WASHINGTON — The Washington Field Office of the FBI (WFO) has been busy lately. In addition to the normal complement of criminal, espionage, terror, cyber and drug threats facing the nation’s capital, the convergence of a swarm of new challenges face the 1,600 men and women who work there.
The confluence of rapidly evolving communications technology, the resurgence of aggression from hostile nation-states and rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has placed WFO in the center of a growing storm.
The latest challenge emerged on March 14, when a 26-year-old Virginia man was apprehended in Iraq.
Mohamad Jamal Khweis, from Alexandria, was detained by Peshmerga forces near Sinjar for attempting to enter the Kurdistan Region from the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul.
A statement from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) says “Khweis traveled through Turkey to Syria in December 2015 accompanied by a young Iraqi woman. He arrived in Iraq in late January and later fled, he claims, to return home. His journey from the United States included stopovers in a number of European countries.”
His arrest highlights what U.S. authorities have worried about for years: international terror groups with members operating in the shadows around the nation’s seat of power.
“When we look at the threat reporting emanating from ISIL and other [homegrown violent extremists] around the country, we know there is a constant and persistent threat to the District,” Joshua Skule told WTOP in one of two exclusive interviews with FBI officials.
At the time of the interview in January, Skule was special agent in charge of intelligence at the Washington Field Office of the FBI. He since has been elevated to assistant director in charge of intelligence at FBI headquarters
“It would give a terrorist organization no greater benefit than to attack the seat of power in the U.S.,” said Skule.
But terrorism is not the only high priority concern WFO is dealing with.
In 2011, the bad blood between the Saudi and Iranian governments was about to spill out on the streets of Georgetown before the FBI stopped it.
More than four years later, WTOP has learned in exclusive interviews, another rift has left the Washington Field Office watching carefully for signs of another confrontation with implications in D.C.
In late September 2011, the FBI shut down a plot to murder the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. The Justice Department traced the plot back to the Iranian government.
“I know it read like the pages of a Hollywood script, but the impact would’ve been very real and many lives would have been lost,” said Robert Mueller, who was FBI director at the time.
While never publicly acknowledged by U.S. officials, WTOP learned Georgetown’s stylish Café Milano restaurant was strongly believed to have been the intended site of the attempt on the life of Saudi Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir.
Another part of the plan was to blow up the Saudi and Israeli embassies. The principal suspect pleaded guilty and is now serving a 25-year federal prison sentence, but the bad blood between the Saudi and Iranian governments remains.
The concern for WFO is multifaceted. The confrontation unfolding in Yemen is another immediate anxiety.
“If you look at the potential proxy war in Yemen between the Houthis and Saudis that has provided some freedom of activity for al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula to operate, and, as you know, they have conducted attacks inside the U.S. successfully three different times,” said Skule.
WFO is responsible for an extraterritorial area of operation, “which includes the Middle East and Eastern Europe. It encompasses Iran and Saudi Arabia — and, if you go back years to Khobar Tower or the USS Cole, we had responsibility to investigate that,” Skule said.
Skule said there are more concerns: “As relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia continue to fray, you can see a bigger fracture in the Middle East, which could cause greater problems and allow other terror organizations more freedom to operate.”
That freedom to operate has raised concerns in the intelligence community that Americans could be targeted abroad. Another FBI official said terrorists often plan to attack places abroad where they know Americans are staying.
D.C. is the ultimate target for many terrorists because, according to Carl Ghattas, special agent in charge of counterterrorism at WFO, “people recognize images of the Capitol, or images of the White House, the Washington Monument, the Jefferson Memorial, so those who are trying to get attention will focus on those sites.”
But for those not able to reach D.C., the next best target is an American citizen, says a U.S. counterterrorism official interviewed by WTOP.
“Westerners have always been a target — whether it’s this year, last year or back in the 1980s. Westerners have always been a target for kidnapping,” said Ghattas.
Because of the nature of their work, many people living in the D.C. region and employed by the U.S. government travel around the world, and are constantly warned to be careful. But despite extreme care, disaster can strike.
Anita Datar, of Takoma Park, Maryland, who worked for the United States Agency for International Development, was killed during a 2015 terror attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako, Mali.
“Westerners can be more cautious,” said Ghattas. “One of the things we encourage people to do is certainly stay abreast of the State Department warnings. Those warnings are quite timely and accurate, and they tend to highlight certain regions where Westerners are probably more of a target than others.”
If no traveling Americans or Westerners are available, terrorists will try the next target available, such as U.S. monuments in D.C. That’s another reason why guarding the gateway is a top priority for the FBI.
The blind spots
Another major function of the WFO is to protect the national capital region by trying to connect dots and disparate pieces of information.
But encryption often gets in the way.
“If you’re missing half of that piece because you cannot see it, it becomes even more difficult to connect the threat,” said Skule. “So despite the fact that we abide by the legal process and we go to get a warrant to intercept communications, even if we go through that process, we still would not be able to see the communications going on between two bad guys, two terrorists, two spies.”
Skule and other top FBI officials have said repeatedly that end-to-end encryption, which is employed frequently by U.S. adversaries, is an intelligence weakness that they have not been able to work around.
That issue has been highlighted in the impasse between the FBI and Apple in the case of the San Bernardino terrorist’s locked iPhone.
“And so as you can imagine,” said Skule, “as you try to look at the totality of a threat that may be facing the U.S. — specifically Washington, D.C. — we’re missing pieces to that puzzle only because we don’t have the capability to see it.
“We have the authority to see it,” he says, but “we don’t have the [technological] capability to see it.”