FBI Reorganizes Effort to Uncover Terror Groups' Global Ties

By John Solomon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The FBI has begun the most comprehensive realignments of its counterterrorism division in six years so it can better detect the growing global collaborations by terrorists and dismantle larger terrorist enterprises, according to senior bureau officials.

The bureau will merge its two international terrorism units -- one for Osama bin Laden's followers and the other for more established groups such as Hezbollah -- into a new structure that borrows both from Britain's MI5 domestic intelligence agency and the bureau's own successful efforts against organized-crime families, Joseph Billy Jr., the FBI's assistant director for counterterrorism, said in an interview.

The new approach is meant to channel raw intelligence and threat information through "desk officers" with expertise on specific world regions or terrorist groups, allowing those experts to spot trends and set investigative strategies for field agents and joint terrorism task forces that collaborate with local law enforcement, Billy said.

That change emulates some aspects of Britain's MI5, which bureau critics and members of the Sept. 11 commission have frequently cited as a model for fighting domestic terrorism. "We want to place these people together so the intelligence is being shared across each way -- left, right, up and down -- and that, in turn, will help drive the tactical aspect of how we focus our resources," Billy said.

Borrowing from its mob-busting strategies in the 1980s, the bureau will encourage counterterrorism agents to forgo immediate arrests when an imminent threat is not present, allowing the surveillance of terrorism suspects to last longer. The aim is to identify collaborators, facilitators and sympathizers who increasingly span across multiple groups and countries, Billy said.

"We want to be in a position where we have [threats in] not only one area of the country identified but have the entire picture that may be taking place throughout the United States identified and . . . strategically focus our resources in a way that would give us the better chance of dismantling a group, as opposed to only identifying one aspect of a much larger threat," Billy said.

Counterterrorism agents were told about the changes in a closed-door meeting at headquarters last week, but no public announcement has been made. FBI officials hope to complete the realignments by year's end, but they acknowledge that many details remain to be worked out.

The changes have been driven partly by a growing number of FBI cases involving self-styled terrorist cells inside the United States that were inspired by al-Qaeda and bin Laden but receive support, advice or encouragement from disparate sympathizers across the globe, making group allegiances far less important.

"You don't want to limit yourself to just assuming that one person who is a member of a certain terrorist group won't particularly try to recruit or bring into the fold others overseas," Billy said.

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III plans to cite examples of such transnational collaboration in a speech on Friday in New York, mentioning the connections between two men in Georgia charged with terrorism support, 17 suspects rounded up in Canada in a bombing plot, and terrorist investigations in Britain, Denmark and Bangladesh. The defendants' ethnicities are diverse, including Somali, Egyptian, Jamaican and Trinidadian, officials said.

Officials said these suspects were linked by a lengthy investigation involving U.S. allies -- dubbed Northern Exposure -- that tested the FBI's ability to keep collecting intelligence beyond the traditional point when arrests might have been made in the past.

The effort required diplomacy with cooperating countries that became concerned that the terrorist cells might be moving toward an operational phase. A meeting was held last winter among international law enforcement agencies to decide when arrests should be made in each country and how to keep surveillance going, officials said.

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