Pursuing Al Qaeda
Al Qaeda was a danger the U.S. couldn’t ignore. And we were ill-equipped to deal with it. These are two of the themes running through the following observations of colleagues and friends about John O’Neill’s passionate pursuit of Al Qaeda. Those commenting are: Richard Clarke, Mary Jo White, Fran Townsend, Clint Guenther and Chris Isham.
Richard Clarke, NSC Coordinator for Counterterrorism, 1992-2001
I would go around the country to FBI offices and ask, “Is there an Al Qaeda presence in Chicago, in San Francisco, in Boston?” And typically the reaction I would get is, “What’s Al Qaeda?”
But not with John. John knew what Al Qaeda was; he was among the first people to see the bin Laden threat. He believed there was a bin Laden network in the United States even if he couldn’t prove it. So he was constantly trying to prove it, because of what he understood about the Al Qaeda network and the rest of the world, he said, “It’s inconceivable that they’re not here.”
What did he understand that nobody else understood?
I think he understood, first of all, that Al Qaeda wasn’t a nuisance — that what Al Qaeda said in its documents and bin Laden’s speeches was the truth. He said to me once, “You know, it’s like Mein Kampf. Hitler wrote Mein Kampf when Hitler was just a jerk. No one took him seriously, so no one read the book, or if they read the book, they didn’t believe he would try to do what was in the book. [John] said, “Bin Laden’s just like this. When you read what this guy says he’s going to do, he’s serious. He is going to try to do it in the Middle East, and there are a lot of people who support him. A lot of people are giving this guy money. We have to take him seriously, because what he says he’s going to do is to go to war with the United States.”
Was he, were you, listened to?
Yes, slowly. Certainly after the embassy bombing in Africa in 1998, it was very obvious that what John was saying, what I was saying, was right: that this was more than a nuisance; that this was a real threat. But I don’t think everyone came to the understanding that it was an existential threat. The question was, “This group is more than a nuisance, but are they worth going to war with? After all, they’ve only attacked two embassies. Maybe that’s a cost of doing business. This kind of thing happens. Yes, we should spend some time some energy trying to get them, but it’s not the number one priority we have.” …
I think if you ask most terrorism experts in the mid-1990s, “Name the major terrorist organizations that might be a threat to the United States,” they would have said Hezbollah, which had a relationship with Iran. They would have said Hamas, which is a Palestinian group. Most people would not have said Al Qaeda. Most people wouldn’t have known that there was an Al Qaeda.
If you ask them, “Well, what about this man bin Laden?” most people in the mid-1990s would have said, “Ah, yes, the terrorist financier.” What O’Neill said was, “No, this man is not a financier. Yes, he’s got some of his own money, and he’s very good at raising money from other people. But that’s not all he’s about. The money is money for a purpose. The purpose is building a worldwide terrorist network based out of Afghanistan, initially based out of Sudan, but then moved to Afghanistan. A worldwide terrorist network, the point of which is going after the United States, after governments friendly to the United States, particularly in the Arab world.” So O’Neill did see early on that this was more than just another terrorist group. It was a serious threat it was in the process of building. …
In 1997, he gives the Chicago speech where he says, “We should expect an attack.” He’s talking in that same period of time — or a little after — about cells within the country. How common was this belief at FBI and NSA?
In 1997, I think there were only a handful of us who knew that there were Al Qaeda cells in the United States. When my boss, National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, would ask the FBI in a formal meeting, “Is there an Al Qaeda presence in the United States?” their formal answer would be, “We don’t know of one, and we don’t think there is one.” But if you asked O’Neill, or you had asked me, a few others, including some people in the CIA, the answer would have been, “We can’t prove it yet, but we see the smoke, and where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” Sure, there were cells. We weren’t able to prove it at the time.
But what John O’Neill was trying to do was to get a momentum going in the FBI to look seriously for those cells, to look for the connections which, frankly, most FBI offices were not doing. It was not one of the priorities in most FBI field offices.
Mary Jo White, U.S. Attorney, Southern District of New York, 1993-2002
One of the things that John and I shared was recognizing and never letting go of the view of how dangerous bin Laden was and is. You heard in the media and elsewhere, and in some quarters, that maybe he wasn’t such a big force in terrorism. You heard that as late as during the embassy bombings trial, which didn’t end until May 2001, that really we had made too much of him. He wasn’t as big a player as law enforcement, John O’Neill, the U.S. Attorney’s office, Director Freeh, and Attorney General Reno thought he was; that really, we were making too much of him. You don’t want to raise his profile so that he has a greater following.
But in terms of how major a player he was and is, John O’Neill certainly recognized that as early as anyone, and maintained that view until John died. It was very sad.
Were you all becoming — the word “obsessed” is not the right word — but focused by him, in a big way, by then?
I think “obsessed” is perhaps the right word; very concerned. Very concerned about not the “if,” but the “where, when, and what.” Would it be future attacks? John O’Neill certainly lived and breathed that 24/7, as we would say, as did some of the rest of us, as well.
You’re constantly trying to put more pieces together, so that you could learn more, stop more, prevent more, but clearly knowing — and I think John O’Neill said it certainly before Sept. 11 — we’re due for a big one, and very worried about that. When you’re as worried about that level of risk and danger, as he was, and we were, you spend most of your waking hours — and most of your hours are waking — worrying about that, and trying to learn more.
Did he ever indicate to you that he was frustrated at his inability to convince others of the importance of this?
From time to time. But clearly a lot of people within the FBI and within our government did recognize how dangerous the risk was, and were working hand in glove with John and others on that risk and trying to learn more. But occasionally he would express, “They don’t seem to get it,” without any specificity.
But for the most part, I think our government did grasp pretty early on, partly because John educated them about how serious the risk was. But no one I can think of breathed it, lived it, breathed it, worried about it more than John O’Neill.
From what I’ve read, speeches he’s given he believed earlier than many and couldn’t really convince as many people as he felt he needed to that Al Qaeda was here, that there were the sleeper cells in the United States. Is that your memory of it?
To an extent. But again, I wouldn’t isolate it to sleeper cells in the United States. This is a global problem, a global risk. A lot was occurring from abroad, and not in the United States. I think John recognized that. What he wanted to be sure of is that everybody realized it could also be occurring in the United States. So whenever anyone flipped up on the radar screen of interest, we should pursue them very vigorously, even if major portions of the plot were being directed from abroad, which I think he recognized, too.
Again, if ever he confronted anyone who he thought was not taking this seriously enough, he would rattle that cage and make a believer of them.
Clint Guenther,Former FBI Agent NYC – Counterterrorism
He realized that there was probably going to be some sort of Middle Eastern terrorist organizations having the operational base in this country. And we didn’t have very good relations, or we hadn’t developed good sources within that community, where we could start to understand what was going on in the various Muslim communities.
He developed good working relationships with intelligence agencies in other countries like Great Britain, a lot of the Middle Eastern countries. He worked very hard at making sure that they knew exactly who he was and how he wanted to fight this. He wanted to make it a team effort.
One of the things Dick Clarke told us was that, early on, he got the fact of the danger of there being domestic cells of Al Qaeda and fundamentalists in the country, while the FBI and the rest of the world didn’t believe it. The official line was that it wasn’t a possibility. Was that true?
Yes. That was true. He fully believed that they had moved in and had cells here for a long time. On a daily basis, we were coming up with information that kind of leaned towards the fact that groups were coming in from various parts of the world. We couldn’t really find out what they were about, but we could see movements of groups into this country.
Bin Laden — how personal a fight was this?
I think what he realized is you have to know your enemy in order to be able to fight him well. I don’t think that he was personalizing anything. He just realized that he really needed to know and understand this man’s thoughts, his ideologies, and where he thought bin Laden would be looking and moving next. He was very academic about that.
It sounds like … John O’Neill was a storehouse for all this information. He was good at three-dimensional chess and able to complete the pictures and see where the connections were.
I think John started to see the big picture and to see the connectivity, since his investigative team had been the first to investigate a lot of these cases. The Washington field office had also been involved in some of these investigations, but John was able to get process on a lot of these people, including bin Laden early on. Because of that, every time an incident thereafter occurred, John would fight with Washington to make sure that we constantly took the lead on these investigations. So we would build this intelligence base, and so we would have investigators that had the institutional knowledge and that was the way it was. New York agents had the most knowledge out there on these groups.
Why is that important?
It’s important because then you don’t have to go back and reinvent the wheel. We didn’t have, and still don’t have, the databases that we really need to do the job. Until those databases are in place, it’s going to be very hard for an investigative team, say, from Los Angeles or Miami or anywhere else to grab ahold of one of these cases and be up to speed right away. It’s the group and the grassroots — those investigators who you send out there who’ve seen the picture before. Once they hear a name, they know the relationship that he has with all the other loosely affiliated groups.
Chris Isham, Senior Producer, ABC News
How would O’Neill work something like Al Qaeda from your perspective?
John was a guy who threw himself into something and he absorbed everything he could get his hands on. Obviously a lot of this had to do with intelligence that was coming in from sources in the U.S. intelligence community. But he reached out. John reached out to other services such as the Jordanians who knew a lot about this guy. He reached out to the British. He reached out to other services like the Egyptians, who knew about the Egyptian fundamentalist movement.
John would throw himself into trying to absorb as much information as he could from all sources, including myself, because he understood that as a journalist, there were certain things that I had access to that he didn’t have access to. I could go to Afghanistan; he couldn’t. So he reached out to everybody. I know he was, in that time period, trying to absorb as much information as he could.
By then, of course, he’s completely obsessed with [bin Laden]. People tell us that he’s sitting at home watching videotapes of him from everybody. True story?
Yes. He was obsessed by him; I think there’s no question about it. He wanted to absorb as much information as he could about this guy. He wanted to know what made him tick. He wanted to know where he was, what he was doing, and what his approach was and where his assets were. He was completely obsessed by the guy; there’s no question about that.
When you would sit around, have dinner
When he and I got together, we always talked about terrorism. What he was anguished by was how much he didn’t know. He knew certain things and he saw certain pieces, but he always knew that there was so much more that he didn’t know, and that’s what spooked him. What spooked him and what really used to drive him crazy was what he didn’t know, and how much was out there that he didn’t know.
Fran Townsend, Deputy to the U.S. Attorney General 1995-2002
When does the light bulb go on for John O’Neill about Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden?
From his time down in the international terrorism section at headquarters in Washington, as he begins to see the Ramzi Yousef case and World Trade Center, as things begin to progress, John completely throws himself into this. He’s reading everything he can get his hands on about radical fundamentalism. So I think it was probably before World Trade Center that this issue of radical fundamentalism sort of raises itself on his scope. He’s already beginning to focus on it before the first World Trade Center, and think about it and look at the implications of it.
By the time the first World Trade Center bombing happens, from things he said to me, he’s already got in his mind this is a major and long-term problem for us that we are ill-equipped to deal with. Not because we lack the commitment to deal with it, but because it’s a mindset he’s now read, he’s studied it. He really believes this is a mindset that will be so difficult to us to counter because it’s so alien to us, the whole thinking of it, that he’s not sure we’re well prepared to deal with it.