Members of the JTTF on an investigation.

While You Sleep: Boston's Joint Terrorism Task Force, Part One

November 15, 2016

On this day, indistinguishable from almost any other, I arrive at One Center Plaza in downtown Boston, take an elevator to the 6th floor, past security, and walk into the main office of the Boston Federal Bureau of Investigation, where I’m greeted by the bureau’ s communications chief. She takes me to an expansive conference room. Around a large table each day members of the Joint Terrorism Task Force, the JTTF, meet to hash out strategies and tactics to avert threats of terrorism.

“You name it we have it,” said Special Agent in Charge or SAC, Harold Shaw, who presides over five JTTF’s – in Boston and Springfield, as well as Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Maine. The JTTF is made up of dozens of federal agents, local and state police, as well as the US Attorney and state attorney general. Shaw says all team members check their egos at the door.

Patch of the JTTF

“You wouldn't be able to tell the difference between an FBI agent, a Lowell Police detective, a Boston police Sergeant, a Mass state trooper. They're all part and working together as an integrated team.”  

Harold “Hank” Shaw investigated the bombing of the USS Cole, a naval ship docked in Yemen, and helped track down militants responsible for the deadly rampage in Benghazi, Libya. He’s seen bad stuff up close. And this Massachusetts native who grew up in a working-class section of Weymouth, sees Boston as an epicenter of terrorist attacks on the homeland.

Aftermath of bombs set off on Boylston Street near the Boston Marathon finish line on April 15, 2013
Photo Credit: Elise Amendola AP

“Two of the planes that flew into the Twin Towers on 9-11 left from Logan airport. We were attacked at the Boston Marathon finish line. We had a significant role in the Richard Reed shoe-bombing attempt. So we've seen it first-hand. It’s personal to us and we take it seriously. “

Convicted terrorist Richard Reed after capture by the JTTF. Reed attempted to set off a bomb hidden in his shoes on a flight arriving to the USA and was overpowered on the plane and arrested in Boston. He is the reason why passengers today are required to remove shoes as they pass through airport security.
Photo Credit: AP

Very seriously. A lot of information referenced in this report is confidential. JTTF teams are currently investigating possible links between street gangs and terrorists, individuals trying to their hands on weapons of mass destruction, subjects who have expressed support on-line for ISIS and attempting to join its ranks. But why does it need to be a joint terrorism task force.  

“It’s probably no great science behind this.“ Shaw says the fusion of local and state police and federal agents make anti-terrorism work more efficient.

“They understand the communities. They can bring a certain expertise that the FBI may not necessarily have. By putting the right folks together, giving them the appropriate tools to be able to address their investigation is really the best way that we in turn can stay in front of the threats of today.”  

Threats, says FBI Assistant Special Agent in Charge, Peter Kowenhoven, that the public may never hear about.

“We’ve disrupted numerous threats to Public Safety to our way of life without the public ever knowing that we did it. That's a success to us.”

Kowenhoven heads the day-to-day operations of the JTTF. And his day today—like those of almost every other agent and cop working this beat—began when most of us were asleep.   

“I got a call from the FBI representative overseas in a country that we have a partnership with providing me with some intelligence that came in about 12:02 this morning for me to follow up today because there was a possible connection to the Boston area.”

The day starts early for many on the JTTF team. Kowenhoven was in today at 6:00. Same with Lowell Police detective Thomas Daly, who’s just back from an intelligence training mission in Israel. It’s almost noon and Sgt. Daly and his partner, an FBI agent, are heading into the field to follow up on leads that could prove critical to local communities. He says ongoing intelligence provided to individual cities and towns helps keep them safe.     

“The City of Lawrence, for instance and my chief superintendent Taylor, they get that constant feed of information and intelligence that’s coming from the terrorism task force so they can make some decisions that may affect transit or events where there are large crowd taking place in the greater Lowell area,” says Daly.

The FBI’s Peter Kowenhoven says threats come in daily, and if all goes well, the public never knows anything about them. 

“The significant ones are the ones that take most of my time a lot because, you know, we utilize the intelligence, the background that we have as well as our Task Force officers that may have a history with those individuals we have interest in. So to put it all together we have to kind of triage what comes in and focus on the most significant.

In case it isn’t obvious, Kowenhoven says JTTF team members are basically on the clock 24/7.

“Sometimes we're monitoring individuals that we have predicated cases on, throughout weekends, over holidays, to ensure that the public remains safe.”

And sometimes cases requiring 24-hour surveillance pays off, as one did last year when a potentially dangerous act of terrorism was thwarted by the JTTF. 


TAG:  Tomorrow Phillip Martin with part two of “A Day In The Life of the JTTF”: It’s successes and failures, a questionable shooting in Florida, and the often controversial role of the public when asked to say something if it sees something.


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