Terrorism and ‘the unknown’ keep top FBI official in DC awake at night

WASHINGTON — Twenty-year-old Ardit Ferizi will likely spend most of his next 20 years in federal prison.

The Kosovo native was sentenced by a court in Northern Virginia on Friday for hacking into a “protected” computer, extracting and providing more than 1,300 names of government and military personnel directly to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) terror group.

The Washington Field Office of the FBI played a key role in finding Ferizi by plunging into the murky depths of the dark web and hunting him down.

“No matter how a person supports a terrorist group like ISIL, whether on the battlefield or in the cyber world, the FBI will identify, disrupt and bring them to justice for placing lives at risk,” said Paul Abbate, assistant director in charge of the Washington Field Office of the FBI,  in a statement released after Ferizi pleaded guilty in June.

As terror groups increasingly use the internet to recruit, inspire and direct sympathizers to conduct physical and cyberattacks around the world, the capital region is becoming a more frequent target.

In an exclusive interview with WTOP on Friday, two days before Ferizi’s sentencing, Abbate said, “We’re certainly aware that this area has been a target and these groups have called for attacks. This is nothing new to us. Threats have been persistent and consistent, but we’re on guard not only here but everywhere.” 

The threat is intensified by the cloak of darkness the internet and encrypted social media applications provide for silver-tongued terrorists who are able to talk sympathizers such as Ferizi into action.

And even though they operate a robust, broad and meticulous counterterrorism program, Abbate and his team worry about missing something or someone.

“The unknown is what keeps me up at night,” Abbate said.

The seemingly unending stream of terrorism developments that could affect the region keep him and his team busy at all hours of the day and night.

“We have an existing set of cases and investigations that are ongoing, particularly in our counterterrorism division, but our biggest concern is what’s out there that we don’t know about yet,” Abbate said.

The speed of world events and evolving mobile communications, both driven by technological advances, appear to be assisting terror groups in increasing their targeting, plotting and launching of attacks.

Even though there have been no successful terror attacks in the D.C. region since the 9/11 attacks, the number of terrorism cases appears to be increasing in the region, says Dana Boente, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia.

“I believe we’re somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 or 16 cases in the last two years,” said Boente. “Busier or more than normal” is how he characterized the stream of cases his office and WFO have worked this year.

At least eight terrorism cases have been brought in the region since January. Clandestine online activity by terrorists has played a significant role in most of them.

The challenge ahead, according to Abbate, is adjusting to the shift in tactics by terror groups.

“When we look at terrorist organizations and criminal groups like ISIL operating out there, attempting to spread their message, attempting to recruit and radicalized individuals online, we go into that world with our personnel,” Abbate said.

Without elaborating on sensitive details regarding how they track terrorists online, Abbate said they apply, “traditional investigative techniques that we’ve used throughout history in our organization and in law enforcement.”

The adaptation of social media applications for terrorist purposes “is really has been a game-changer — especially when combined with smartphones,” said Scott Stewart, vice president of tactical analysis at Stratfor, a strategic intelligence firm.

Stewart said social media has proven far more effective for terrorist activity than just using websites, as was the case decades ago.

“I believe this is because of the greater sense of community and connectedness that social media creates,” Stewart said. “Also, unlike early internet sites that you had to access via a computer, social media apps on a smartphone are mobile and go with the person wherever they are, thus enhancing the feeling of community and of always being connected to it.”

Abbate added: “It’s critical — particularly with the spread of technology and the rapid dissemination of information through the news media — that we stay up on that, so we can move information at the same speed to get out in front of threats and to stop them before they occur.”

The FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force is its central component to fighting all forms terrorism.

“The keys,” said Abbate, “as always are the partnerships, the collaboration, the coordination, the information sharing with a wide range of partners both here in D.C., in the U.S. and overseas as well.”

The Joint Terrorism Task Force has about 4,000 members from more than 500 state and local agencies, as well as 55 federal agencies operating around the country. The task force includes a fusion of local, state and federal agencies acting as an integrated force to combat terrorism on a national and international scale.

In addition to D.C., the Washington Field Office of the FBI operates a satellite office in Manassas, Virginia. Its area of responsibility includes Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax (county and city), Falls Church, Fauquier, Leesburg, Loudon, Manassas, Prince William, Quantico, Vienna and Warrenton. The Washington Field Office of the FBI also has responsibilities in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

J.J. Green

JJ Green is WTOP's National Security Correspondent. He reports daily on security, intelligence, foreign policy, terrorism and cyber developments, and provides regular on-air and online analysis. He is also the host of two podcasts: Target USA and Colors: A Dialogue on Race in America.

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