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Context of 'January 2001: Counterterrorism Chief Clarke Meets Senior FBI Agents and Warns Them about Al-Qaeda'

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FBI Director Louis Freeh and other top FBI officials are briefed about the ongoing al-Qaeda summit in Malaysia (see January 5-8, 2000) as part of their regular daily update. They are told the CIA is in the lead and that the CIA promises to let the FBI know if an FBI angle to the case develops. But they are not told that the CIA has just found out that one of the participants, Khalid Almihdhar, has a US visa. [9/11 Commission, 1/26/2004] It is unclear who the other top FBI officials that are briefed are. However, Dale Watson, the assistant director of the counterterrorism division, and Thomas Pickard, the FBI’s deputy director at this time and its acting director in the summer of 2001, will also learn of the summit by July 2001, although it is unclear exactly when they are informed (see July 12, 2001). [Pickard, 6/24/2004] According to Vanity Fair, Richard Blee, head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit, “provided surveillance updates for [the CIA’s] top officers, the FBI, and the White House” while the summit is in progress. [Vanity Fair, 11/2004] One FBI official familiar with the case will later complain: “[The CIA] purposely hid [Almihdhar] from the FBI, purposely refused to tell the bureau.… The thing was, they didn’t want John O’Neill and the FBI running over their case. And that’s why September 11 happened.… They have blood on their hands.” [Bamford, 2004, pp. 224] Jack Cloonan, an FBI agent in the I-49 squad that focuses on al-Qaeda, will later say: “If that information [got] disseminated, would it have had an impact on the events of 9/11? I’m telling you that it would have.” [ABC News, 5/10/2004]

Entity Tags: Richard Blee, Louis J. Freeh, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Jack Cloonan, John O’Neill, Central Intelligence Agency, Counterterrorism Division (FBI), Khalid Almihdhar

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

Dale Watson, assistant director of the FBI’s counterterrorism division, persuades FBI Director Louis Freeh to approve a meeting where senior FBI agents from around the US can learn about terrorism from Richard Clarke, the White House chief of counterterrorism. Watson wants the event held due to concerns around the general inaction and lack of interest in terrorism. The meeting, which takes place in Tampa, Florida, is attended by 250 special agents in charge and counterterrorism supervisors who come from all 56 FBI field offices. Attorney General Janet Reno also attends. [Clarke, 2004, pp. 218; 9/11 Commission, 1/6/2004 pdf file; Graff, 2011, pp. 272] The meeting will subsequently be nicknamed the “Terrorism for Dummies” seminar. [Weiner, 2012, pp. 406] During it, Clarke gives the attendees a summary of al-Qaeda’s aims, goals, and methods.
One Al-Qaeda Goal Is the Destruction of the US, Clarke Says - “Al-Qaeda is a worldwide political conspiracy masquerading as a religious sect,” he tells them. The terrorist network, he says, “engages in murder of innocent people to grab attention. Its goal is a 14th-century style theocracy in which women have no rights, everyone is forced to be a Muslim, and the Sharia legal system is used to cut off hands and stone people to death.” He explains that the group “uses a global banking network and financial system to support its activities,” and its members “are smart; many trained in our colleges and they have a very long view.” “They think it may take them a century to accomplish their goals,” he says and adds that one of these goals is “the destruction of the United States of America.” He says al-Qaeda members “have good spy tradecraft,” and the network employs “sleeper cells and front groups that plan for years before acting.” He says the group’s members “are our number one enemy and they are amongst us, in your cities.” He then gives the FBI agents the simple instruction, “Find them.”
Watson Says Agents Will Be Evaluated on Their Performance against Terrorists - After Clarke has spoken, Watson addresses the FBI agents. He tells them terrorism is the bureau’s “number one priority.” He says: “You will find [the terrorists]. If you have to arrest them for jaywalking, do it. If the local US attorney won’t prosecute them, call me. If you can’t get your FISA wiretap approved by Justice, call us. Don’t just sit out there and sulk.” Some of the attendees appear to be indifferent about what Watson is telling them, according to Clarke. “People were taking notes, but some looked like they had heard this sort of ‘new priority’ speech before,” he will later recall. Watson ends with one final point. “Your bonus, your promotion, your city of assignment all depend upon how well you do on this mission,” he says, adding: “I mean it. I’ve got [Freeh’s] backing. If you don’t believe me, try me.” After Watson and Clarke leave the meeting, Watson explains to Clarke how his agency functions. “The FBI is like an aircraft carrier,” he says. “It takes a long time to get going in one direction and turn around and go in another.” He adds: “These field offices have all had their own way, little fiefdoms, for years. At least I’m starting.” [Clarke, 2004, pp. 218-219; Graff, 2011, pp. 272]

Entity Tags: Dale Watson, Louis J. Freeh, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Janet Reno, Richard A. Clarke, Al-Qaeda

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

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