ORANGE – Jill Sanborn brings a particular focus to her new job as assistant special agent in charge of the FBI’s 160-plus agent office in Orange County.
“The biggest thing I want my agents to do is … take every threat, every tip, every allegation and investigate it so Orange County is safe,” Sanborn said.
There are a couple of reasons for that. The first is the FBI, which has become so focused on terrorism that Sanborn describes it as the agency’s “No. 1 priority.”
The second is Sanborn herself.
At 45, she’s a 17-year FBI veteran and an anti-terrorism specialist. She’s run more than 400 terrorism investigations in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other parts of Southeast Asia.
A key stop in her career was her work at the bureau’s counter-terrorism division in Phoenix.
Her first day on that post?
Sept. 11, 2001.
“At that time, remembering back, America had no idea where it was going to be hit next,” Sanborn said.
That’s still true.
But since the attacks the FBI, and Sanborn, have shifted their mindset. And in the process they’ve gotten pretty good at figuring out who might be coming after us next, and where they might strike.
WHY SHE’S HERE
The FBI agents who work for Sanborn in Orange County investigate bank robberies, violent crimes and a host of other offenses.
But the region faces terror threats, and terror remains a priority.
Like any urban area, Orange County has several high-value targets. And, over the years, the FBI has investigated locals who had direct links to, or sympathies with, international terror groups.
In the early 2000s, the FBI’s Orange County office helped determine that a former Santa Ana resident, Adam Yahiye Gadahn, was the American face of al-Qaida. His messages were appearing regularly on YouTube and other videos distributed by the terror group.
In 2006, a federal grand jury in Santa Ana indicted Gadahn as the first American charged with treason since the World War II era. Gadahn died this year in a CIA drone strike in Pakistan.
In 2013, Sinh Vinh Ngo Nguyen of Garden Grove, then 24, pleaded guilty of supporting al-Qaida fighters in Pakistan. Again, the FBI’s O.C. office played a role in the investigation.
And last year the FBI’s Orange County office arrested Adam Dandach at John Wayne Airport as he tried to board a flight en route to Turkey, a trip the FBI said would end with Dandach joining Islamic militants in Syria.
Dandach, a former student at El Modena High, pleaded guilty this year to making false statements on his passport application. He faces up to 25 years in prison.
Sanborn plans to keep the office aimed at similar threats.
“I want everybody to take every case seriously and investigate allegations of those wanting to do harm against the U.S.
“Anything that I’ve done in 14 years in working terrorism can only give different tools, ideas and contacts to those working cases now.”
SMALL TOWN, BIG GOALS
Sanborn grew up in Dillon, Mont., a town of about 4,000, located about 65 miles south of Butte.
Her father, Frank Tikalsky, was a psychology professor at nearby Western Montana College; her mother is two-time Olympic skier Linda Myers Tikalsky.
Sanborn is named after her mother’s close friend, Jill Kinmont, a skier and Olympic hopeful who was paralyzed in a training accident and later became the subject of a book and movie, “The Other Side of the Mountain.”
Sanborn skied and played basketball in high school. At Portland State University, she earned a bachelor’s degree in business, graduating in 1993.
Sanborn’s first job out of college was as an internal investigator at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, a facility that specializes in classified work on the development of nuclear weapons.
“The job was very much like internal affairs,” she said. “You investigate fraud, waste and abuse. Anything from time and attendance, and any allegation of inappropriate behavior.”
Sanborn had been working at Los Alamos for about five years when an inspector general with the U.S. Department of Energy noticed her sharp investigative skills and recruited her for a job with the FBI.
She was interested. As a teen, she’d been a Senate page in Washington, D.C., and even then was intrigued by federal law enforcement agencies such as the FBI, Secret Service and Drug Enforcement Administration.
She didn’t initially pursue jobs in those agencies, she says, because she didn’t view herself as urbane enough.
“I thought, as a small-town girl from Montana, that those were super high goals to set my sights on,” she said.
But she noted that one of the FBI’s core values is to “uphold and defend the Constitution,” and that nudged her to take the leap.
“That’s always been part of my personality.”
After she graduated from the FBI’s famed academy in Quantico, Va., she was assigned to the public corruptions squad at the FBI’s Phoenix office. Soon, she transferred to the same office’s bank fraud task force.
Bank fraud, she said, was a great way to learn about the FBI and about criminal investigation work in general.
“We took a lot of cases through the legal process. Lots of interviews; lots of arrests.”
She switched to counterterrorism in 2011.
Sanborn spent her first day in counterterror staffing a command post at the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office.
The attack, she said, was a defining moment.
“It’s what still motives me.”
It also changed the FBI.
“It turned us into an organization that focuses on the prevention of that ever happening again,” Sanborn said.
Sanborn remained at the Phoenix office until 2006, when she joined the FBI’s Counterterrorism Fly Team, an elite unit based in Washington that helps investigate terror cases around the world.
The work requires special training. It’s also dangerous.
Sanborn was stationed in Pakistan, Africa and Iraq, among other places, conducting numerous interviews of high-value terrorism detainees.
“The most interesting part about my time in those positions was adding … international partners to fight terrorism,” she said.
Sanborn left the Fly Team in 2010 and spent about 18 months as an FBI liaison to the CIA. She described that job as an opportunity to “learn from” another agency.
Working with other agencies will remain key in her new job.
Sanborn said one of her primary goals is to continue the FBI’s relationship with 34 law enforcement agencies in Orange County, a group that, combined, makes up a joint-terrorism task force. Officers from the agencies work directly with agents at the FBI’s Orange County office, constantly evaluating and investigating terrorism threats.
As a result of her work around the world, Sanborn received the George H.W. Bush Award for Excellence in Counter Terrorism, an award that hangs in her new office in Orange.
The wording on that award offers a hint of how she wants to handle her job in Orange County.
“She routinely identified any potential terrorism leads,” the award states, “that would have been overlooked by less capable agents.”
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