A veteran counterterrorism agent who led the FBI’s investigation into the 2015 San Bernardino terror attack will take over as special agent in charge of the bureau’s Minneapolis division, the FBI said Tuesday.
FBI Director Christopher Wray named Jill Sanborn to replace Richard Thornton, who retires Wednesday after leading the Minneapolis division since 2014. Sanborn will report in April to the Minneapolis office, which also covers North and South Dakota.
“Minnesota and the Dakotas have such rich and diverse cultural and economic reputations and I look forward to getting to work with law enforcement, business, and community leaders to partner in keeping those sectors safe and secure,” Sanborn said Tuesday.
Sanborn most recently led an FBI international counterterrorism operations section at its headquarters and has spent most of her 20-year career in such work.
Within months of being promoted to assistant special agent in charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles field office, Sanborn was thrust into one of the nation’s highest-profile terror probes when a couple inspired by foreign terrorist groups gunned down 14 people and hurt 22 others in San Bernardino in December 2015. She has since helped train law enforcement on terrorism prevention by using the FBI’s response as a case study, most recently participating in a June 2017 summit in Florida, according to documents.
Sanborn started her FBI career as a special agent investigating bank fraud and computer intrusion cases in Phoenix in 1998. According to an Orange County Register report, Sanborn grew up in a small Montana town, where she was raised by a father who was a psychology professor and a mother who was a two-time Olympic skier. Sanborn briefly worked as an internal investigator at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico after graduating from the University of Portland with a business degree in 1993.
But counterterrorism has come to dominate her career with the FBI, where Sanborn has also worked as a liaison to the Central Intelligence Agency and oversaw hundreds of overseas terror investigations and kidnapping cases, which included the extradition of four terrorism suspects charged with conspiring to kill U.S. soldiers abroad.
“Anything that I’ve done … in working terrorism can only give different tools, ideas and contacts to those working cases now,” Sanborn told the Register in 2015.
In a recent interview with the Star Tribune, Thornton described international terrorism recruitment as the FBI’s top priority for its next Minneapolis chief. Federal prosecutors most recently charged a 20-year-old Minneapolis woman with trying to join al-Qaida before setting fires on campus at St. Catherine University in an act she allegedly later described as jihad.
The FBI also is in charge of the unsolved investigation into the August 2017 bombing of the Dar Al-Farooq Islamic Center in Bloomington — for which the bureau has offered a $30,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction. Thornton has also said gangs, crime in Indian Country, cyberthreats and, increasingly, far-right domestic extremism are among the priorities his successor will inherit.
Sanborn will become just the second woman to lead the FBI’s Minneapolis division. She will do so at a time of uncommon turnover at the heads of each federal law enforcement agency’s local offices and also as Minnesota awaits the White House nomination of a new U.S. attorney. The Star Tribune reported earlier this month that Dakota County District Judge Erica MacDonald is expected to be nominated for the post.
Stephen Montemayor • 612-673-1755 Twitter: @smontemayor