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How are terrorists tracked, and what does it cost?

Keeping Watch for Terrorism

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence oversees the activities of the NCTC.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence oversees the activities of the NCTC.

The United States relies on its own agents as well as foreign governments to keep track of terrorists. U.S. officials investigate terrorist activities, interview locals and monitor foreign press to gather information.

In addition to basic footwork, several intelligence agencies monitor global financial transactions to search for evidence of terrorist activity. This is a monumentally difficult task -- daily transactions number in the billions. Sorting through those data would be impossible. Agents must rely on leads to help find transactions that connect to terrorism. They also keep an eye on various charities and businesses believed to be covers for terrorist funding programs.


Once they do find such evidence, the United States government will often apply pressure to have the terrorists' accounts frozen. This cuts off the funds a terrorist cells needs to pay its own agents and purchase supplies.

An emerging opportunity to gather intelligence is through the Internet. Some terrorist cells recruit through message boards and chat rooms. Agents posing as potential recruits gather information online in an effort to expand our knowledge about who the terrorists are and what their plans may be.

One area of contention is spying on personal communication. In the wake of 9/11, the United States government expanded its ability to monitor private communication between individuals. Civil liberties proponents criticized these policies. The formation of the Information Awareness Office (IAO), in particular, caused concern. The IAO's goal was to achieve total information awareness by leveraging technology to identify and track terrorists. Human rights groups said that such a goal would violate privacy for innocent civilians.

The IAO had a short lifespan -- after much bad press, Congress decided to disband the program. Many of the projects that existed under the umbrella of the IAO continued in various departments, mostly at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) [source: Cherry].

There will probably be a struggle between security and privacy for many years to come. Gathering intelligence is, by its very nature, invasive. But without intelligence, it would be difficult or even impossible to predict and prevent terrorist activities.

Learn more about terrorism and the United States government by following the links below.

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More Great Links


  • Cherry, Steven M. "Controversial Pentagon Program Scuttled, But Its Work Will Live On." IEEE Spectrum. September 2003. (May 3, 2010)
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation. "Counterterrorism." (April 30, 2010)
  • Hayasaki, Erika. "Cyber-spy shares her know-how tracking terrorists." Los Angeles Times. Jan. 11, 2009. (April 30, 2010)
  • Hunt, Kasie. "W.H. nixed terror center cuts after bombing plot." Politico. Jan. 27, 2010. (April 30, 2010)
  • Kaplan, Eben. "Tracking Down Terrorist Financing." Council on Foreign Relations. April 4, 2006. (May 3, 2010)
  • Krouse, William J. "Terrorist Identification, Screening, and Tracking Under Homeland Security Presidential Directive 6." CRS Report for Congress. April 21, 2004. (April 30, 2010)
  • National Counterterrorism Center. "2008 Report on Terrorism." April 30, 2009. (April 30, 2010)
  • National Counterterrorism Center. "Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE)." (May 3, 2010)
  • National Counterterrorism Center. (April 30, 2010)
  • Noguchi, Yuki. "Tracking Terrorists Online." The Washington Post. April 19, 2006. (April 30, 2010)
  • Poindexter, John. "Overview of The Information Awareness Office." DARPA. Aug. 2, 2002. (May 3, 2010)
  • U.S. Department of Justice. "Fiscal Year 2010 Budget Request for the Federal Bureau of Investigation." (April 30, 2010)
  • U.S. Department of State. (May 3, 2010)