DETROIT – Paul M. Abbate arrived in Detroit last fall to take over the local FBI office, days after Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick got a hefty 28-year prison sentence. Kilpatrick was whisked away in handcuffs.
But the scent of corruption lingered, and Abbate suddenly found himself heading up an FBI office, where public corruption investigations continue to be a high priority. In the past few years alone, besides the mess at city hall, several people in the Wayne County government have been convicted of corruption charges. That investigation remains open
Before arriving here, Abbate headed up the counterterrorism division in the FBI’s Washington Field Office, which handles terrorism investigations domestically and overseas.
Before that, he spent time at FBI headquarters, Newark, New York, Los Angeles, Iraq and Afghanistan. He was involved in such FBI investigations as Benghazi and Pan Am 103.
October marked his first anniversary in Detroit.
A native of the New Haven, Conn. area, the very affable Abbate, an 18-year veteran of the FBI, recently sat down with Allan Lengel of ticklethewire.com to talk about ISIS, traditional organized crime, the agency’s relationship with the Arab-American community, local gangs and use of social media, corporate espionage, violence and how he ended up in Detroit.
“I actually asked to come here,” he says, adding that he’s been impressed with the people of Michigan.
The following is an interview with Abbate, which has been trimmed for brevity. The questions have been edited for clarity.
DD: Is there any sense that ISIS or ISIL has any presence or connection here?
Abbate: It’s something that we’re constantly vigilant about, proactive in terms of trying to be in front. I wouldn’t say that we have any specific or credible information that there’s an ISIL presence here in Michigan at this time. But it’s something, 24/7, we’re always on guard for.
DD: The Internet has become a big tool for recruiting. Do you see any of that activity here?
Abbate: That’s everywhere.
DD: Is that monitored out of headquarters?
Abbate: We work in conjunction with the Counterterroism Division in headquarters. And that type of investigative work is carried out throughout the 56 field offices including here as well. When you talk about focusing on a specific area, the Internet and the reach of the Internet has really broken that down. Any person sitting anywhere in the world can reach out and attempt to recruit, radicalize and incite anyone else in the world whether it’s here in Michigan or anywhere in the United States.
DD: Do you have any sense of al Qaeda having some presence here?
Abbate: Like the earlier questions you ask, I would say that we don’t have any specific or credible information with regard to any particular group like that, but that’s what we do. That’s what we’re on the watch for. It’s our top priority to identify if it’s here and prevent an attack from occurring.
DD: Do you see anything in Michigan, an exchange of people coming and going from Syria, that might concern you?
Abbate: We’re always on the look out for that. We had a case here , we had an individual who was arrested this past March who was seeking, as alleged in the complaint, to go over to Syria to join up with a terrorist organization. We’ve had a number of cases nationally where we’ve had people travel there.
DD: How would you describe your relationship with the Arab American community here?
Abbate: I think it’s strong. Again the community outreach that we do is broad based, so I don’t like to single out any one particular community. With respect to the Arab American community, we have a very robust outreach, with various aspects of that community and individuals. It’s strong. We go to various events that are held within the community. We hold regular meetings here to share ideas, to hear from the various communities.
DD: In some parts of the country there have been concerns over the years that the FBI has been too aggressive in monitoring activities in mosques. Is there a concern here that you’ve heard?
Abbate: I think a lot of those earlier concerns that have been around for a long time, now to a great extent, have been overcome. Certainly that sort of distrust or concern still exists to some level, and we do continue to hear that. But I think we’ve made great strides.