Oklahoma City, Oklahoma


Counterterrorism and Intelligence Framework

The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 brought a fundamental change to the United States’ outlook on homeland security. Before these attacks, America sat safely behind its borders, happily dealing with most of the global issues beyond the seas. The morning of the attacks on 9/11 brought into focus the weaknesses of the country. America was not as safe as she had once thought. Her enemies had taken advantage of her vulnerabilities and dealt a decisive blow. That blow served as a wake up to the weaknesses of homeland security. Within days of the attacks, steps had begun to strengthen the security and remove the vulnerabilities of the nation.

With twelve years now separating the nation from the events of 9/11, the sixty terrorist plots that have been foiled within its borders stand as a testament to the efforts of the counterterror teams (Zuckerman, Bucci, & Carafano, 2013). The strength, dedication and desire of these task forces desire to bolster homeland security is to be commended. Creating a well-functioning counterterrorist and intelligence framework in a dynamic world has been both challenging and daunting. The primary agencies tasked with gathering and analyzing data have successfully worked at creating successful joint operations. Within this dynamic world the counterterror framework must continually evolve to meet tomorrow’s challenges. As terrorist organizations plan the next wave of attacks, so joint forces too must plan on how to meet the upcoming terrorist strategies.

Participating Agencies

Successful counterterror operations must employ the strengths of multiple departments. Through the variety of tactics in which each agency specializes, a joint operation by the counterterror task force can then utilize the full extent of the United States agencies’ abilities. A framework, then, must be set in place that utilizes each agencies’ strength to combat terrorist planning.

Throughout the planning process each avenue the enemy may attempt to exploit must be taken into consideration. There are three general theatres within the framework of counterterrorism: domestic operations, international operations, and cyberspace operations. It is within one or more of these theatres that terrorist attacks could occur. It is within these theatres that intelligence can be gleaned and strategically efficient counterterror operations will be carried out.

For the United States Department of Homeland Security to successfully handle these operations, they must employ and partner with agencies whose talents can best be specifically utilized in the individual theatres. Below, three agencies are considered for their ability to fulfill their roles and responsibilities in the counterterror framework.

Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)

Standing as the undisputed investigative branch of the federal government, the FBI naturally assumed a strong role in counterterror operations. Its investigative prowess makes it an indispensable taskforce that “neutralizes terrorist cells and operatives within the U.S… and [works] to cut off financing and other forms of support provided by terrorist sympathizers” (FBI, 2014). Through its tireless investigations the FBI has played an extremely active role in the apprehension of terrorists since 9/11.

Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)

Shrouded by its many secretive operations, the CIA most likely has undergone the least amount of change since 9/11. The lessons the agency learned during the Cold War has aided in its transition into Middle Eastern operations. Making full use of the clandestine service, the CIA has been able to strengthen national security and foreign policy objectives through the intelligence collection and covert actions (CIA, Clandestine Service, 2012). Uninhibited by many of the civil rights laws that govern law enforcement agencies in the United States, the CIA operates out of the necessity to gain information throughout the globe. This allows the CIA to maintain real-time intelligence on terrorist organizations who try to hide behind sympathizing governments.

National Security Agency (NSA)

In the sixty years of operation, the NSA has made many strides to get where it is today. From its beginnings of breaking German and Japanese codes in WWII, the NSA now plays a crucial role in a digital world. Throughout counterterror operations the NSA has been able to provide much intelligence based on its assets that range from hacking to satellite images. It has become the eyes and ears throughout the cyber world. With many terrorist organizations turning more towards digital communications, the NSA has found its place within counterterror operations.

Functions of Counterterror Agencies

It becomes clear to see why these agencies have earned their seat at the joint counterterror table. Each agency possesses the skills needed to secure the homeland. The combination of strengths that each agency is able to bring to the table cover the three major theatres of operations which were discussed earlier.

Domestic Investigations

Homeland security is the crux of counterterrorism. In the end, the Global War on Terror (GWOT), counterterrorism, and counter intelligence missions are for the protection of the homeland and the citizens of the United States. It is the FBI that has been tasked with investigating federal crimes and actions against America both within the homeland and its interests abroad.

There is no other civilian agency at the United States’ disposal that is able to mobilize the man-power and experience in investigations more than the FBI. From crime scene investigation through investigations to sting operations, the depth of work done to counter terror plans is staggering. On the terrorism task force alone, there are eleven continuously run operations, each geared towards counterterror or response to terror attacks (FBI, 2014).

As a member of the United States federal law enforcement community, the FBI’s jurisdiction is not worldwide. Its focus is generally not distracted by international investigations. The FBI’s ability to conduct strong, ethical investigations and its desire to gather intelligence have given it a place in many of the large international terrorist attack investigations. Notwithstanding, the agency’s mission is domestic in nature and lessons learned and intelligence gathered in such circumstances are pooled to better equip America’s homeland security.

Of the sixty-plus terrorist plots that have been disrupted within the United States since 9/11, the FBI has played a role in nearly all of them. Often inserting undercover agents into the planning stages of the attacks, it is able to keep close watch on suspected terrorist operations and plans within the country (Zuckerman, Bucci & Carafano, 2013). After sufficient evidence to arrest and convict is obtained, the FBI makes its move.

International Investigations

Too often, counterterror investigations lead to areas of the world where United States agencies have no jurisdiction, nor are they welcome. The sphere of influence of the FBI and other publicly sanctioned missions face a brick wall when attempting to investigate or gather intelligence in such instances. In these occasions, more covert operations can take the place of law enforcement agency operations.  Such work falls into the hands of the CIA.

The CIA’s operations span intelligence and analysis, science and technology and clandestine services. Used by both military and civilian operations, these services are spread out over much of the globe. This alone has positioned the CIA to help in international counterterror operations, and though only “intelligence” is in its name, it is also an agency of action.

The ability for the CIA to infiltrate, gather intelligence and determine action against high value targets is all but whispered about throughout the United States. There are those who have attempted to tighten the leash around the agency, pointing to its clandestine activities as a threat to freedom and civil liberties the world over; however, these same people are those who call for the agency to keep the same effective standards the nation has grown to expect (Canon, 1980, page 205). It is obvious that for effective counterterror and intelligence gathering operations to be conducted outside the United States’ immediate jurisdictions, agencies such as the CIA must be allowed to operate to their full potential and mission objectives. The brevity of national security does not allow the nation to hide behind formal procedures. The nation must allow her assets the ability to follow leads and investigations pertaining to terror groups as far as possible. The CIA becomes that long arm of the counterterror task force, willing and able to penetrate where no other civilian branch of the United States is able.

Cyber Investigations

With the explosion of data technology in the last decade, the internet has become yet another front in counterterror operations. In the complexity of the internet, terrorist organizations are able to lead both passive and active attacks on its targets. By way of passive means, terrorist groups and radical imams can reach a greater audience with their jihad ideologies. By way of forums and websites, radicalized Muslim ideologies are able to be viewed and discussed across the world. Their sphere of influence has grown immensely. Some terror groups do not stop with digital propaganda. Cyberterror has begun to take center stage in counterterror as attacks have increased (Sanger, 2012). These attacks are pushing more on the infrastructure components of the American society.

The NSA deals in both defensive and offensive operations. The actions of the enemy determines the NSA’s defensive stand. Within its core mission, the NSA helps protect the United States’ national security systems (NSA, 2011). Thus, when attacks are made to the United States’ infrastructure, it rests on the shoulders of the NSA to combat and disable the attacks.

Often criticized for its offensive operations, the NSA is most known for its interception of cyber data. This data can be utilized by the other participating counterterror agencies. The NSA stands in a unique position as it has no investigative authority or ability to act on its knowledge in and of itself. Its primary purpose within counterterror operations is to support other agencies’ efforts. It becomes, then, the eyes and ears within the data world when intercepting and digitally tracking suspected terror groups across the globe. There are a variety of ways this is done and will be discussed in the next section.

Disciplines and Tools of the Agencies

The above agencies which comprise the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) bring together their strengths to assist counterterror operations. The many disciplines are used by agencies to bring about a robust tool chest which the JTTF can utilize. Three such tools will be discussed which are used within the JTTF.

Imagery Intelligence (IMINT)

The saying goes that a picture is worth a thousand words. But with those tasked in IMINT, pictures are worth lives. Within the JTTF, this discipline spands across all agencies mentioned above. In fact, each has its own set of abilities to obtain imagery for analysis.

When thinking of IMINT, people often think of high-tech instruments used to capture images; however, the reliance on the good old fashioned camera is still very much used. This can mean a point-and-click film (or digital) camera, or Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) that can be accessed from convenient stores, ATMs, traffic cameras or a host of other capturing equipment.

There is more advanced equipment that is employed by JTTF: satellites and drones are often utilized to capture images (FBI, Disciplines, 2013). These are often used in reconnaissance work in areas where agencies are unable or not allowed to enter. The manner in which images are captured can vary. Often, infrared or thermographic (cameras that detect heat) are used. These allow IMINT analysts to see movement when it would otherwise escape the naked eye, such as in the dark.

Signals Intelligence (SIGINT)

Though other agencies practice this discipline in varying degrees, this area is the NSA’s cornerstone (NSA, Signals). SIGINT is the capturing, decoding and analyzing of signals. Within the digital age to which the global culture is turning, many signals abound. The NSA works diligently to capture information that could lead to uncovering terrorist plans. This is done by way of surveilling computer activities as well as conversations on the internet, land lines and cell phones. In addition, signals being sent via satellites or other forms of communication are monitored as investigators see fit.

Human-Source Intelligence (HUMINT)

By far the oldest source of intelligence is that by which one person tells another person what they know. Those who deal in HUMINT have taken this daily task which most humans have done for thousands of years, and perfected it into an art form. Used by law enforcement agencies across the United States, such as the FBI, it is used quite thoroughly through their many investigations. The CIA, however, has a unique strength when dealing with human intelligence. According to their website, the CIA utilizes HUMINT to collect clandestine acquisitions, overt collection and debriefing, to name a few (CIA, HUMINT, 2013).

During the GWOT and counterterror operations, there have been reports that the CIA turned some detainees at Guantanamo Bay Detention Center into double agents (FoxNews, 2012). “Officials knew there was a chance that some prisoners might quickly spurn their deal and kill Americans” (FoxNews, 2012). Often, using human intelligence must be done with an accepted amount of risk. Sending operators or double-agents into hostile areas does not always bring desired results, but it is the nature of HUMINT.

Intelligence and Counterterrorism Polices

It is the recommendation of this author that stronger policies should be used to strengthen the already strong framework that guides counterterror and intelligence operations. The counterterror frameworks, such as the one being discussed, are still fairly young. Awakened by the events of 9/11, America had to quickly piece together their counterterror mission and assign agencies to better bolster the security of the nation. It is, then, understandable that work can still be done to strengthen these operations.

Information Sharing

The federal government has worked towards an interagency taskforce which works together towards combating terrorism. This system has proved many times over that co-opting agencies form a strong taskforce.  This system has failed to truly trickle down to state and local law enforcement agencies. “In particular, the FBI should make a more concerted effort to share information more broadly with state and local law enforcement. State and local law enforcement agencies are the front lines of the United States’ national security strategy (Zuckerman, Bucci, & Carafano, 2013). No other agency is out on the main streets of America as much as local law enforcement. With added briefings and shared information, law enforcement can strengthen its knowledge and ability to detect activities that could help counterterror operations.

Promoting Public Vigilance and Utilizing Alert Systems

Since 9/11, travelers are told by a stereotypical voice in airports to report any suspicious activities to the TSA or law enforcement personnel. But what is suspicious? What should be deemed as being activity worth reporting? The American people are becoming numb once again to the threats that abound. With security screeners ready to frisk anyone who sets off an alarm, and with law enforcement patrolling curbside drop off zones, it is easy for the public to ignore warnings to be alert. It becomes important to stimulate the American public to threats and the need to remain vigilant wherever they may be.

In 2011 the National Terrorism Advisory System (NTAS) replaced the pallet of colors that issued terror alerts since 9/11 (NTAS, 2011). This is a good start for the American people. The NTAS shares risk communications to the American people, along with practical measures for all affected Americans; however, it must be utilized by JTTF and Homeland Security. Since its implementation there has been little use of it. Searching the NTAS website, this author found no evidence that it has ever been used. It appeared as if it has not been updated since its implementation. Maintaining alerts and public education must be a part of the NTAS system. This system must become more familiar to the American people to be better accepted when it becomes necessary. Once this is in place, the public will become an asset to law enforcement rather than just a group to protect.

Promoting a Proactive Approach
It is not difficult to see that much of the security within the country is based off a reactive approach to terrorism. Having to take shoes off at the TSA counters due to the Shoe Bomber is a reactionary approach which fails to make strides towards preventing new terror attacks. The JTTF must begin to analyze trends from gathered intelligence and from attacks around the world that would better prepare the public and law enforcement for what they could be facing. If public security continues to only carry out reactionary approaches, it will fail “to recognize the pervasive nature of the threat posed by terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and homegrown extremism” (Zuckerman, Bucci, & Carafano, 2013). This will translate to a stronger, more dynamic approach that will not only add to the strength of homeland security, but also keep America one step ahead of terrorist plots.


It is not difficult to see that the United States homeland security is stronger than it was at the 9/11 attacks. Part of America’s exceptionalism is the ability to rise to the occasion and meet challenges head on. It is evident that the JTTF and counterterror operations have done exactly that. This does not mean that America can relax. Terror groups are always looking for weaknesses to exploit. It is the duty of America – beginning with the counterterror and intelligence operators, along with the help of the public – to remain vigilant.


Canon, D. (1980). Intelligence and ethics: The CIA’s covert operations. The Journal of Libertarian Studies4(2). Retrieved from http://mises.org/journals/jls/4_2/4_2_6.pdf

CIA, Clandestine Service (2012, July 2). Our mission. Retrieved January 12, 2014, from https://www.cia.gov/offices-of-cia/clandestine-service/our-mission.html

CIA, HUMINT (2013, April 30). INTelligence: Human Intelligence. Retrieved from https://www.cia.gov/news-information/featured-story-archive/2010-featured-story-archive/intelligence-human-intelligence.html

FBI, Disciplines (2013). FBI — Intelligence Collection Disciplines. Retrieved from http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/intelligence/disciplines

FBI (2014). Terrorism. Retrieved from http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/investigate/terrorism

FoxNews (2013, November 26). CIA reportedly turned some Gitmo prisoners into double agents at secret facility | Fox News. Retrieved from http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2013/11/26/cia-reportedly-turned-some-gitmo-prisoners-into-double-agents-at-secret/

NSA, Signals (2011, September 9). Signals Intelligence – NSA/CSS. Retrieved from http://www.nsa.gov/sigint/

NSA (2011, April 15). The NSA/CSS Mission. Retrieved from http://www.nsa.gov/about/mission/index.shtml

NTAS (2011). National Terrorism Advisory System. Retrieved from www.dhs.gov/national-terrorism-advisory-system

Sanger, D. E. (2012, July 26). Cyberattacks are up, National Security Chief says. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/27/us/cyberattacks-are-up-national-security-chief-says.html?_r=0

Zuckerman, J., Bucci, S. P., & Carafano, J. J. (2013, June 24). 60 terrorist plots since 9/11: lessons in domestic counterterrorism. Retrieved from http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2013/07/60-terrorist-plots-since-911-continued-lessons-in-domestic-counterterrorism

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