Minnesota’s highest-ranking FBI agent is heading to Washington, D.C., to help lead the agency’s division in charge of thwarting terror attacks.
Jill Sanborn came to the FBI’s Minneapolis field office in April 2018 to serve as special agent in charge of Minnesota, South Dakota and North Dakota. She assumes her new post, as assistant director of counterterrorism, in a time of uncertainty for many Americans over international conflict in the Middle East. The announcement comes a week after President Donald Trump ordered the drone killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, an act to which Iran’s supreme leader has vowed “harsh revenge.” This week, Iran fired back with 22 missiles on military bases in Iraq occupied by U.S. troops, killing none.
The FBI’s counterterrorism unit has become increasingly important to national security strategy since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Sanborn will have purview of all cases involving threats to the United States, domestic and abroad.
“I feel pretty passionate about it as an individual and employee of the FBI,” she said. “So much that the FBI has given me, as far as my skills and expertise, are in the counterterrorism space. So I’m humbled and honored to give back all the things they’ve put in my toolbox.”
Sanborn joined the FBI in 1998 and has focused most of her career on fighting terrorist threats. After investigating bank fraud and computer crimes for three years in the Phoenix field office, she moved to the Joint Terrorism Task Force in 2001. She was later deployed to Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom, Kenya and Pakistan as part of the FBI Counterterrorism Division’s Fly Team.
In 2010, Sanborn took a new position as acting deputy director for law enforcement in the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, and then unit chief in the Counterterrorism Division, where she led investigations in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Southeast Asia, according to the information provided by the FBI’s national press office.
Starting in 2012, Sanborn worked as a supervisory special agent at the Washington field office, where she managed overseas kidnapping cases and the extradition of four terrorism subjects. In 2015, as special agent in charge of the Los Angeles field office, she oversaw the investigation into a mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., the third most deadly attack in the U.S. since 2001. Before moving to Minnesota, she worked as a section chief in the counterterrorism division.
The FBI’s counterterrorism unit has identified the most persistent threats to the nation as homegrown violent extremist, domestic and foreign terrorists, with an emphasis on ISIS and al-Qaida, according to FBI Director Chris Wray’s testimony before Congress during the most recent budget request in April 2019.
Partnerships in Minnesota
Reflecting on her tenure here, Sanborn said she’s most proud of her work strengthening and building new partnerships with local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, to help investigate complicated criminal enterprises in Minnesota. “I feel like I’ve made some progress and hopefully leave behind even more partners for whoever replaces me to have as part of our network,” she said.
Erica MacDonald, U.S. attorney in Minnesota, called Sanborn a thoughtful and creative leader who’s been attuned to concerns of community members. “Frankly, I wasn’t surprised that she would get this major promotion,” said MacDonald. “She’s just really, really a good partner. There wouldn’t be anybody who wouldn’t sing her praises from my office.”
William Hutton, executive director of the Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association, echoed the sentiment, praising Sanborn’s willingness to work with county law enforcement statewide, even in smaller or rural areas outside the metro.
“She’s been a great partner, always approachable, always wanting to form that relationship,” said Hutton.
Sanborn’s replacement in Minnesota has not yet been selected.