Electronic copy of a paper published in Counterterrorism: From the Cold War to the War on Terror, Volume 1, edited by Frank G. Shanty. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger/ABC-CLIO, 2012. Also available in print-friendly pdf format.
Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2012. "Joint Terrorism Task Forces." Pp. 423-426 in Counterterrorism: From the Cold War to the War on Terror, Volume 1, edited by Frank G. Shanty. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger/ABC-CLIO.
Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTFs) are cooperative counterterrorism forces consisting of officers drawn from multiple police and security agencies. They constitute the most central law enforcement means by which terrorist activities are investigated in the United States. JTTFs are organized and managed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the primary U.S. law enforcement organization responsible for counterterrorism cases, but they are comprised of officers from many different law enforcement agencies, including other federal police and security agencies (such as the US Coast Guard, Immigration and Customs Enforcement [ICE], and Customs and Border Protection [CBP]), regional law enforcement agencies (including state and municipal police agencies), as well as other first-responder organizations.
Joint Terrorism Task Forces engage in all aspects of a counterterrorism investigation, including following up on information and leads, the gathering of evidence, the collection of intelligence, and the making of arrests. JTTFs thus seek to fulfill reactive objectives to respond to and investigate terrorist cases as well as be pro-actively engaged in counterterrorism efforts by seeking to deter and prevent terrorist activity. Additionally, JTTFs provide security at special events, such as mass sports gatherings, and organize counterterrorism training for law enforcement personnel. Presently, there are about 100 JTTFs operating across the territory of the United States, with at least one Task Force in each FBI field office. These various JTTFs are locally organized and coordinate their respective efforts through a National Joint Terrorism Task Force that is located at the FBI headquarters in Washington, DC. In total, almost 4,000 officers are working in JTTFs, with a little over half of those coming from the FBI itself.
Joint Terrorism Task Forces exemplify the centrality that is accorded to inter-agency cooperation in the organization of counterterrorism police work in the United States. At the governmental level, the emphasis on cooperation is demonstrated by the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, which brings together a multitude of counterterrorism and security agencies. At the level of police, cooperation is articulated in various inter-agency partnerships, such as the Border Enforcement Security Task Forces (BEST) under the direction of ICE, the Integrated Border Enforcement Teams (IBET) under the supervision of CBP, and the FBI-run Joint Terrorism Task Forces. The first JTTF was set up in New York City in 1980 in response to domestic terrorism coming from ethnic-nationalist groups. This first, small Task Force consisted of some eleven FBI special agents and eleven detectives from the New York City Police Department. In the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the strategy of employing JTTFs was considerably expanded. No less than 65 (of 100) Task Forces have been created after the events of 9/11.
The main advantage of the JTTF, from the viewpoint of the FBI, is that it serves as a so-called ‘force-multiplier’ because many of the agents in a JTTF are recruited from other agencies, yet work in function of FBI objectives. Thus, the FBI has been able to alleviate some of the budgetary and personnel pressures that had been placed on the Bureau by the massive re-assignment of its special agents to terrorism cases after the events of September 11. The JTTF is for the FBI primarily a cost-efficient structure of cooperation. From an operational viewpoint, moreover, the JTTFs can facilitate communication exchange among various agencies and they provide integrated enforcement of terrorism investigations. Among police officials, these advantages are conceived of in terms of an objective of ‘fusion,’ whereby counterterrorist intelligence can be shared vertically from the FBI’s central headquarters to the various local JTTFs as well as horizontally across all participating agencies. It is to be noted that inter-agency police partnerships such as the JTTF are practical arrangements that are independently created by law enforcement agencies outside the context of legal regulations and irrespective of any political considerations.
Affecting the success of JTTF activities, the centrality of cooperation is not always evenly recognized across law enforcement agencies, especially not among local police organizations which may emphasize other concerns besides terrorism. Most striking in this respect has been the decision to withdraw the local police from participation in a Joint Terrorism Task Force that had been set up in Portland, Oregon in the wake of September 11. Among certain community groups in the city, concerns had been raised about the purported overly broad surveillance powers that would be accorded to municipal police officers through participation in the FBI-managed Joint Terrorism Task Force. Furthermore, it was alleged that that local officials would not be able to overlook the activities of the city police agents when they would be cooperating with the FBI. These concerns were amplified after FBI agents had arrested seven Muslim Americans in the Portland area in October 2002 and April 2003. The arrests, now known as the case of the ‘Portland Seven,’ angered not only Islamic leaders in the local Oregonian community but also fueled anxieties about the potential of counterterrorism law enforcement police efforts potentially violating civil rights and relying on problematic surveillance methods, such as racial profiling tactics. In 2005, then newly elected mayor Tom Potter eventually led a successful effort to withdraw the Portland Police Bureau’s participation from the JTTF. Despite such occasional criticisms and obstacles, however, the Join Terrorism Task Force remains the primary structure through which U.S. police investigate terrorist activity in the United States.
Deflem, Mathieu. The Policing of Terrorism: Organizational and Global Perspectives. New York: Routledge, 2010.
Erickson, Kris, John Carr, and Steve Herbert. “The Scales of Justice: Federal-Local Tensions in the War on Terror.” Pp. 231-253 in Uniform Behavior: Police Localism and National Politics, edited by S.K. McGoldrick and A. McArdle. Palgrave-Macmillan, 2006.
Herman, Susan N. “Collapsing Spheres: Joint Terrorism Task Forces, Federalism, and the War On Terror.” Willamette Law Review 41 (2005): 941-969.
Murphy, Gerard R. and Martha R. Plotkin. Protecting Your Community from Terrorism. Improving Local-Federal Partnerships. Vol. 1: Improving Local-Federal Partnerships. Washington, DC: Police Executive Research Forum, 2003.