How many terrorism tips does the government get every day?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Nov. 8 2010 6:07 PM

10,000 Potential Maniacs

How many terrorism tips does the government get every day?

David Coleman Headley. Click image to expand.
A courtroom drawing of David Coleman Headley, who pleaded guilty to involvement in the 2008 Mumbai siege and plotting to kill a Danish cartoonist.

The federal government received numerous tips that drug dealer David Headley was inclined toward violent, radical Islam, yet continued to employ him as an informant in Pakistan. Headley went on to help plan the 2008 Mumbai attacks. It seems like the feds are always ignoring useful terrorism leads. Just how many of these tips do they get?

Thousands per day. The FBI's Internet tip line, which handles both terrorism and domestic crime reports, has received an average of more than 700 messages per day since it was set up after September 11, 2001. But that doesn't come close to representing the total number of tips the government gets, since many leads come from people walking into U.S. embassies, pulling aside police officers, or calling state and local hotlines. Plus, the staggering volume of information that counterterrorism analysts have to deal with includes not only direct tips, but also wire intercepts and leads from paid informants. When you add all that up, National Counterterrorism Center director Michael Leiter says the agency receives between 8,000 and 10,000 pieces of information per day, fingering just as many different people as potential threats. They also get information about 40 supposed plots against the United States or its allies daily. (Those numbers don't include vague accusations about individuals becoming radicalized or activity inside Iraq and Afghanistan.)


The Headley case demonstrates the variety of ways in which tips get into the U.S. counterterrorism network. Several different people warned the government about Headley, but not every warning started in the same place. One tipster called an FBI tip line, another made a direct report to New York FBI officials, and two more contacted U.S. embassies overseas.

Government analysts must work quickly to find the sprinkling of serious threats in a sea of innocent misunderstandings and bogus tips. In some cases, the agents will decide that a given source is too biased to be believed. That's what happened with Headley—analysts attributed the warnings about him to the bitterness of ex-wives and jilted lovers. It's also difficult to separate out ordinary crimes from terrorist plots. For example, if someone reports a cut fence around a power plant, is that the work of a jihadist sleeper cell or a group of teenage vandals?

Even if a tip is deemed credible, the government may not have the resources to assign a team of agents to the suspect. Instead, the counterterrorism agencies try to focus on patterns. The FBI loads tips into the eGuardian system and checks for similar bits of information from other sources. The system also permits national, state, and local law-enforcement agencies to look up the name of a suspect or information about a particular plot. Classified information goes into a separate, more restricted system.

All of this means that first-time suspects and isolated pieces of information are less likely to be exhaustively investigated. That's what happened with underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Intelligence agencies had heard that a Nigerian was training with al-Qaeda, received information about a Christmas plot, and read a couple of intercepts about someone named Umar Farouk (no last name) before Abdulmutallab's father walked into a U.S. embassy to report him. No one ever figured out that these seemingly unrelated pieces of intelligence referred to the same plot, so intelligence agencies didn't pour enough resources into investigating it.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Rick Nelson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Like  Slate  and the Explainer on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Email him at Follow him on Twitter.


Justice Ginsburg’s Crucial Dissent in the Texas Voter ID Case

The Jarring Experience of Watching White Americans Speak Frankly About Race

How Facebook’s New Feature Could Come in Handy During a Disaster

The Most Ingenious Teaching Device Ever Invented

Sprawl, Decadence, and Environmental Ruin in Nevada

View From Chicago

You Should Be Able to Sell Your Kidney

Or at least trade it for something.

Space: The Next Generation

An All-Female Mission to Mars

As a NASA guinea pig, I verified that women would be cheaper to launch than men.

Terrorism, Immigration, and Ebola Are Combining Into a Supercluster of Anxiety

The Legal Loophole That Allows Microsoft to Seize Assets and Shut Down Companies

  News & Politics
Oct. 19 2014 1:05 PM Dawn Patrol Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s critically important 5 a.m. wake-up call on voting rights.
Business Insider
Oct. 19 2014 11:40 AM Pot-Infused Halloween Candy Is a Worry in Colorado
Oct. 17 2014 5:26 PM Judge Begrudgingly Strikes Down Wyoming’s Gay Marriage Ban
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 17 2014 4:23 PM A Former FBI Agent On Why It’s So Hard to Prosecute Gamergate Trolls
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Oct. 17 2014 1:33 PM What Happened at Slate This Week?  Senior editor David Haglund shares what intrigued him at the magazine. 
Oct. 19 2014 4:33 PM Building Family Relationships in and out of Juvenile Detention Centers
Future Tense
Oct. 17 2014 6:05 PM There Is No Better Use For Drones Than Star Wars Reenactments
  Health & Science
Space: The Next Generation
Oct. 19 2014 11:45 PM An All-Female Mission to Mars As a NASA guinea pig, I verified that women would be cheaper to launch than men.
Sports Nut
Oct. 16 2014 2:03 PM Oh What a Relief It Is How the rise of the bullpen has changed baseball.