!! History Commons Alert, Exciting News

June 11, 1997: FBI Agent O’Neill Warns of the Danger Posed by Islamic Extremists in a Major Speech

Logo of the National Strategy Forum.Logo of the National Strategy Forum. [Source: National Strategy Forum]John O’Neill, special agent in charge of the FBI’s national security division in New York, gives an extensive speech in which he warns of the threat posed by religious extremist groups, which, he says, “have the ability to strike us here in the United States.” [New Yorker, 1/14/2002; Graff, 2011, pp. 200] O’Neill gives the 45-minute speech to the National Strategy Forum in Chicago. [Weiss, 2003, pp. 180, 185]
O'Neill Says Islamic Extremism Is Growing 'Very Fast' - In it, he points out that the FBI and most of the intelligence community, in their efforts to stop terrorism, still investigate states that sponsor terrorism, such as “Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, [and] Sudan.” However, he says, the bombing of the World Trade Center in February 1993 (see February 26, 1993) “made us painfully aware that there is this new realm that’s out there that’s growing at a pretty fast pace” and this is “religious extremism.” He adds that while there is extremism in all of the major religions of the world, “one of the ones that we see growing very, very fast is Islamic extremism.” Islamic extremists, he says, are “bound by a jihad, a religious belief as opposed to any nation or state.” He also explains why the US could be the target of terrorist attacks. “[N]o intelligent state will attack the United States in the foreseeable future because of our military superiority,” he says. Instead, he continues, “the only way that these individuals can attack us and have some effect is through acts of terrorism.”
Soviet-Afghan War Created a Network of Extremists - O’Neill highlights the significance of the 1979-1989 Soviet war in Afghanistan (see December 8, 1979), which he calls “a major watershed event.” He explains how the war created a network of Islamic extremists around the world who have the training and experience to carry out acts of terrorism. During the war, he says, “the jihad and Islamic players came together to fight the Russians.” These men received training in “insurgency” and “terrorist activity” while the conflict was taking place. However, an unfortunate consequence is that they are now “back in their various countries around the world with that training and having the network capabilities to know other jihad players around the world who have the same like mind, the same fundamentalist thinking, and the same type of training.” Their experiences in the Soviet-Afghan war might prompt them to carry out attacks against the United States, he suggests. He says a significant feature of the conflict was that “they won.” The extremists “beat one of the largest standing armies in the world at that time” and this “gave them a buoyed sense of success,” and a sense that “they could take on other countries like the US and be likewise successful.”
Extremist Groups 'Have the Ability' to Strike in the US - “Almost all of the extreme groups that we hear [about] in the newspaper, various organizations, have a presence in the United States today,” O’Neill comments. These groups, he explains, “are heavily involved in recruiting” and “heavily involved in fund-raising activity.” He adds that most of the groups, “if they chose to, have the ability to strike us here in the United States.” He also points out that while, over the last decade or so, the number of terrorist attacks around the world has fallen significantly, the attacks that do occur tend to be larger and deadlier. The reason for this is that “if you are going to engage in terrorist attacks for political or social agendas, you want to make it on the news.” “The larger the attack, the more newsworthy they can make it,” he comments. He ends on a pessimistic note, telling his audience: “Unfortunately, I cannot predict that no Americans will be injured or killed as a result of a terrorist attack. And, in fact, it will happen as long as violence is seen as the way to move along political or social agendas. We will have terrorism as a problem to contend with.” [National Strategy Forum, 6/11/1997]
FBI Headquarters Is Uninterested in Terrorism - Despite warning about the threat posed by Islamic extremists, O’Neill makes no mention of Osama bin Laden. All the same, his speech “electrified the crowd,” journalist and author Murray Weiss will later comment. Weiss will describe the speech as “a particular landmark” in which O’Neill manages to “trace a chillingly accurate picture of the danger posed by Islamic fundamentalism and its potential to unleash a virulent new strain of terrorism on the world.” [Weiss, 2003, pp. 180, 185] However, the agent’s concern about the threat posed by Islamic extremists makes him an exception within the FBI. Dale Watson, chief of the FBI’s international terrorism section, national security division, will comment that there is currently a lack of interest in the threat at FBI headquarters. “No one was thinking about the counterterrorism program—what the threat was and what we were trying to do about it,” he will say. He will remark that no one is thinking about where al-Qaeda’s next target might be and “no one [is] really looking.” [Weiner, 2012, pp. 391]

Entity Tags: Dale Watson, John O’Neill

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Ordering 

Time period


Email Updates

Receive weekly email updates summarizing what contributors have added to the History Commons database

 
Donate

Developing and maintaining this site is very labor intensive. If you find it useful, please give us a hand and donate what you can.
Donate Now

Volunteer

If you would like to help us with this effort, please contact us. We need help with programming (Java, JDO, mysql, and xml), design, networking, and publicity. If you want to contribute information to this site, click the register link at the top of the page, and start contributing.
Contact Us

Creative Commons License Except where otherwise noted, the textual content of each timeline is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike