FBI agent Michael McPherson was getting ready for working a later shift than usual with his FBI unit focused on combating drugs in New York.
Then he heard the news that the first airplane had hit one of the Twin Towers.
“From the initial reports, I already knew something was wrong… I immediately started heading toward the office. While I was in the car driving toward the FBI’s downtown Manhattan office, the second airplane hit,” he recounted in a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post.
The 15-minute commute from his home in Hoboken, New Jersey, across the Hudson River to downtown was only a few miles, but it was not a regular trip. He remembered that “all of the tunnels were closed and only law enforcement” were able to use them.
McPherson said that the tunnel, whose standard traffic can make it look like a parking lot, was eerily empty with only himself and one other car with sirens dashing to ground zero.
When he arrived he said all hands were on deck from the FBI field office, but that the scene was still one of “complete chaos.”
He was only blocks away when the first tower fell.
He said the scenes and smells were horrific and that people “ducked back” into nearby buildings for cover.
McPherson said he would not forget “the odd horrific scene of people jumping out of windows” and that it quickly became clear that it was not yet safe for first responders to set up a perimeter to start trying to manage the scene.
The FBI agent said that there were, “all kinds of wrong reports on the radio” but that at that moment “everything seemed possible. It was terrifying for everyone there… anyone who had been there, the smell will stay with them the rest of lives. The building core burned for 100 days.”
All of this is McPherson’s preliminary story to explain the moment at which he knew he needed to switch from combating drugs to counterterrorism.
“At the time, I didn’t know much about terror at all,” but he knew “that counter terrorism was where I needed to be,” he said.
Fast-forward 17 years and McPherson, now one of the FBI’s top counter-terror officials, visited Israel last week as part of his ongoing efforts to liaison with other countries’ law enforcement agencies on behalf of the US.
One of McPherson’s biggest missions has been to facilitate cooperation within the Muslim-American community in the US to help catch lone wolf terrorists
who, unlike organized terror groups which leave all sorts of footprints, may only leave clues with close family about their dangerous development.
This problem is doubled when considering the levels of encryption that many electronic devices employ which can sometimes block law enforcement from pursuing leads.
“The best way to solve the lone wolf problem across the world is through human intelligence,” he said.
“We refer to them as a bystander, the only person who saw a change. The bystanders are the ones who can look for the anomaly. We go to communities and we ask them to look for us. They ask us what to look for? The key for bystanders that something is an anomaly” is not science, but “something that isn’t right” when you know a person well.
“Bystanders are the most important tools in the fight to detect and prevent” lone wolf attacks,” he said.
McPherson said that even with 37,000 FBI agents, law enforcement must “rely on partners. All of us have limits. We have a finite number of employees, hours and computer based analysis” that can be done on more than 1,000 ongoing counter-terrorism probes, including those connected to ISIS.
The FBI tries its best, but “cannot keep up with the technology. We must find them before the intervals” when lone wolves “go dark” or become set on a terror plot, he said.
How credible are the tips the FBI gets? “Generally the FBI put a lot of credence into when a family member or close associate comes with information. You don’t see family members giving false information.” he said.
Explaining that usually a family member realizes he can no longer deal with the information he has on his own, he said that they are “trying to do the right thing. Sometimes it washes out and there is nothing there. Other times have been successful” and prevented attacks.
Asked if family members need witness protection like gang informants often do, he said that was not part of the picture as usually the “informer” is someone who “cares for the person and it is not a violent act towards them.”
Often, he explained that parents come forward regarding “minor children they need help with” and tell the FBI “I am concerned about my son or about my daughter.”
He added that there is “not always an arrest” and that interventions have led both to stopping terrorist attacks and to successfully deradicalizing individuals who were on the wrong path, but could still be reached.
Some people have even later come back and thanked the FBI for turning a minor child around.
This is different than gang informants who may want to settle scores or who start assisting law enforcement to save their own skin.
Of course, McPherson noted that, “It is not all roses. Sometimes we arrest a person and the parents ask ‘Why did you arrest them?’”
“At some point, they cross a line… someone commits a crime and we need to act on it… It is a messy gray area when dealing with issues with close relatives… It is a difficult conversation to have,” he said.
In the world of ISIS, using social media as its primary tool to promote global terror, McPherson said, “it takes a network to do this.”
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