More than 20,000 men were trained at al Qaeda terrorist camps in the late 1990s and a top Justice Department official believes some of them will try again to strike targets in the United States, but is not convinced they will succeed.
“We know how much damage just 19 of those men did in a few hours on one day,” said Assistant Attorney General Christopher A. Wray, head of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division. “It is important we not get complacent, and I assure you there are plenty of us in law enforcement who haven’t forgotten what it’s like to jump when a pager goes off at night.
“Today, we look at the threat of terrorism as an ongoing and continuing plot and have sought, through increased cooperation at all levels of government, to strike earlier on that continuum, arresting terrorists with their hand on a check, not a bomb,” Mr. Wray said during an interview this week.
As one of the chief architects of the government’s multifaceted response to the September 11 attacks, Mr. Wray said increased cooperation among federal, state and local authorities and the “invaluable assistance” of the USA Patriot Act has significantly cut into the ability of terrorists to successfully strike again.
“Cooperation between law enforcement agencies at all levels of government today has never been better, and I hope that is one of our legacies,” said Mr. Wray, who has headed the Criminal Division since 2003, but is leaving this month to return to private practice. “We are working together to solve major problems, to bring about a safer and more secure America.”
Criminal Division prosecutors and investigators, working with state and local authorities, have disrupted more than 150 terrorist cells and threats from Portland, Ore., to Lackawanna, N.Y., incapacitating more than 3,000 known operatives. They also have charged 375 persons in terrorism-related cases, 195 of whom already have pleaded guilty or been convicted, and removed from the country more than 500 people linked to September 11.
The targeted terrorists have included members of al Qaeda, Hezbollah and Hamas as part of an effort to prevent and prosecute those who commit or intend to commit terrorist acts against the United States.
“While we are prepared to react to a terrorist event, our most important goal is to use the means at our disposal to prevent terrorist attacks in the first instance,” Mr. Wray said. “Terrorists will try to strike us again, but recognizing that terrorism is not just something that happens, I am not convinced they will succeed.”
In protecting America from future attacks, he said, the anti-terrorism tools overwhelmingly passed by Congress as part of the Patriot Act have been crucial, particularly in helping prosecutors and agents on the “front lines.”
He said the act, some of whose provisions lapse at the end of the year, also has allowed improvements in communication and information sharing among those agencies tasked with fighting terrorism, has allowed law enforcement to adapt to terrorists’ technologically sophisticated methods and has given investigators and prosecutors stronger tools to identify, pursue, disrupt, prosecute and punish terrorists.