Assistant Director Michael B. Steinbach has led the FBI Counterterrorism Division since July 2014. He began his career in the FBI in 1995 after seven years as an aviator in the U.S. Navy. Over the course of his 20-year career he has served as manager of FBI operations at Guantanamo Bay, deputy on-scene commander for FBI operations in Afghanistan, legal attaché in Israel, assistant section chief for the International Terrorism Operations Section, Counterterrorism Division, and deputy director for Law Enforcement Services at the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center. Before taking his current post, Mr. Steinbach served as special agent in charge of the FBI’s Miami Division.
CTC: You have had some very interesting counterterrorism assignments in the FBI over the past dozen years that include serving in Afghanistan alongside the military (and others) and being assigned to the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center. How have the role and capabilities of the FBI in this interagency fight evolved during this time period?
Steinbach: The evolution over the last couple decades for the FBI has certainly been in the interagency arena, with an especially strong working relationship being developed with the military. If you go back before 9/11 and you look at the relationship we had with DoD [U.S. Department of Defense] and you compare that to today, it would look vastly different. It’s a much more thorough relationship, it’s a much more agile relationship, and it’s an even more functional relationship.
CTC: From a capabilities perspectives how do you feel that the FBI has evolved? The mission given to the FBI after 9/11 was “never again.” How do you feel the FBI’s capability to achieve what is obviously an almost impossibly high standard has developed?
Steinbach: You are absolutely right. When you look at our mission set to detect and disrupt, we are really being asked to prevent the crime before it happens. And we have learned throughout our history that, whether we are talking about terrorism, drugs, or some other violations, you really have to take the fight overseas. You cannot sit in Miami, for example, and wait for the drugs and the dealers to come to Miami. You have to be forward leaning and go to the point of origin. In the case of the drug example, that was primarily Central and South America. It is the same model for counterterrorism. We can’t sit in the homeland and wait for the actors to plot and then come to the US. We have to be overseas. So, our overseas position and role has greatly expanded.
The military has played a significant role in our ability to do this. Since 9/11 there have been several different conflict zones which are breeding grounds for terrorists and plots, so the FBI needs DoD in order to work in those environments. Clearly as a law enforcement agency we don’t have the tools, necessarily, to work independently in conflict zones, and so lashing up with DoD in such locations is a benefit for both of us.
It is important to remember that the world is quite small these days. Maybe 30–50 years ago what happened in a small corner of the globe didn’t really have any impact on the U.S. homeland. However, in today’s world, with technology and other factors, what is found in the far corners of the world may have a direct impact on and direct connection to the United States, and that is really why and how our relationship with DoD became one of the most fundamental evolutions for the FBI over the last decade plus.
CTC: As our global military footprint is scaled back, however, what impacts does this have on your organization in terms of what it will be asked to take on in this evolving environment? Does the FBI pull back as well, or will it be asked to expand to fill that void, albeit in a different capacity?
Steinbach: We are definitely not being asked to pull back. If anything, it is a greater presence overseas. So, in some cases, as DoD leaves a space, we may be asked to step in and provide assistance to indigenous forces, whether it is intelligence or law enforcement, to help them build and develop their capacity. But just because we leave conflict zones does not mean there aren’t lots of places in the world where DoD operates in some form, and where the FBI can take advantage of the military’s ability to reach into those locations from afar, and where the FBI will look to the military as the action arm.
CTC: Have we come far enough in this evolution and development of our counterterrorism architecture? In what areas are further enhancements to our CT capabilities, policies, or authorities needed in order to get us where we need to be?
Steinbach: I can look at the question in two ways. First, when you look at our capabilities and the technology-driven world we live in, it requires us to continue to invest in technology to stay abreast of the changing landscape, so that we can continue to leverage our resources and do our job. Second, we have done a good job over the last 20 years of developing a joint interagency working environment with our Joint Terrorism Task Force model. But as I said before, the world is small, and we need to take that same model and apply it internationally. We have great relationships with our Western allies, but the way that we do business is through diplomatic channels, and diplomacy takes time. Terrorists don’t follow that road map or timeline. We have to develop a more agile and quick way to deal with our international partners, in much the same way we now deal with our state and local law enforcement partners.
CTC: You have publicly discussed your concerns about the growing gap between adversary use of technology and our own technology and laws—the “going dark” phenomenon as you have called it. Is this a technological problem that we have to solve, or a policy problem? Or both?
Steinbach: It is actually a three pronged problem. First, it is a legislative problem. We need the laws to catch up to technology. There are laws on the books, so we are not asking for new or enhanced authorities. We are asking for existing authorities to be updated and made relevant. There is a law called CALEA [Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act]. It applies to telecommunications providers and it requires them to provide technological assistance when law enforcement has a court order permitting collection. Much of today’s communications, however, are not through traditional telecommunications providers. They are through Internet Service Providers and social media and other companies that aren’t bound by CALEA. So, we need our legislature to take a look and update the laws and make them relevant to today’s environment. Second, it is a public relations problem. We have to get past the [Edward] Snowden concern and inform the public again that we are not asking for new, invasive authorities. We are looking to act on a court order or legal authorities to collect what we should collect so we can prevent a crime or a terrorist incident. Third is the technology challenge. Many of the companies don’t have the technological capability to achieve these goals, so we need to work with those companies to develop technological solutions. So, it is really a three-part problem.
CTC: One of the things the CT community has struggled with is measuring effectiveness in this fight. How can we develop measurable and useful metrics to assess the effectiveness of our CT efforts? What metrics are most useful to you in determining whether the FBI’s CT actions are having the desired impact on the adversary and on our security more broadly?
Steinbach: I’ll keep it very simple. Fortunately or unfortunately, the only metric that counts is terrorist incidents, and the baseline is zero. So if there are no terrorist attacks in the United States, we succeed; if a terrorist succeeds in conducting an attack in the U.S. or against U.S. interests abroad, we fail. And that’s really the bottom-line metric.
CTC: How would you evaluate and prioritize the various terrorist threats we face? Obviously much of the public focus is on the Islamic State. Is this focus justified, or does it distract from other threats?
Steinbach: I think we need to separate what the American public and the media focuses on versus what we focus on. In many cases they aren’t the same thing. The way we prioritize our threats is though an intelligence-based process. We examine threats from a national perspective and then a city-specific perspective. We take a look at what the intelligence is telling us, and identify what don’t we know and what we do know about a particular threat. So we prioritize the threats we face based on what our collection and our investigations tell us across the landscape of the homeland and also worldwide. Having said all that, ISIL [the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant] is certainly one of the most important areas of focus for the FBI in the terrorism arena.
CTC: How does the Islamic State threat differ from that posed by al-Qa`ida over the past decade or so?
Steinbach: How al-Qa`ida and ISIL have approached things is different. Al-Qa`ida was a more organized structural model, and plotting [against the United States.] was more centralized as compared to ISIL, which seems to have a more diffuse model. They have certainly used technology and modern communications (in the form of social media) much more effectively than al-Qa`ida ever did. So there are a number of differences between al-Qa`ida 15 years ago and ISIL today, but I think you could argue it’s perhaps an evolution of the same type of threat.
CTC: How has the nature of the domestic jihadist threat evolved in the past few years? Many of these American jihadis have shifted their support over from al-Qa`ida to the Islamic State. How has this changed the nature of the threat, or your approach to combating it?
Steinbach: I think it starts with ISIL’s propaganda. They are very effective at marketing their brand, and one of their propaganda streams is a Western-focused message that has influenced many of these former al-Qa`ida-following jihadists and brought them to their brand. The last couple years has seen a fundamental shift in how the message is pushed out. We previously had recognized the emergence of the internet as a paradigm shift because the internet allowed for anonymity, it allowed for someone in the United States to no longer have to travel to a foreign location to train, to radicalize; you could now do all of that from the comfort of your own home.
I would argue in the past two or three years another paradigm shift has taken place and that is social media. Social media is fundamentally different than the “traditional” internet, because even though the previous sites could be anonymous, you still had to go to them, find the sites (some of them password-protected), and reach out, whereas jihadi users of social media, with its horizontal distribution model, actually reach into the United States. And on smartphones with push notifications it’s right there with someone 24/7, and that is a fundamental difference.
Social media is used by younger individuals, and the fighters overseas have smartphones in hand, so the individual foreign fighters, young individuals who are already over there, are communicating directly with young individuals in Western countries, including the United States. So instead of that older ideologue trying to sell something to the younger generation, you’ve got someone of similar age, of similar background—a 20-year-old talking to a 20-year-old—so they can communicate in the language of a 20-year-old. This communication model being used by terrorist groups, and ISIL in particular, is probably the most significant change we have seen in the last couple years. And that provides both opportunities and challenges.
CTC: So as you work to combat that, how do you make determinations in terms of your interjection into that process? Given the number of people who are consuming this material, how do you allocate your finite resources to engage or intervene in those types of conversations?
Steinbach: You just hit on the fundamental challenge the FBI is faced with. With social media, this material is out there in large volumes, so how do you distinguish between people just passively consuming the propaganda, which is their right, versus those individuals consuming it and then taking it a step further and acting on it or taking overt steps in support of terrorism. That is the fundamental challenge faced by the FBI—going through all that noise out there and identifying the discrete signals.
CTC: The foreign fighter problem appears to pose a particularly interesting challenge to the law enforcement community given the scale of the problem and the lack of certainty regarding the intentions and level of threat these individuals pose. How would you evaluate this problem and assess the relative threat posed by Americans who travel overseas (and who may or may not return) versus those who stay home (either by choice or due to difficulties traveling) and consider pursuing a violent path here?
Steinbach: I don’t want to diminish the threat of foreign fighters, but sometimes the media confuses the two categories. The foreign fighter problem and the homegrown violent extremist problem, though very closely related, are two distinct problems. Compared to Europe, the United States does not have the same foreign fighter problem. Our numbers are much smaller for a variety of reasons. And those numbers are also relatively small compared to the universe of FBI subjects in the homeland that are supportive of ISIL.
The foreign fighter problem does, however, still pose several distinct challenges. Once that person travels overseas he or she develops skills and techniques, and if that person comes back to the United States they have an enhanced skill set with which to conduct an attack. They could also go over there and be recruited by leadership who recognize the foreign-born passport and the ability to have access to the United States or Western European countries. Third, the foreign fighters over there can be enlisted as recruiters for their former peers in the West.
But when you compare those two buckets, the homegrown violent extremist is absolutely of greater concern for the FBI on a strategic scale. You will find those types of cases in every state in the country.
CTC: What does success look like in the CT fight? Is there such thing as victory, or is this just a long-running challenge that we’re going to have to manage and mitigate?
Steinbach: I think it’s a long-running challenge, and I think that you should plan to expect there to be groups and entities that use the terrorist model to attempt to achieve their objectives. For that reason we have to be prepared for the long-haul. We can diminish and reduce the threat, but to think the threat will go away completely is probably not very realistic.
1 Michael B. Steinbach, Assistant Director, Counterterrorism Division, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Statement Before the House Homeland Security Committee, June 3, 2015.