Inside STIC, the Illinois terrorism intelligence agency fighting real and viral hoax terror threats

By Chicago 6 Min Read

CHICAGO (WLS) — President Teddy Roosevelt used the phrase, “Speak softly, but carry a big stick.”

More than a century later, Illinois is depending on its own “Big STIC,” or the Statewide Terrorism and Intelligence Center.

The sophisticated hub is located not far from the state capitol in Springfield, where intelligence is gathered to determine whether there are legitimate threats and what to do about them.

At a time when authorities say threats to public safety are mounting and coming from new directions, the ABC7 I-Team went to the STIC for a rare look at the safety net operation that’s working to keep Illinoisans and others across the county safe.

Aaron Kustermann, chief intelligence officer for STIC, said there is more suspicious activity than ever before coming into the facility.

“All the suspicious activity reporting rounds through this facility,” he said.

STIC is what’s called a “fusion center,” described as a synthesis of intelligence experts from state and federal agencies working 24/7 as they sift through possible threats from down the street, up in Chicago and around the world.

The center analyzes threats of hate crime attacks, claims of bombs in public places, the ongoing risk from foreign terror groups and a fast-spreading plague of domestic lone wolf strikes.

From the 4th of July mass shooting at Highland Park’s community parade to a daily influx of so-called swatting incidents and fake calls to 911, those manning the center deal with incidents across the state and the nation in real time.

“We’ve got partners from the Department of Homeland Security, from FBI, Illinois Department of Corrections, Illinois State Police has a large role here,” said Kustermann.

Analysts and experts at the state-funded STIC are under the command of Illinois State Police Director Brendan Kelly.

“There’s been an increase in threats that are both anti-Semitic and that may be Islamophobic,” Kelly said.

Even before the horrendous attack on Israel by Hamas militiamen on Oct. 7, there was a surge in violent threats against Illinois targets, according to Kelly.

“Threats against public infrastructure, threats being directed at synagogues and religious institutions and schools. We’ve seen the number of threats being called and bomb threats or shooting through either social media or phone calls being made,” Kelly said.

For Kelly, threats in the wake of this Israel-Hamas war are personal. While in the U.S. Navy two decades ago, he was stationed in Israel and walked the streets of the Palestinian territory which is now in ruins.

“Many of those communities, I’ve been to. I’ve sent time there and how the people live there, a way to have a special place in my heart. I’ve also been to many Palestinian areas, Nablus, Ramallah and into Gaza,” Kelly said.

And, since the start of the war, he said, the threat level has jumped.

“We’ve seen a pretty high increase in threats to public officials, threats to local places of worship, to local leaders, to local businesses,” Kelly said.

And, many times the threats are fake, aimed at stirring up public fears, like a viral hoax from California last month promising violence that was forwarded 4 million times in Illinois and elsewhere.

“It sounds convincing. And, even some public safety partners will be reporting to us and saying, ‘Is this real?’ Because, on its surface, they feel very real. But, it is something we’d love your viewers and everyone to pay more attention to,” said Kustermann.

Of most concern are fake social media posts and misinformation text messages that may provoke a violence-prone radical that now is the time to strike.

Kelly told the I-Team there is no current threat in Illinois but said, “The big concern that keeps me up at night and the thing that keeps the FBI and our partners at DHS up at night as well as local law enforcement is the lone actor that is inspired by what they are seeing on social media. Every one of us needs to be situationally aware. And if we see something we need to report that and let law enforcement investigate whether the appropriate vetting occurred.”

Currently, planning is underway for protection of the state’s next big events, including the 2024 election cycle that includes back-to-back party political conventions in Chicago and Milwaukee.

“Those massive events will require resources from all local law enforcement agencies within a 100-mile radius,” said Kustermann. “There will be a center like this established at the FBI where we all work together. We will bring our data systems and our people, and that’s where all of it will come together.”

Authorities don’t know what’s true or what is fake until it is checked out and they said they investigate all of them.

But the public plea from experts is this: Don’t just automatically forward threatening texts or repost menacing social media posts. Spreading a viral hoax is what causes or spreads public panic.

During wartime, and a super-heated political season, stopping fake threats is almost as important as preventing real ones.

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