THE THREAT MATRIX: THE FBI AT WAR IN THE AGE OF GLOBAL TERROR
By Garrett M. Graff
Little, Brown and Co., $27.99, 672 pages
Now that an elite American special-operations unit has ended the life of Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda’s charismatic leader and founder, the world’s most lethal and geographically dispersed terrorist organization is entering a new, uncertain direction. Although this momentous event occurred after the publication of Garrett M. Graff’s important book “The Threat Matrix: The FBI at War in the Age of Global Terror,” we can be certain of one fact that runs through its pages: Our nation’s counterterrorism capability is sound and robust, exemplified domestically, although with an increasing overseas presence, by the nation’s top law enforcement agency, the FBI.
“The Threat Matrix” - the name of the daily compilation of actual or rumored threats to the American homeland and Americans overseas - is a prodigious volume, covering the FBI’s involvement in counterterrorism over the past 90 years. Mr. Graff, the editor of Washingtonian magazine, spent more than two years researching the FBI, including interviewing hundreds of people associated with the agency, such as Director Robert Mueller and current and former top officials and special agents, many of whom are discussed in the book.
As Mr. Graff points out, al Qaeda and its affiliates may be the “enemy de jour,” but a host of different types of terrorist groups have threatened the country over the years, including anarchists, student radicals such as the Weather Underground, right-wing and left-wing extremists, white supremacists, black extremists, Puerto Rican nationalists, the Irish Republican Army, the Palestine Liberation Organization, Libyan and Iranian agents, anti-government loners and today’s Muslim extremists, whether homegrown or foreign-based. The “only constant in our nation’s battle against terrorism,” he writes, “has been the FBI, whose powers, skills, and capabilities have evolved across generations to meet new threats in new places.”
The FBI has evolved to become, in the words of Mr. Graff, “the world’s first global law enforcement agency. The Bureau has teams specially stationed and equipped to respond anywhere in the world within hours: FBI forward staging areas overseas contain all the equipment necessary for the bureau’s ‘Fly Teams’ to run crime scenes anywhere on the planet. The FBI is becoming one of the nation’s lead overseas representatives and has become as recognizable a global brand as just about any U.S. export.”
This was especially the case after Sept. 11, when the FBI’s counterterrorism infrastructure was substantially upgraded, automated and expanded. As described by Mr. Graff, the FBI consists of about 13,500 agents serving in 56 field offices and 400 satellite resident offices around the country, including agents serving in more than 60 countries around the world.
Much of the FBI’s work still focuses on its traditional role in law enforcement, such as organized crime and white-collar crime (including cybercrime) as well as counterintelligence, but counterterrorism has assumed greater focus since Sept.11 with an expansion of the bureau’s analytical, foreign-language and investigatory capabilities. As explained by Arthur M. Cummings, a former head of the National Security Branch, “The agent’s job now isn’t just to arrest bad guys. It is to understand everything in the terrorist’s head, everything around him, so that we can understand his world and the world of those around him.”
One of the book’s greatest strengths is Mr. Graff’s discussions of the FBI’s involvement in uncovering and thwarting terrorist plots, such as Najibullah Zazi’s September 2009 attempt to bomb the New York City subway system, or helping bring to justice those who committed these acts but remained fugitives overseas, such as Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of the first bombing of the World Trade Center in February 1993.
The book is not without several shortcomings, however. The CIA’s relationship with the FBI in counterterrorism is much more collaborative than Mr. Graff suggests, as was the agency’s cooperation with the 9/11 Commission. He is critical of George Tenet, the CIA’s former director but does not substantiate his claims. He also is unduly critical of some of the FBI’s early efforts to use pattern-recognition-information technologies to uncover individuals with a nexus to terrorism who might be operating in the United States, neglecting to mention how such measures have become highly effective.
Finally, the book does not cite the work of the Terrorist Screening Center, one of the FBI’s greatest successes in preventing suspicious foreign individuals from entering the country.
Despite such shortfalls, “The Threat Matrix” is recommended as an invaluable and comprehensive history of the FBI’s role in defending our nation (and also in helping our allies) against the terrorist threat in all its forms.
Joshua Sinai is an associate professor for research, specializing in counterterrorism studies, at Virginia Tech.