Five Years and Building
Interview with Dr. Vahid Majidi - Head of the WMD Directorate
Five years ago this week, the FBI established its first Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) Directorate to centralize and coordinate all WMD-related
investigative activities, intelligence analysis capabilities, and technical expertise from across the Bureau. Recently, FBI.gov spoke with Dr. Vahid
Majidi—the head of the WMD Directorate since its launch—on his office’s work over the past five years. Today, he talks about the current threat
and specific focus of the directorate. Later this week, he’ll discuss case examples, lessons learned, and the future of the directorate.
Q. Why was the directorate created?
Dr. Majidi: The FBI has been in the WMD business for quite some time, more formally since 1995 when we created a program in our Counterterrorism
Division to address the WMD threat. But obviously, a lot has happened in recent years. And it became clear that our WMD response crossed operational
lines and also involved our counterintelligence, criminal, and cyber programs—not to mention the response and forensics expertise in the FBI
Laboratory and the render-safe capabilities of our Critical Incident Response Group. We needed a single force to coordinate all of our WMD activities.
The directorate gives us that.
Q. What does the WMD threat look like today?
Dr. Majidi: The nature of the threat hasn’t changed all that much over the past decade. International terrorist groups are still determined to get
their hands on various forms of weapons of mass destruction—chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear. Organizations and nation states still
want material and expertise for their own programs. And certain domestic groups are still trying to acquire materials needed for basic WMD
applications—predominately chemical or biological in nature.
Q. What about all those white powder letters?
Dr. Majidi: Most turn out to be hoaxes, and they require a lot of investigative resources, but we have to investigate each and every incident. You
never know when one of them will be real.
Q. Can you briefly explain how the WMD Directorate works?
Dr. Majidi: Absolutely. The main focus of our WMD Directorate—and the primary focus of our overall efforts—is prevention, to keep a WMD attack
from ever taking place. To make that happen, we have several closely integrated activities that pull together resources from various parts of the FBI.
Our countermeasures and preventions group includes a full spectrum of activities, from WMD training for domestic and international law enforcement
partners…to outreach efforts to academia, industry, government, and retailers to help them spot indicators of potential WMD activity….to working
with our government partners to formulate sound policies. The investigations and operations group addresses threatened or actual use of weapons of
mass destruction, or the transfer of materials, knowledge, and technology needed to create a WMD. We also can and do collect evidence in contaminated
areas, disarm hazardous devices, and provide command and control support in on-scene activities. Finally, our intelligence and analysis group serves
as the foundation of our proactive approach to threats. Our analysts sort through data to identify relevant WMD information, and our agents work to
identify sources of valuable intelligence. And because we are part of the intelligence community, we share information routinely with our partners.
Through it all, we have a lot of activities and capabilities in play, and I think we’re making a real difference.
Part 2: Looking Back, Looking Ahead
Our interview continues with Dr. Vahid Majidi, head of our Weapons of Mass Destruction, or WMD, Directorate, which marked its fifth anniversary on
Q. Can you provide a few examples of successful WMD investigations over the past five years?
Dr. Majidi: We’ve managed quite a few cases actually, including our first major counterproliferation investigation that involved two Iranian men and
one Iranian-American who were charged in California with conspiring to export certain technologies from the U.S. to Iran. Other examples include a
Texas man charged with possessing 62 pounds of sodium cyanide; a government contractor in Tennessee charged with trying to sell restricted U.S.
Department of Energy materials; and a Nevada man charged with possessing deadly ricin. (Note: see the sidebar for more examples.)
Q. What has the FBI learned over the past five years?
Dr. Majidi: Quite a bit. For some time, we’ve had WMD coordinators in every one of our field offices. But we realize that for WMD prevention to be
truly comprehensive, we need to think and act globally. So that’s why—in addition to our network of legal attaché offices and agents around the
world—we’ve recently put our first WMD coordinators overseas, in our offices in Tbilsi and Singapore. We also have personnel assigned to Interpol
to help it develop an international WMD training program like ours.
Q. What kind of work is done overseas?
Dr. Majidi: It runs the gamut. For instance, several years ago, after an interdiction of highly enriched uranium in Georgia in the former Soviet
Union, our WMD experts performed a forensic analysis of the material and then testified in Georgian courts. And when the Russian defector in London
was poisoned with a radioactive isotope in 2006, our WMD personnel shadowed London Metropolitan Police during the ensuing investigation to develop
lessons learned to help us prepare for such a scenario here. Through it all, we’ve built some strong relationships with our global partners.
Q. What are the WMD Directorate’s plans for the next five years?
Dr. Majidi: The basic knowledge and material that go into making weapons of mass destruction is becoming more readily available to anyone, anywhere in
the world as the Information Age matures. That’s why we’ll continue to be all about partnerships—locally, nationally, and internationally.
We’ll also focus even more on threats on the horizon. For example, we’ll look at emerging developments like synthetic biology from a preventative
point of view. By collaborating with the synthetic biology community, we can articulate our safety and security concerns as they relate to weapons of
mass destruction. We’ll also be improving our threat analysis capabilities to better spot potential WMD opportunities, potential WMD
vulnerabilities, and gaps in our intelligence collection.
Q. What can the average citizen do to assist law enforcement with the WMD threat?
Dr. Majidi: Keep in mind that to develop weapons of mass destruction, you only need two things: the material and the know-how. So please, if you see
anything suspicious or in a place where it doesn’t belong, report it to local law enforcement or your closest FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force. It
could be just the tip we need to stop something serious.