Los Angeles

“We Have to Keep Our Eye on Everything”: Rare Interview With LA's FBI Leader Reveals Changing Face of Terrorism

The job as an FBI agent still entails stopping organized crime, drugs and finding bank robbers, but terrorism tops the list — the growing concern being the "lone wolf."

The terror threat remains high abroad and at home. In Los Angeles, a major ongoing concern is that a terrorist could target award shows, premieres and ordinary citizens.

LA's FBI leader who watched the types of threats develop over two decades, Bill Lewis sat down with NBC4 in a rare interview before his retirement from his position as assistant director in charge of FBI's LA office.

As an FBI agent, Lewis worked the intense manhunt for Christopher Dorner, the shooting at LAX, the Olympic bombing at Centennial park and the cyber attack on Sony.

Four different kinds of terror events illustrated the ever-changing face of terrorism.

"I vividly remember when we first got computers in the FBI, we started to do our own paperwork on the computers, and then we started to sense that the criminal element was going to take advantage of the capability," Lewis said. "And as the years went by, them taking advantage of that has grown bigger and bigger and bigger."

The retiring assistant in charge says LA is toward the top of the terror target list. Why? Because Southern California is attractive to terrorists for all the reasons it's attractive to residents and visitors.

"I mean, we have Hollywood, so we have a lot of events that happen there," Lewis said. "Also, think of all the different sporting venues we have here. And I think probably most important, the Los Angeles airport and the ports are a big target threat to us."

But while he says the city could be a terror target, he also praises the systems already in place.

"We are very lucky here in Los Angeles, because we have a very active joint terrorism task force where we have participation from our state, local, and our federal partners," he said. "That’s going to be what helps us find that next plot and help disrupt it."

As the FBI continues to adapt to new threats, so does their employee search. Agents needs computer expertise, and knowledge of languages such as Farsi. Because Southern California is so diverse — more than 130 languages spoken in LA alone — the FBI relies on the community as a primary resource in heading off terrorists in the city.

"Having people in the community no matter what community you are in, feeling comfortable and reporting stuff to law enforcement definitely is going to make a difference in stopping future attacks," he said.

In 26 years as an FBI agent, Lewis has seen change. The job still entails stopping organized crime, drugs and finding bank robbers, but terrorism tops the list — the growing concern being the "lone wolf."

"Our fear is that it would be a US citizen that would be able to get over there, come back and then continue radicalization here," he said.

And while that scenario of a lone wolf attack disrupting a public event, like the Boston Marathon bombing, is terrifying, Lewis also worries about the cyber terrorism and the damage that can do.

"Not only what happened in the Sony hack, but what can happen with any US citizen or any citizen of the United States when it comes to our banking institutions, the power companies, water companies," he said. "I really worry that someone is going to get into those systems and cause big problems."

Now, Lewis says Southern Californians have to become more proactive, as they're now a big part of the equation in finding and preventing terrorism.

"I think we have to keep our eye on everything all the time, which is a big difference from the way it was when I started 26 years ago," he said. "We have to keep our eyes on all the threats, because just when you think something can’t happen, something will happen."

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