John J. Miller is the New York Police Department’s Deputy Commissioner for Intelligence & Counterterrorism. He is former Deputy Director of the Intelligence Analysis Division at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and served as Assistant Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He was also the Commanding Officer, Counter Terrorism & Criminal Intelligence Bureau of the Los Angeles Police Department. During his previous work as a journalist, Deputy Commissioner Miller interviewed Usama bin Ladin for ABC News.

Ambassador Michael Sheehan serves as Distinguished Chair of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. A 1977 graduate of the United States Military Academy, he was the former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict. From 2003 to 2006, Ambassador Sheehan served as the New York Police Department’s Deputy Commissioner for Counterterrorism. 

Sheehan: You have a unique background and historical perspective on the evolution of the terrorist threat. Walk us through how things have changed.

Miller: There’s a pre-9/11 world and there’s a post-9/11 world. In the pre-9/11 world, there was a faster drumbeat of attacks in New York and the United States than there is today. Then in the 1990s we had the first World Trade Center bombing, which was hatched by Islamist terrorist overseas and some other plots linked to Islamists. But we believed that this was the normal cadence of terrorism, that some would appear in the U.S. that would be domestic in nature, and when it was foreign-influenced we could absorb it. We could handle it. And we could still catch them anywhere in the world.

In the post-9/11 world every terrorist attack is measured by the idea that it is a crack in the glass, a chink in the armor following an attack that left 3,000 people dead in multiple locations on a single day on U.S. soil. So today, a shooting attack in San Bernardino that kills 14 people has far more of an emotional impact than it would have had pre-9/11 because the emotions and fears that were stirred by 9/11 will come rushing back. It’s why the Brits can say that 7/7 was their 9/11 even though the death toll there was only 50 some-odd, or the Spaniards can say that March 11th was their 9/11 even though the death toll was under 200. I think the game-changer today is that every attack is larger in scope than it would be if it were something other than terrorism.

Sheehan: I think that’s right. It’s that connection to 9/11 and a potential for another one that creates the anxiety and the focus. Al-Qa`ida, of course, has struggled to replicate a 9/11 attack on our soil, though not for lack of trying. What do you think about al-Qa`ida in terms of their failures juxtaposed against the success of the U.S. in preventing another 9/11?

Miller: After 9/11, people like you did things that denied them sanctuary. Once they were denied open, effective sanctuary, they spent more time hiding from either Special Forces or drones than they did plotting. When your business model turns upside down and more of your investment is based on survival than it is an attack, you’re not going to be an effective offensive player, and they weren’t.

I think al-Qa`ida made two major organizational mistakes, driven by the inflexibility of al- Qa`ida senior leadership, particularly Usama bin Ladin, that drove the organization out of relevancy. The first one was a misjudgment on what the follow-up to 9/11 should have been. Bin Ladin believed that 9/11 was such a perfectly executed attack, he measured every future action along the idea that it had to be as good as 9/11 or exceed 9/11 to be effective. Having been a student of the dark art of terrorism, he didn’t want al-Qa`ida to fall into the hole that Hamas had, which is you blow up a bus and kill six or 12 people every week and still come out of it having gained nothing and only have brought more trouble upon yourself. That was his calculus.

After 9/11, had al-Qa`ida pivoted to get followers to do a suicide bombing in a mall and then another one in a movie theater and an active shooter in a crowded train station, it would have caused continued fear and panic and would have achieved the goal of terrorism, which is the daily questioning of the government’s authority, the government’s ability to protect people, the government’s motives in its decisions on Middle East policy, and all that comes with that. By putting all their eggs in one basket that the next one had to be as spectacular as 9/11, they really lost time. They allowed us in the intelligence community to detect and stop plots that would have been the next 9/11, like the 2006 transatlantic planes plot.

The second mistake is purely generational. After bin Ladin sat down and did the interview with me [Editor’s note: for ABC News in 1998], they never had to do that again because they discovered YouTube and could control their own video destiny, and they put out a series of videos and communiqués. But al-Qa`ida’s videos were all about bin Ladin or Zawahiri or Anwar al-Awlaki. By contrast, ISIS’ videos are all about the person who wants to join ISIS—what you could be, you clothed in valor, you as someone who now belongs. They are all over social media, and you can get in direct communication with them and take the conversations offline. They’re extremely tangible and reachable and real, and for a generation that actually tweets what they had for breakfast, a terrorist organization that reflects that level of communication and starts talking to them directly is going to be a real factor. Al-Qa`ida was all about “Me, Usama bin Ladin.” And that just didn’t sell.

Sheehan: How has the Islamic State’s skill at communicating translated into a threat here in the United States? 

Miller: The thing that ISIS does is they really understand their audience. They have some very convincing material, for example putting out compelling videos glorifying fighters from the West killed in battle. That’s to get you into the tent. What they do after that goes from brilliant to genius. They start to talk to you personally. If you look at the postings of Junaid Hussain,[a] who was a British individual who went by the Twitter handle Abu Hussain-al-Britani, he would post such things as, “You no longer need to go to a training camp to learn everything you need to know; you can get it all online.” And people would respond with questions or comments, and he would say, “Meet me on my Kik account.” Then he would talk to them directly.

The power of this ISIS instigation became fully apparent in the run up to the July 4 holiday last summer. In the course of the period from April 1 to July 4 in New York City, and from Boston to Morgantown, North Carolina, we had a dozen arrests in three or four plots, two of which targeted New York City directly, and this was all based on ISIS meeting people on Twitter and talking to them on encrypted apps. What we were seeing was a pace of cases and arrests and plotters that we hadn’t seen before. We were seeing that the mass marketing of terrorism was starting to be more effective than we had ever seen with any other kind of messaging before, including the messaging of Anwar al-Awlaki. But this was happening in rapid succession.

Sheehan: What have you been able to glean from recent cases about the radicalization process?

Miller: If you look at the 85 or so cases involving ISIL recruits or attempted terrorists or plotters nationwide, you start to identify three general categories. The first category is the loser category. This is the individual who is not making it at home with their families; they’re not making it at work professionally, or they’re not making it educationally. When they find their way to this propaganda that promises valor, belonging, and empowerment, they say, “Well, I don’t have to be a loser.”

The second category is those who seek adventure. And while it may be wrapped in a narrative of religion, these are people who want to travel to the Islamic State, to the Caliphate, to Syria and join ISIL because they’ve seen all the propaganda on how they can be a part of something bigger than themselves and escape their lives in America and live in this utopian society as it is depicted in the videos.

The third category is the one that’s the hardest to understand. When you look at people like the San Bernardino shooters, these are not losers. We have an individual who has a government job that’s very secure, a wife and a new baby, and who lives in a nice condo in a good neighborhood. [Attempted Times Square bomber] Faisal Shahzad is another case in point—a guy who had a job in the tech and finance world, who had a house in Connecticut and a wife and kids. It’s a different question you have to pose with these individuals. It’s not what they were running from but what they were running to and what pulled them. When Shahzad was interviewed by the FBI he said words to the effect of, “When I listened to the tapes of Anwar al-Awlaki, I thought he was talking to me.

Sheehan: I want to turn to a challenge faced by U.S. law enforcement communities. I think we need to realize that after San Bernardino and Chattanooga, the terrorists are not necessarily targeting New York or Boston or LA. I think that ISIS and even al-Qa`ida now have changed their model. Small towns and cities are now just as vulnerable, but I’m concerned that some of the smaller police forces are dedicating very few people to the JTTFs. Should local police forces be doing more? 

Miller: You pose an interesting question. The instruction from ISIS is attack with what you have where you are, so it’s clear the threat has become more geographically dispersed.

If you look at the communications in al-Qa`ida in Yemen’s Inspire magazine after the Boston marathon bombing, they acknowledge that these guys were smart to do it outside of what they referred to as the enemy’s main area of focus, meaning not New York, because they have become painfully aware of the level of successes in detection and prevention here in New York.

Before the bombings, if I’m the police department in Watertown, where the Boston Marathon bombers lived, I’ve got to ask myself, “We’re a small town outside of Boston. We don’t have iconic locations or targets. Do I really want to take somebody from my small detective squad and lose that person to the FBI?”

On the other hand, in the post-9/11 world, almost every agency should consider having at least one person on the JTTF because you want to know what’s going on in the environment around you, and that’s the best way to have access to that information.

It’s not just the numbers you have deployed on the JTTFs. When I was in LAPD, we only had 15 people on the JTTF out of a 10,000-person police force. But I had one person on every squad of the JTTF. When I called my team together at the end of every week, they could tell me everything that was going on in my threat environment as far as the JTTF knew, and that was of great value to me.

Sheehan: You talked about the Islamic State and their incredible capability in using social media to reach out to people. Talk to me about how you see their use of encryption creating challenges for the Bureau and NYPD. How bad is the problem?

Miller: This is the problem we refer to as going dark, and we’re getting darker all the time. This is technology where the aperture on law enforcement’s ability to look in on criminal and terrorist activities is getting smaller and smaller. Companies like Telegram and Wickr offer end-to-end encryption, which means a message will be encrypted when it goes up into the air, and it’ll be encrypted when it’s received. Telegram offers the option of making messages self-destruct. I can walk into one of these companies today with a federal search warrant and say I need the communications between Terrorist A and Terrorist B, and they can turn to me say, “Not only won’t I give it to you, but I can’t give it to you because it’s encrypted so we can’t retrieve it, save it, or decrypt it.” The more that aperture closes on being able to access communications in progress, the more you’re going to have to rely on human informants and to intervene earlier on in investigations.

On the other hand, not being able to access those devices is going to not just impede our ability to prevent events but also impede our ability to look back on events that have already happened, to understand who was behind it, and how to prevent the next one. This is an extraordinarily serious problem, and this is the great law of unintended consequences. Many of these apps were developed to help kids communicate securely. But soon terrorist groups, criminal networks, gangs, narcotics cartels looked at these apps and said, “This is sheer genius. This is what we’ve always been waiting for.”

Then when you have a company like Apple say it’s going to lock the device so it’s not available even under a court order and you have Google saying the same, then you have to ask how many crimes are not going to be solved or prevented because law enforcement can’t get legal access. And then you ask the hardest question of all, which is how much do we care as a society that we are going to create communication networks that are impenetrable not just for regular people but for criminal groups. Is that OK with everybody?

Sheehan: Last year, months before the November Paris attacks, the NYPD set up a major new command to respond to a potential terrorist mass shootings. Can you outline why the police commissioner took this decision and what the new organization is up to?

Miller: We were seeing the convergence of a couple of bad themes. One is the steady, nationwide increase in the number and lethality of active shooter incidences. The second was a greater adaptation by organized terrorist groups like AQ-network affiliates and particularly ISIS of the active shooter tactic as low-tech, low-cost, and extraordinarily high-impact. So we sent teams on fact-finding missions—to Paris, Sydney, Australia, and Tunisia. The tactical conclusions were that in all of these incidents, you have multiple attackers with multiple long rifles and multiple magazines with high capacity attacking places in attacks that went between four and nine minutes with sustained shooting.

We had to reflect on our model. The program we had at the time was the Critical Response Vehicles, where cops were borrowed from every precinct in the city and placed in front of high-profile locations as a visible deterrent against terrorism. But they had no particular special training or special equipment in confronting a terrorist attack.

So we developed a new 600-strong Critical Response Command on the idea that if we were borrowing the same people every day, year after year, we might as well make them a permanent force. Each of these people is hand-picked for their individual qualities and experience. They are trained on the M4 rifles. They are equipped. And they are given a daily intelligence briefing not just on the target they’re sitting in front of but about what went on over the last 24 hours in the world as it relates to tactics used in recent terrorist attacks.

When we saw the Paris attacks in November, it really validated our thinking that the rapid deployment of people who are properly trained, equipped, and armed would have made a difference had that happened in New York City.

Sheehan: Former Commissioner Ray Kelly initiated the Lower Manhattan Security Initiative, including using cutting-edge technologies to defend the World Trade Center. I know this is something you’ve continued to develop. What can you tell us about the latest?

Miller: The Lower Manhattan Security Initiative started with a network of cameras to protect the Financial District, but it has expanded out up through midtown. The genius of what was developed under Commissioner Kelly was the mixing of imagery from video with layers of data. If you take arrest data, DMV information, and so on, you’re able to add or take out layers to give you as rich a picture as you need. It’s not so much about getting new information as being able to marshal and empower the information you already have to make connections that would take a police officer or an analyst perhaps weeks or months to otherwise find.

Previously, all of that information was facing inward to the counterterrorism bureau, to police headquarters, to the command staff, but the average cop in the street couldn’t really access immediately. What [NYPD Deputy Commissioner for Information and Technology] Jessica Tisch did, on orders from Commissioner Bratton, was to use forfeiture money from the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office with funds from the city to buy 20,000—soon to be 36,000—smartphones for all of the police officers in the field. So now they can check everything from the 911 calls to license plate data and criminal records.

From a counterterrorism standpoint, this is completely invaluable. If we got a tip in NYC that a known individual was coming in to execute a suicide bombing operation in Times Square, only six months ago we would have had to call all the cops in, broadcast the description over the police radio, read it to them at roll call, hold up a picture, or try to make copies to pass out. Now we can trace that out to everybody with the click of a mouse, so that’s really moved us forward in terms of turning every single officer of the NYPD out in the field, no matter what their assignment is, into a counterterrorism resource.

Maria Southard is a graduate of George Washington University where she specialized in security policy. She is currently an intern at the Combating Terrorism Center. 

Substantive Notes
[a] Junaid Hussain, a British Islamic State operative, was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Syria in August 2015 and has been linked to several terrorist plots in the West. One of the gunmen who planned to attack an event in Garland, Texas, in May 2015 exchanged more than 100 messages with Hussain the morning of the attempted attack. See reporting by Evan Perez, “Situation Room,” CNN, December 17, 2015.

Stay Informed

Sign up to receive updates from CTC.

Sign up