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World Counter Terror Congress: FBI Counterterrorism Explained

Data-driven Analysis Supplements Qualitative Work

Just three and a half weeks into his new job as Assistant Director of the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division, Michael McGarrity left his audience this morning in no doubt as to his priorities.

“Homegrown Violent Extremists (HVE) are the primary terrorism threat facing the United States,” he told delegates at the World Counter Terror Congress, taking place alongside Security and Counter Terror Expo 2018 in London this week.

With over 1,000 open HVE investigations and the added problem that “there is no typical profile for an HVE,” his work – and that of his division – appears to be an uphill struggle. But there are signs that progress is being made. Arrests run at an average of two per week at the moment which, given the legal protections afforded to suspects and the immense difficulty of deriving intent from data analysis, is not as paltry a number as it may at first seem.

The machine of state has been wheeled out in support of counter terror efforts right across the United States: over 200 Joint Terrorism Task Forces, 600 participating agencies and 4,500 individual members combine to address the growing threat as radicalisation continues apace. While radicalisation itself takes place on a timescale that can stretch from 6 months to ten years, mobilisation – turning intent into action – marches to the beat of a much faster drum, according to McGarrity – between one and twelve months.

It is a difficult task to explain while maintaining operational security, but McGarrity was refreshingly – not to say surprisingly – open in his presentation and dealt with questions in similar fashion. MONS will expand on his presentation at a later date. Meanwhile, one of his statements provides food for considerable thought – and debate. “We supplement our qualitative work with data-driven analysis [….] big data analytics helps us enormously in determining intent,” he observed.

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