From Small Town Montana to FBI : "Along the Way"

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The FBI, Central Intelligence Agency, and the fight against terrorism.
It's the stuff of books and movies. But it's also the real life experience of a woman with Montana roots.

She grew up in a small Montana town, but her work has taken her around the globe.

Special Agent Jill Sanborn joined the FBI at age 27. She had been working at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico when someone encouraged her to apply for the FBI.

"I thought I'm from Dillon, Montana. I'm a small town girl. There's no way I could ever get hired by the FBI. He kept pressing me, I applied," Special Agent Sanborn says.

She was hired in 1998, now, 20 years later, she is one of less than 60 people in the FBI to be in charge of a field office. She was recently promoted to Special Agent in Charge of the Minneapolis Division of the FBI which includes South Dakota and North Dakota. Much of her career has been focused on counterterrorism.

"So shortly after 9-11 I was afforded an opportunity to go overseas and realize that seeing terrorism through the lens of the overseas aspect was really, really powerful," Sanborn says.

She continues by explaining, "It made me much better appreciate what we were dealing with here in the U.S. to be able to go overseas and see how what was going on overseas really impacted the threat here in the United States."

We were able to talk with Sanborn at the downtown Rapid City FBI office. But because of the sensitive nature of her work, we do not have photos or videos of her actual assignments, which is understandable. What we do have is her words, her vivid first hand account of her life's work.

"I volunteered to be a part of the counterterrorism fly team which was post 9-11. Director Mueller stood up a team of agents. that he wanted to be counterterrorism experts, that he could send all around the world," Sanborn says.

She explains, "So collecting intelligence, working with foreign partners, working with the embassy, etcetera, figuring out what overseas is posing a threat to us here in the United States and feeding that intelligence back."

And as if working for the FBI on a special team of counterterrorism experts is not enough, there's more. A lot more.

"I left the Fly Team and went over to a sort of immersion assignment with the CIA, where I was a detailee with CIA for just a little under 2 years which was a phenomenal experience because it took partnership to a whole new level. It actually immersed me in their culture," Sanborn says.

And most recently, Sanborn served as the FBI's section chief overseeing all overseas counterterrorism investigations. That, is a major responsibility.

"Post 9-11, the threat from Al Qaeda was definitely the biggest threat that we were facing from an international terrorism standpoint. That's different today," Special Agent Sanborn says.

We'll cover how that's changed in a moment. However in addition to being a key counterterrorism expert, we wanted to find out more about Sanborn as a person.

"Probably the most rewarding aspect of working in the CIA and FBI is every single day you go home feeling like you made an impact. You're doing something to protect America and uphold the Constitution," Sanborn says.

"So when I lived in New Mexico and worked at Los Alamos I became a green chili addict I love green chili. I don't have kids. I'm passionate beyond belief about dogs. I have 2 Labradors, Duke and Max," she says.

And while she's a real person, terrorism is just as real.

"So homegrown violent extremists are definitely our number one threat that we face and probably the most challenging to figure out where those are because the sheer nature of the threat. They're not reaching out to people. They're not looking to travel," she explains.

Sanborn goes on to explain, "The internet and social media and propaganda are coming into the home. That person is getting radicalized inside their home and can mobilize before any indicators of that radicalization and mobilization rise to the outside."

Finding those terrorists before they strike, is no easy task.

"And we need the community's help, the families, the friends, the co-workers, the students to be able to report that odd behavior to law enforcement," Sanborn says.

And as Sanborn takes on her highest level assignment yet: leading the Minneapolis field office, has not forgotten her roots.

"I want little girls or little boys that maybe were like me to realize you can be whatever you wanna be. Just because you grew up in a small town in Montana, put your goals out there and achieve them," she says.

Not only fighting terrorism and helping protect America, but also inspiring, all at the same time.

It's fun to see the human, behind the badge.
Another fun fact about Sanborn, her mother was an Olympic Skier.

If you've met someone cool "Along the Way" please call or e-mail us at to let us know.