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'If we fail, people die': Joint Terrorism Task Force reflects on changes since 9/11

Joint Terrorism Task Force
Posted at 11:27 AM, Sep 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-10 17:52:12-04

TAMPA, Fla. — September 11, 2001, marks a point in time that will define what Americans think of when they hear the word “terrorism.” But that definition, the threat to Americans and how it can take shape, has changed over the decades following that fateful day.

A front-line defense against terrorism is the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTFs). The task forces are made up of federal, state, and local partners who come together to investigate leads, make arrests, collect and share intelligence, and respond to threats.

Mission: Prevention of terrorist attacks
The resources poured into our nation’s Joint Terrorism Task Forces have grown immensely over the last 20 years. Prior to 9/11, there were fewer than 40 Joint Terrorism Task Forces across the country. One of them was in Tampa. Today, there are more than 200.

“It changed the nation. It changed the organization,” FBI Tampa’s Special Agent in Charge Michael McPherson said.

9/11 is a “North Star” of sorts for the FBI — a point of reference from the past, helping to guide the future of the federal agency.

“It has been our #1 mission since September 11th and will always be our #1 mission — prevention of terrorist attacks,” McPherson said.

Supervisory Special Agent Kelly Shannon leads the Tampa field office’s Joint Terrorism Task Force for domestic terrorism and said when it comes to where agents were on 9/11, “you have a broad mix of perspectives.” Shannon was a Naval ROTC student at the time.

SSA Kelly Shannon Navy Ship
FBI Supervisory Special Agent Kelly Shannon is a veteran of the Navy and was deployed to the Arabian Gulf in the spring after 9/11.

“I was commissioned the spring after 9/11 occurred, deployed in the Navy over to the Arabian Gulf,” Shannon said. “Reflecting on that at 20 years, I think is sort of a stark reminder to us of potential threats that are out there.”

Shannon said, for those who were there, working on 9/11, in the immediate aftermath, and the war that followed, it’s important to share those lived experiences with younger agents, “so they better understand why we do what we do” on the Joint Terrorism Task Force.

“The ‘why’ is, if we fail, people die. It’s that stark. And that clarity, we have to talk to our employees about.”

FBI Special Agent Kelly Shannon
FBI Supervisory Special Agent Kelly Shannon leads the domestic terrorism side of Tampa's Joint Terrorism Task Force.

85% of FBI agents have come in after 9/11
It’s an understanding, a perspective McPherson told the ABC Action News I-Team, most special agents today do not have.

“I looked at the numbers in the FBI — over 85 percent of our FBI agents now have come in after September 11th. That’s a significant number,” McPherson said.

FBI Director Christopher Wray added a training requirement for new agents and intelligence analysts to visit the National September 11 Memorial & Museum.

‘My God, we’re under attack’
McPherson was a special agent working the New York field office on 9/11, investigating Colombian drug trafficking organizations. He was also a member of the SWAT team. It's something he said he really doesn't talk about, but feels it's important this history, as the years pass, isn't forgotten.

“I was living and working in the city, working a different violation, and not thinking about terrorism. Shame on me. Shame on a lot of us, that maybe we should have, but I think a lot of us have changed after September 11th and think about terrorism differently,” McPherson said.

Thinking back to 9/11, McPherson recalled what a beautiful morning it was, with blue skies.

“Everyone who was there will say, ‘It was the nicest day you’ve ever seen’,” he said.

McPherson lived across the river in New Jersey. It took him just minutes to get into the city.

FBI Tampa Special Agent in Charge Michael McPherson
FBI Tampa Special Agent in Charge Michael McPherson was working with the FBI as a drug agent and SWAT team member in New York City on 9/11.

“The tunnels were already closed. It was a surreal feeling driving into the city with the police officers, the entire city was closed off at that time, so being the only car driving through the Holland tunnel, driving to lower Manhattan and emerging from the tunnel and seeing the towers on fire,” he said.

McPherson recalled the chaos.

“Trying to discern what is what, thinking, ‘My God, we’re under attack. The country is under attack.”

He said the sights, the smells… they’ve stayed with him.

“Seeing the dust cloud that just overwhelmed you, something you would see in a movie, but it wasn’t a movie. And seeing the people walking down the street, covered, dazed, confused, walking but not knowing where they’re going,” McPherson said.

Then there was the smell.

“They’ll talk about the smell of after the towers fell, that stayed in the city for months and months. The core of the World Trade Center burned for nearly 100 days, it was on fire. That's a long time for that just to smolder in the city, that memory,” he said.

McPherson told the I-Team it was not long after 9/11 that he made a change and went from working on drugs to working on terrorism.

The White House | Executive Order on Declassification Review of Certain Documents Concerning the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001

“There was some unfinished business,” McPherson said. “I wanted to get involved to do a different part to protect the people…I felt a calling.”

McPherson said, “seeing how evil exists in the world,” has guided his leadership and the motivation to fight against it.

“Back then, there was a wall between intelligence and law enforcement,” McPherson said, saying today, there is not the patience for turf battles. “That’s what motivates me, is how well we can worth together.”

A shift to prevention
That collaboration through Tampa’s Joint Terrorism Task Force, made up of 18 member agencies, is what led to the arrest of Muhammed Al-Azhari in May 2020.

Al-Azhari, 23 years old at the time, was charged with “attempting to provide material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organization.”

“The Al-Azhari case was very much a large-scale investigation and operation,” Shannon said, one that tapped into national resources as well.

The federal complaint said Al-Azhari, who lives in Tampa, has a criminal history that includes prior terrorism charges in Saudi Arabia. The complaint also said he is an “admirer” of the Pulse nightclub shooter and has expressed a desire to carry out similar acts of violence, and that he researched and scouted potential targets in the Tampa Bay area.

Bayshore Blvd.
Tampa's Bayshore Boulevard

Those potential targets included Tampa’s iconic Bayshore Blvd., according to the complaint. Federal court documents said, while under FBI surveillance, Al-Azhari drove from Tampa to Honeymoon Island State Park and when he arrived at the gate area, he turned and drove back without stopping. The complaint goes on to say Al-Azhari purchased firearms illegally.

In reference to the September 11th attacks, Al-Azhari told co-workers at Home Depot “he believed that Americans got what they deserved,” according to court documents.

Last year, Al-Azhari’s public defender told ABC Action News, “The government’s charges in this case unfairly attempt to portray this United States citizen as a terrorist. The allegations misunderstand both the law and the evidence. I’m thankful that in this country everyone enjoys a presumption of innocence, and I look forward to Mr. Al-Azhari’s day in court before a jury of his peers.”

While the case is ongoing, the investigation is an example of a change in mindset the FBI said happened after 9/11.

“The FBI has always been really, really good at solving crimes, but now we have to shift to prevent it,” McPherson said. “How do you prevent someone to do something before they’re going to do it? Lot harder than it sounds.”

New challenges

McPherson told the I-Team one of the biggest changes since 9/11 is how the FBI finds people who pose a threat.

In the past, traveling to certain areas could trigger a warning.

“We’d get tips from our intelligence community partners, from our military and foreign governments of — these are the people that came to the area, this might be a terrorist, here’s phone communications. Fast forward 20 years later, people are getting radicalized online,” McPherson said. “Now we have to find them ourselves, those ways of being told about people traveling to a certain area where we knew a training camp was, doesn’t exist anymore. They’re getting trained on the internet. That’s pretty hard to find sometimes. Some of it is in encrypted areas and some of it we don’t have access to.”

This is why help from the public is critical, he says.

“If you’re the public and you see something or you’re concerned about something, you shouldn’t burden yourself with going to bed at night and saying, ‘Should I say something, should I not say something, I don’t know.’ That’s our job. So pass that burden to us so we can vet it out.”

The threats are both foreign and domestic.

“How individuals are using online communication platforms and certainly the dissemination of propaganda to radicalize individuals has had an immense impact on the evolution of the threat over time, both for international terrorism and domestic terrorism,” Shannon said.

FBI's Most Wanted | U.S. Capitol Violence

As of Aug. 31, Tampa’s Joint Terrorism Task Force has arrested 34 people in connection to the January 6th insurrection. More arrests are expected.

“It was clearly a domestic terrorism attack on our democracy. There was violence, there was a political agenda, and there was violation of federal crime,” McPherson said. “We will stand here and we will hold you accountable if you’re going to break a federal law and impose violence on other people.”

McPherson said, as terrorism takes on different forms, there’s a constant.

“There’s a threat that persists in this country and we can’t forget that. It may change, it may metastasize and be in a little different form, but it’s still here.”

McPherson told the I-Team 9/11 stays with them because the loss did not stop 20 years ago.

“We lost one agent that day,” McPherson said. “But since that day, we’ve lost 18 agents who’ve died with 9/11-related cancers.”

The FBI 9/11 Toll By the Numbers
Credit: FBI

  • Approximately 4,000 FBI employees responded to 9/11 sites.
  • About 1,000 current and former employees are registered for the World Trade Center Health Program or are in the process of registering.
  • At least 100 FBI employees have become sick as a result of illnesses incurred through work at or near 9/11 crash sites.
  • 18 employees have died from these illnesses.
  • 70% of 9/11 responders have now retired from the FBI. The FBI continues to contact them to encourage them to register for the World Trade Center Health Program.

“I got to make sure I’m doing something, something to make a difference, and knowing that I can go to bed at night knowing I tried to make a difference,” McPherson said.

FBI Wall of Honor: 9/11-Related Deaths

911 FBI Wall of Honor2.png
FBI Wall of Honor: 9/11-Related Deaths

In addition to one agent, Special Agent Lenny Hatton who died during the terrorist attacks, many other FBI employees have died thus far from illnesses they incurred through work at or near 9/11 crash sites. Several have been added to the FBI's Wall of Honor, with more names to be added in the months and years to come, including Investigative Specialist Saul Tocker, who passed away in December 2020.
911 FBI Wall of Honor.png
FBI Wall of Honor: 9/11-Related Deaths

In addition to one agent, Special Agent Lenny Hatton who died during the terrorist attacks, many other FBI employees have died thus far from illnesses they incurred through work at or near 9/11 crash sites. Several have been added to the FBI's Wall of Honor, with more names to be added in the months and years to come, including Investigative Specialist Saul Tocker, who passed away in December 2020.