to mitigate terrorism risk can also trickle down to citizens, who increasingly are engaging with law enforcement to protect themselves and their families from terrorist acts. “They are taking what they see on the news much more seriously, and they are much more engaged with their surroundings,” he says. “And the nature of the homegrown violent extremist threat means that more citizens are calling our Public Access Line (or tip line, which receives 15,000 tips per year) or the local police to identify suspicious people. They see some type of behavior that doesn’t make sense. Community notification is important to our job. And frankly, when information comes in through the community, no matter how that information comes in, people need to know that something’s being done.”


The Security 500 Conference

Overall, says McGarrity, as the threat remains persistent in the United States and overseas, the U.S. must adapt and confront these challenges, relying heavily on partnerships. “We depend on our strong partnerships across the varying levels of government, international relationships, the private sector, and communities across the United States. The value of these collective relationships for our threat mitigation is a team effort; it’s this relationship and collaboration which is critical to the counterterrorism fight.”

McGarrity will address the importance of public and private partnerships at this year’s Security 500 conference on November 12, 2018. Register at