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Profile: John O’Neill
John O’Neill was a participant or observer in the following events:
Bruce Butterworth. [Source: Mineta Transportation Institute]John O’Neill, a senior FBI agent, tells congressional staffers there are no threats to aviation in the US. The staff of the Senate Intelligence Committee has asked the FBI, the director of central intelligence, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for a briefing about threats to civil aviation. O’Neill goes to the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington, DC, to respond to this request on behalf of the FBI. Cathal Flynn, the FAA’s associate administrator for civil aviation security, who goes on behalf of the FAA, will later recall that at the briefing, Senate Intelligence Committee staffers ask, “What are the indications—or what are the threats—to aviation?” In response, according to Flynn, “John O’Neill said there are none.” [9/11 Commission, 9/9/2003 ; 9/11 Commission, 1/27/2004] Bruce Butterworth, the FAA’s director of civil aviation security operations, who is apparently at the briefing, will similarly describe O’Neill’s response. He will say he “recalled FBI agent John O’Neill’s testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee wherein he was unwilling to corroborate FAA claims about credible threats to civil aviation.” [9/11 Commission, 9/29/2003 ]
FBI Has Learned of 'Indications' of Threats to Aviation - Flynn finds O’Neill’s response to the Intelligence Committee staffers odd, since, he will say, the FBI has learned of a “few indications” of possible threats to aviation, such as a suspicious individual trying to get “a job with airport access” at Los Angeles International Airport. He writes a note to O’Neill, reminding him about this incident. But, according to Flynn, O’Neill “looked at the note” and “still didn’t say anything, didn’t change what he had said.” As the two men are leaving the briefing, Flynn asks O’Neill about the incident and O’Neill tells him there was “nothing to it.” [9/11 Commission, 9/9/2003 ; 9/11 Commission, 1/27/2004]
O'Neill Is the FBI's 'Most Committed Tracker of Osama bin Laden' - It is unclear when this briefing takes place. It presumably occurs sometime between July 1995 and September 2000—the time period during which Butterworth is the FAA’s director of civil aviation security operations. [9/11 Commission, 9/29/2003 ] According to Flynn, O’Neill is “the head of antiterrorism for the FBI” when the briefing is held. [9/11 Commission, 1/27/2004] This suggests that it takes place sometime between January 1995 and January 1997, when O’Neill is chief of the counterterrorism section at the FBI’s Washington headquarters. [Federal Bureau of Investigation, 9/11/2006] During his time working for the FBI, O’Neill becomes “the bureau’s most committed tracker of Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network of terrorists,” according to the New Yorker. [New Yorker, 1/14/2002] Journalist and author Murray Weiss will write that O’Neill “had reiterated since 1995 to any official in Washington who would listen” that “he was sure bin Laden would attack on American soil.” [Weiss, 2003, pp. 360]
During Michael Scheuer’s time as head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit Alec Station from 1996 to 1999 (see February 1996 and June 1999), the unit has conflicts with other parts of the US intelligence community. Scheuer has an angry and dogmatic style that sometimes alienates people.
Conflict with Counterterrorism 'Tsar' Clarke - Scheuer and Richard Clarke, the US counterterrorism “tsar,” do not get along, even though both are among the first people in government to take the Osama bin Laden threat seriously. Clarke can also be abrasive. One former CIA insider will later say, “I can say that, among individuals that I tend to trust, Clarke was regarded as more serious about terrorism in the 1990s than just about anybody else in the US government, but he was a truly painful individual to work with.” Clarke will later similarly criticize Scheuer, saying: “Throwing tantrums and everything doesn’t help.… [You shouldn’t be] so dysfunctional within your agency that you’re making it harder to get something done.” And Scheuer will later criticize Clarke, saying: “[He] was an interferer of the first level, in terms of talking about things that he knew nothing about and killing them.… He was always playing the FBI off against us or us against the NSA.”
Conflict with the FBI - The bin Laden unit does not get along with some FBI agents assigned to it as well. From the very start, some FBI officials, including bin Laden expert John O’Neill, resist cooperating with the unit. CIA official John MacGaffin will later claim, “O’Neill just fought it and fought it [cooperating with Alec Station].” O’Neill and Scheuer “were at each other’s throats.” On one occasion an FBI agent at the bin Laden unit is caught hiding CIA files inside his shirt to take them back to O’Neill. Scheuer will also claim that the FBI rarely follows up leads the bin Laden unit sends it. Furthermore, the FBI never shares information. “I bet we sent 700 or 800 requests for information to the FBI, and we never got an answer to any of them,” Scheuer says.
Conflicts with CIA Higher-Ups - The bin Laden unit also has conflicts with others within the CIA, including powerful superiors. An incident in 1996 leads to a breakdown of trust between Scheuer and his superiors (see 1996). John MacGaffin, who is a top CIA official for clandestine operations at the time, will later say of Scheuer, “He’s a good guy, [but] he’s an angry guy.”
Situation Improves after Scheuer - In June 1999, Richard Blee replaces Scheuer as head of the bin Laden unit, and he will stay involved in the bin Laden issue until after 9/11 (see December 9, 2001). Vanity Fair will later comment that Blee “was just as heated up over bin Laden as Scheuer had been, but obviously less likely to cause the kind of friction that would discomfit the [CIA director].” [Vanity Fair, 11/2004]
By late 1996, the CIA definitively confirms that Osama bin Laden is more of a leader of militants worldwide than just a financier of them. [US Congress, 7/24/2003] CIA Director George Tenet will later comment, “By 1996 we knew that bin Laden was more than a financier. An al-Qaeda defector [Jamal al-Fadl] told us that [bin Laden] was the head of a worldwide terrorist organization with a board of directors that would include the likes of Ayman al-Zawahiri and that he wanted to strike the United States on our soil” (see June 1996-April 1997). [Tenet, 2007, pp. 102] Yet the US will not take “bin Laden or al-Qaeda all that seriously” until after the bombing of US embassies in Africa in 1998. [Miller, Stone, and Mitchell, 2002, pp. 213] Dan Coleman, the FBI’s top al-Qaeda expert, helps interrogate al-Fadl in 1996 and 1997 (see June 1996-April 1997), and Coleman comes to the conclusion that the US is facing a profound new threat. But according to journalist Robert Wright, Coleman’s reports “met with little response outside a small circle of prosecutors and a few people in the [CIA and FBI] who took an interest…” Michael Scheuer, head of the CIA’s bin Laden unit, is interested, as is John O’Neill, who heads the New York FBI office that specializes in bin Laden cases. But O’Neill and Scheuer hate each other and do not cooperate. [Wright, 2006] Al-Fadl’s information will not turn into the first US indictment of bin Laden until June 1998 (see June 8, 1998).
By the start of 1997, Alec Station, the CIA unit created the year before to focus entirely on bin Laden (see February 1996), is certain that bin Laden is not just a financier but an organizer of terrorist activity. It is aware bin Laden is conducting an extensive effort to get and use a nuclear weapon (see Late 1996). It knows that al-Qaeda has a military committee planning operations against US interests worldwide. However, although this information is disseminated in many reports, the unit’s sense of alarm about bin Laden isn’t widely shared or understood within the intelligence and policy communities. Employees in the unit feel their zeal attracts ridicule from their peers. [9/11 Commission, 3/24/2004] Some higher-ups begin to deride the unit as hysterical doomsayers, and refer to the unit as “The Manson Family.” Michael Scheuer, head of the unit until 1999, has an abrasive style. He and counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke do not get along and do not work well together. Scheuer also does not get along with John O’Neill, the FBI’s most knowledgeable agent regarding bin Laden. The FBI and Alec Station rarely share information, and at one point an FBI agent is caught stuffing some of the unit’s files under his shirt to take back to O’Neill. [Vanity Fair, 11/2004]
The Associated Press reports that senior FBI officials have determined that militant Islamic groups are operating in the US. FBI agent John O’Neill is quoted as saying, “Almost every one of these groups has a presence in the United States today. A lot of these groups now have the capacity and the support infrastructure in the United States to attack us here if they choose to.”
[PBS Frontline, 10/3/2002]
Ali Soufan. [Source: CBS News]Ali Soufan joins the FBI. Soufan is a US citizen and recently graduated from a US university, but he is a Muslim who was born and raised in Lebanon and speaks fluent Arabic, making him particularly suited to understanding Islamist militant threats. Soufan is assigned to the FBI’s New York office, which happens to be the office taking the lead in cases involving Osama bin Laden. Initially, Soufan is assigned to Mafia cases. But he has had a long-standing interest in bin Laden, and after reading in an Arabic newspaper about bin Laden’s fatwa (religious edict) against the US in February 1998 (see February 22, 1998), he will write an FBI memo explaining the fatwa’s significance. This will get him increasingly involved in counterterrorism cases, and shortly after the East African embassy bombings in August 1998 (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998), he will be assigned to the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF). He will begin working with FBI bin Laden expert John O’Neill and the counterterrorism I-49 squad, which is increasingly focusing on bin Laden. [Soufan, 2011, pp. 1-16]
Sayyid Iskandar Suliman. This picture is from a poor photocopy of his passport found in Sudanese intelligence files. [Source: Public domain via Richard Miniter]On August 4, 1998, Sudanese immigration suspects two men, Sayyid Nazir Abbass and Sayyid Iskandar Suliman, arriving in Sudan, apparently due to something in their Pakistani passports. They attempt to rent an apartment overlooking the US embassy. Three days later, US embassies are bombed in Kenya and Tanzania (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998). Within hours, Sudanese officials arrest Abbass and Suliman. The two of them had just come from Kenya, and one of them quickly admits to staying in the same hotel in Kenya as some of the embassy bombers. Sudanese intelligence believes they are al-Qaeda operatives involved in the bombings. [Observer, 9/30/2001; Vanity Fair, 1/2002; Randal, 2005, pp. 132-135] The US embassy in Sudan has been shut down for several years. But around August 14, a Sudanese intelligence official contacts an intermediary and former White House employee named Janet McElligott and gives her a vague message that Sudan is holding important suspects and the FBI should send a team immediately to see if they want to take custody of them. [Randal, 2005, pp. 132-135] The FBI wants the two men, but on August 17, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright forbids their extradition. The US has decided to bomb a factory in Sudan in retaliation for the embassy bombings instead of cooperating with Sudan. But FBI agent John O’Neill is not yet aware of Albright’s decision, and word of the Sudanese offer reaches him on August 19. He wants immediate approval to arrest the two suspects and flies to Washington that evening to discuss the issue with counterterrorism “tsar” Richard Clarke. But Clarke tells O’Neill to speak to Attorney General Janet Reno. Later that night, O’Neill talks to Reno and she tells him that the decision to retaliate against Sudan instead has already been made. Mere hours later, the US attack a factory in Sudan with cruise missiles (see August 20, 1998). Within days, it becomes apparent that the factory had no link to al-Qaeda (see September 23, 1998), and no link between the bombings and the Sudanese government will emerge (although Sudan harbored bin Laden until 1996). [Randal, 2005, pp. 132-138] The Sudanese will continue to hold the two men in hopes to make a deal with the US. But the US is not interested, so after two weeks they are send to Pakistan and set free there (see August 20-September 2, 1998).
CIA operatives kidnap Ahmad Salama Mabruk and two other members of Islamic Jihad outside a restaurant in Baku, Azerbaijan (see Late August 1998). This is part of a covert CIA program to arrest Islamic Jihad operatives around the world and send them to Egypt (see Summer 1995). [Wall Street Journal, 7/2/2002] Mabruk is the closest ally of Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s number two leader. Mabruk’s laptop computer turns out to contain al-Qaeda organizational charts and vital information about Islamic Jihad members in Europe. FBI agent Dan Coleman later calls this “the Rosetta Stone of al-Qaeda.” However, the CIA will not turn this information over to the FBI. John O’Neill, head of the FBI’s New York office, tries to get around this by sending an agent to Azerbaijan to get copies of the computer files from the Azerbaijani government. When that fails, he persuades President Clinton to personally appeal to the president of Azerbaijan for the files. The FBI eventually gets the files, but the incident deepens the tensions between the CIA and FBI. [Wright, 2006, pp. 268-269] The US monitored 67 phone calls between bin Laden and Azerbaijan from 1996 to 1998 (see November 1996-Late August 1998). Presumably, many of these would have been to Mabruk. Mabruk is sent to Egypt and given a long prison sentence. [Wall Street Journal, 7/2/2002]
During the investigation of the August 7, 1998 US embassy bombings (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998), FBI counterterrorism expert John O’Neill finds a memo by al-Qaeda leader Mohammed Atef on a computer. The memo shows that bin Laden’s group has a keen interest in and detailed knowledge of negotiations between the Taliban and the US over an oil and gas pipeline through Afghanistan. Atef’s analysis suggests that the Taliban are not sincere in wanting a pipeline, but are dragging out negotiations to keep Western powers at bay. [Salon, 6/5/2002]
FBI counterterrorism expert John O’Neill and his team investigating the 1998 US embassy bombings are repeatedly frustrated by the Saudi government. Guillaume Dasquié, one of the authors of The Forbidden Truth, later tells the Village Voice: “We uncovered incredible things.… Investigators would arrive to find that key witnesses they were about to interrogate had been beheaded the day before.”
[Brisard and Dasquie, 2002, pp. xxix; Village Voice, 1/2/2002]
Following the replacement of Michael Scheuer by Richard Blee as chief of Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit (see June 1999 and June 1999), the relationship between Alec Station and its FBI counterpart headed by John O’Neill does not improve. The relationship between Scheuer and O’Neill was extremely stormy, but Blee’s arrival does nothing to calm matters. As O’Neill is the FBI manager most knowledgeable about al-Qaeda, the combative nature of the relationship may hamper interagency counterterrorism efforts. Author James Bamford will write, “The epicenter of the clash between the two cultures [of the FBI and CIA] was the relationship between [Blee] and John P. O’Neill, the flashy, outspoken chief of the FBI’s National Security Division in New York.” An associate of O’Neill’s will say of Alec Station staff, “They despised the FBI and they despised John O’Neill.” A CIA officer will add, “The working relationships were very difficult at times.” [Bamford, 2004, pp. 217-8]
Resurrection Day by Glenn Meade. [Source: Coronet Books]Glenn Meade, an Irish thriller writer, writes a novel based around an al-Qaeda attack on Washington, DC. In the novel, called Resurrection Day, a terrorist gang parks a van containing a tank of poisonous gas in a lock-up garage, wired to explode by remote control. The US president is given five days to comply with a list of demands, before the van is to be blown up. In his research for the book—which is completed just days before 9/11, at the end of August 2001—Meade is helped by numerous US counterterrorism experts. One of these is John O’Neill, the FBI’s counterterrorism chief and top expert on Osama bin Laden. (O’Neill will die in the 9/11 attacks, after leaving the FBI to become the head of security at the World Trade Center (see August 23, 2001).) Meade later says the feeling he got from O’Neill was that the threat posed by Islamic extremists “is a bigger danger than a lot of people in the FBI are prepared to admit; some are sticking their heads in the sand.” The Irish Independent later highlights the similarities between Resurrection Day and the 9/11 attacks, saying, “In Meade’s book it is Washington, not New York, that takes the brunt of the attack. The weapon is nerve gas, not hijacked airliners. But the terrorist network is al-Qaeda. Its head is Osama bin Laden (renamed for the sake of post-September 11 sensitivities) and his operatives, like Mohamed Atta, favor the porous borders of New England as the best way to slip undetected into the US.” Another person who helps Meade in his research for the book is a former member of the US Secret Service. In the days after 9/11, this person will ring Meade and tell him, “What kept running through my mind was ‘I’ve spent the past six weeks helping this author with this book that has such a similar scenario.’” [Irish Independent, 7/6/2002; Glenn Meade, 2003; Irish Independent, 1/26/2003]
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]
The front of the Manchester manual, deceptively covered with flowers. [Source: FBI]Al-Qaeda leader Anas al-Liby is arrested in Manchester, England, and then let go. According to Ali Soufan, an FBI agent from 1997 to 2005, the I-49 squad, a mix of FBI agents and US attorneys, uncovers evidence that al-Liby is living in Manchester. FBI agent John O’Neill assembles a team, including Soufan, to go there. Soufan will later say that they are met by local police, and he tells them: “Anas al-Liby is a senior al-Qaeda operative. He’s a computer expert and was part of the team that did surveillance on the embassy in Nairobi [that resulted in the 1998 bombing there (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998)]. This is potentially a big win for us.” Al-Liby is caught in his residence and taken to a local police station. However, he denies any involvement in terrorism. According to Soufan, al-Liby is smart and careful, and no incriminating documents or computer files can be quickly found in his residence. O’Neill wants him held until his possessions can be searched more thoroughly, but he is immediately released. Al-Liby evades a team sent to follow him, and skips the country. Not long afterwards, Soufan, who speaks Arabic, discovers a terrorist training manual written in Arabic in al-Liby’s possessions (see May 2000). In a book he writes that is published in 2011, Soufan curiously will not mention the timing of this arrest, even though timing is given to most other events discussed in the book. But the arrest is placed between events that occur in late 1999 and early 2000. [Soufan, 2011, pp. 113-114] In April 2001, the New York Times will first report on the manual, and will mention that it was discovered in a raid in Manchester in May 2000. [New York Times, 4/5/2001] Shortly after 9/11, it will be revealed that the raid was of al-Liby’s residence. [Associated Press, 9/21/2001; Observer, 9/22/2001] In 2002, it will be reported that al-Liby was not at home during the raid, and then escaped the country. Furthermore, al-Liby has been living openly in Britain since 1995, apparently as part of a political deal after he had taken part in a plot with the British intelligence agency MI6 to assassinate Libyan leader Colonel Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi in 1996 (see Late 1995-May 2000 and 1996). [Observer, 11/10/2002] The embarrassing fact that al-Liby is actually arrested and then released will not be revealed until September 2011, in Soufan’s book. [Soufan, 2011, pp. 113-114] The US will later post a $25 million reward for al-Liby, and his death or arrest will never be confirmed. [Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2002]
Barbara Bodine at a press conference days after the bombing of the USS Cole. [Source: Reuters]The first FBI agents enter Yemen two days after the bombing of the USS Cole in an attempt to discover who was responsible. However, the main part of the team initially gets stuck in Germany because they do not have permission to enter Yemen and they are then unable to accomplish much due to restrictions placed on them and tensions between lead investigator John O’Neill and US Ambassador to Yemen Barbara Bodine. All but about 50 investigators are forced to leave by the end of October. O’Neill’s boss Barry Mawn visits to assess the situation. [Miller, Stone, and Mitchell, 2002, pp. 237; New Yorker, 1/14/2002; Sunday Times (London), 2/3/2002; New Yorker, 7/10/2006 ] Mawn will later comment, “It became clear [Bodine] simply hated his guts.” After a ten day investigation, he concludes O’Neill is doing a fine job, tells Bodine that she is O’Neill’s “only detractor,” and refuses her request to recall him. [Wright, 2006, pp. 32] But O’Neill and much of his team are pressured to leave by late November and Bodine will not give him permission to return any time after that. The investigation stalls without his personal relationships to top Yemeni officials. [Miller, Stone, and Mitchell, 2002, pp. 237; New Yorker, 1/14/2002; Sunday Times (London), 2/3/2002] Increased security threats force the reduced FBI team still in Yemen to withdraw altogether in June 2001. [PBS Frontline, 10/3/2002] The prime minister of Yemen at the time later claims (see Early October 2001) that hijacker “Khalid Almihdhar was one of the Cole perpetrators, involved in preparations. He was in Yemen at the time and stayed after the Cole bombing for a while, then he left.” The Sunday Times later notes, “The failure in Yemen may have blocked off lines of investigation that could have led directly to the terrorists preparing for September 11.” [Sunday Times (London), 2/3/2002]
Pat Patterson. [Source: Publicity photo]Los Angeles FBI agent Pat Patterson is sent to Yemen to assist in the investigation of the USS Cole bombing (see October 14-Late November, 2000). While there, he spends several evenings with John O’Neill, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s national security division in New York, who is leading the investigation. O’Neill is the FBI’s top expert on al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. The two men speculate about what bin Laden’s next target might be, and end up considering the World Trade Center. Patterson will later recall: “I thought it was unlikely they would hit a target a second time, but John was convinced of it. He said, ‘No, they definitely want to bring that building down.’ He just had that sense and was insistent about it.” [New York Magazine, 12/17/2001; Weiss, 2003, pp. 291-292 and 321] After leaving the FBI, O’Neill will actually start work as director of security for the World Trade Center shortly before 9/11 (see August 23, 2001).
Khallad bin Attash. [Source: FBI]After talks that last some time, Yemeni authorities agree to provide the FBI team investigating the USS Cole bombing with passport photos of suspects in the attack, including al-Qaeda leader Khallad bin Attash. The photos are provided to lead investigators John O’Neill and Ali Soufan, and Soufan immediately sends bin Attash’s photo to the CIA and to an FBI colleague in Islamabad, Pakistan. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 192; New Yorker, 7/10/2006 ] The FBI colleague is Michael Dorris. [Soufan, 2011, pp. 117] The CIA agent is known only as “Chris.” [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 537] Chris shows the photo to a source, and the source, known only as “Omar,” confirms that the man in the photo is bin Attash. Author Lawrence Wright will comment, “This suggested strongly that al-Qaeda was behind the Cole attack.” However, this does not motivate the US to retaliate against al-Qaeda (see Shortly After October 12, 2000). Around this time, the FBI also learns that Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, another al-Qaeda operative involved in the embassy bombings, had a hand in the Cole attack as well (see November-December 2000). [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 192; New Yorker, 7/10/2006 ]
Fahad al-Quso. [Source: FBI]In late October 2000, al-Qaeda operative Fahad al-Quso was interrogated by authorities in Yemen, and FBI agent Ali Soufan was able to use that information to discover the identity of one of the USS Cole bombing masterminds, Khallad bin Attash (see Late October-Late November 2000). In early December, while most FBI investigators are having to leave Yemen, Soufan is given the chance to interrogate al-Quso directly. Soufan gets al-Quso to admit that he had met with bin Attash and one of the Cole suicide bombers in Bangkok, Thailand, in January 2000 (see January 13, 2000). Al-Quso admits he gave bin Attash $36,000 and not the $5,000 for medical expenses that al-Quso had claimed when talking to the Yemenis the month before. Al-Quso says they stayed in the Washington Hotel in Bangkok, so Soufan checks telephone records to verify his account. Soufan finds records of phone calls between the hotel and al-Quso’s house in Yemen. They also find calls to both places from a pay phone in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The phone happens to be directly outside the condominium where an al-Qaeda summit was taking place a few days before al-Quso went to Bangkok (see January 5-8, 2000). Soufan asks the CIA for information about bin Attash, but the CIA wrongly claims it knows nothing, and doesn’t even tell Soufan of the Malaysia summit that it had closely monitored (see Late November 2000). [New York Times, 4/11/2004; Wright, 2006, pp. 330-331] Meanwhile, FBI head investigator John O’Neill correctly believes that al-Quso is still holding back important information (at the very least, al-Quso is still hiding his participation in the Malaysia summit). However, O’Neill had been kicked out of Yemen by his superiors a week or two before (see October 14-Late November, 2000), and without his influential presence the Yemeni government will not allow any more interrogations. After 9/11, al-Quso will finally admit to meeting with Alhazmi and Almihdhar. One investigator calls the missed opportunity of exposing the 9/11 plot through al-Quso’s connections “mind-boggling.” [PBS Frontline, 10/3/2002] In April 2003, al-Quso will escape from a Yemeni prison (see April 11, 2003-March 2004). [Associated Press, 4/11/2003]
A guard on the US embassy in Sana’a, Yemen. [Source: CNN]In early June, new threats are received in Yemen and create a security crisis for the FBI team investigating the bombing of the USS Cole, as Yemeni authorities say they have arrested eight men who are part of a plot to blow up the US embassy in Sana’a, where the team is staying. Although the FBI is apparently on the verge of being granted access to a group of people who may have further information about the bombing, FBI manager John O’Neill and director Louis Freeh agree that the team should be pulled out and they all fly home. The investigation moved at a reduced pace after staff were relocated from Aden, where the attack occurred, to Sana’a, the country’s capital. O’Neill will send agents back to Yemen on his last day with the FBI in late August (see August 22, 2001). [Time, 7/10/2001; New Yorker, 7/10/2006 ]
The movements of John O’Neill, the FBI manager responsible for tracking Osama bin Laden, appear to mirror those of the 9/11 hijackers and their associates while they are in Spain. Associates of the hijackers gather in Granada, in southern Spain, at the beginning of July (see July 6, 2001 and Shortly After). O’Neill arrives in Spain with some friends on July 5 and stays in Marbella until at least July 8. For at least part of the time in Marbella he is accompanied by Mark Rossini, an FBI agent currently detailed to Alec Station, the CIA’s bin Laden unit, who translates for O’Neill in Spain and whose friend lets O’Neill use his beach house. [Weiss, 2003, pp. 340-2; Wright, 2006, pp. 316-7, 344-5] (Note: Marbella and Granada are both in the southern Spanish province of Andalusia, but are about 120 miles apart.) Lead hijacker Mohamed Atta then arrives in Madrid on July 8, leaving on July 9. [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 244] O’Neill and Rossini arrive in Madrid on July 9 and O’Neill gives a speech to the Spanish Police Foundation there on July 10. [Spanish Police Foundation, 7/10/2001; Weiss, 2003, pp. 340-2] After leaving Madrid, Atta travels to Catalonia, where he meets Ramzi bin al-Shibh and possibly other associates (see July 8-19, 2001). The authors of The Cell, one of whom—John Miller—was a close friend of O’Neill’s, will say O’Neill also visits the same part of Catalonia to make a speech at some point on his trip to Spain (note: it is unclear whether this is just a garbled account of his speech in Madrid, or whether he made two speeches). They will also say that he and Atta even stay at the same hotel, the Casablanca Playa in the small town of Salou, but at different times. [Miller, Stone, and Mitchell, 2002, pp. 289-90, 293] O’Neill leaves Spain on July 16, so he and his girlfriend Valerie James would probably be in the Salou area at around the same time as Atta, bin al-Shibh, and their associates. [Weiss, 2003, pp. 340-2] The overlap between the 9/11 operatives on the one hand and O’Neill and Rossini on the other is usually ignored in media accounts, but the episode in Salou is mentioned in The Cell, which indicates it is a mere coincidence. [Miller, Stone, and Mitchell, 2002, pp. 289-90]
FBI counterterrorism expert John O’Neill privately discusses White House obstruction in his bin Laden investigation. O’Neill says, “The main obstacles to investigate Islamic terrorism were US oil corporate interests and the role played by Saudi Arabia in it.” He adds, “All the answers, everything needed to dismantle Osama bin Laden’s organization, can be found in Saudi Arabia.” O’Neill also believes the White House is obstructing his investigation of bin Laden because they are still keeping the idea of a pipeline deal with the Taliban open (see July 21, 2001). [Irish Times, 11/19/2001; Brisard and Dasquie, 2002, pp. xxix; CNN, 1/8/2002; CNN, 1/9/2002]
[Source: FBI]The New York Times reports that counterterrorism expert John O’Neill is under investigation for an incident involving a missing briefcase. [New York Times, 8/19/2001] In July 2000, he misplaced a briefcase containing important classified information, but it was found a couple of hours later still locked and untouched. Why such a trivial issue would come up over a year later and be published in the New York Times seems entirely due to politics. Says the New Yorker, “The leak seemed to be timed to destroy O’Neill’s chance of being confirmed for [a National Security Council] job,” and force him into retirement. A high-ranking colleague says the leak was “somebody being pretty vicious to John.” [New Yorker, 1/14/2002] John O’Neill suspects his enemy Tom Pickard, then interim director of the FBI, orchestrated the article. [PBS Frontline, 10/3/2002] The New Yorker later speculates that with the retirement of FBI Director Freeh in June, it appears O’Neill lost his friends in high places, and the new FBI director wanted him replaced with a Bush ally. [New Yorker, 1/14/2002] O’Neill retires a few days later.
An FBI team returns to Yemen to re-commence its investigation of the bombing of the USS Cole (see October 12, 2000). The team, headed by FBI agent Ali Soufan and sent by retiring FBI manager John O’Neill on his last day with the FBI (see August 22, 2001), had been pulled out of Yemen in June, due to possible threats against it (see June 17, 2001). On the same day as Soufan leaves, the CIA finally tells the FBI some of what it knows about 9/11 hijackers Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, and their attendance at an al-Qaeda’s Malaysia summit (see August 21-22, 2001 and August 23, 2001). Soufan had requested information about the Malaysia summit from the CIA three times (see Late November 2000, April 2001 and July 2001), but the CIA had repeatedly failed to respond to his requests. While in Yemen, Soufan appears not to be aware of the new information provided to the FBI, and learns about the Malaysia summit shortly after the 9/11 attacks (see January 5-8, 2000 and September 12-Late September, 2001). [New Yorker, 7/10/2006 ]
John O’Neill (left) with Dan Coleman at O’Neill’s retirement party on August 22, 2001. [Source: Dan Coleman]Counterterrorism expert John O’Neill retires from the FBI. He says it is partly because of the recent power play against him, but also because of repeated obstruction of his investigations into al-Qaeda. [New Yorker, 1/14/2002] In his last act, he signs papers ordering FBI investigators back to Yemen to resume the USS Cole investigation, now that Barbara Bodine is leaving as ambassador (they arrive a couple days before 9/11). He never hears the CIA warning about hijackers Nawaf Alhazmi and Khalid Almihdhar sent out just one day later. He also apparently is not told about the arrest of Zacarias Moussaoui on August 15, 2001 [PBS, 10/3/2002] ; nor does he attend a June meeting when the CIA reveals some of what it knows about Alhazmi and Almihdhar. [PBS Frontline, 10/3/2002] ABC News reporter Chris Isham will later say, “John had heard the alarm bells, too, and we used to talk about it. And he knew that there was a lot of noise out there and that there were a lot of warnings, a lot of red flags, and that it was at a similar level that they were hearing before the millennium, which was an indication that there was something going on. And yet he felt that he was frozen out, that he was not in a capacity to really do anything about it anymore because of his relationship with the FBI. So it was a source of real anguish for him.” [PBS, 10/3/2002]
Entity Tags: USS Cole, Walid Arkeh, Nawaf Alhazmi, Zacarias Moussaoui, Khalid Almihdhar, Ken Williams, John O’Neill, Al-Qaeda, Barbara Bodine, Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Chris Isham
Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline
John O’Neill begins his new job as head of security at the WTC. O’Neill had been the special agent in charge of the FBI’s National Security Division in New York, and was the bureau’s top expert on al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. [New York Magazine, 12/17/2001; New Yorker, 1/14/2002] He’d left his job with the FBI just the day before (see August 22, 2001). His friend Jerome Hauer, who is the former head of New York’s Office of Emergency Management, had found him the job at the World Trade Center. Developer Larry Silverstein, who recently took over the lease of the WTC (see July 24, 2001), had been highly impressed with O’Neill but insisted he start in the post no later than the first week of September, when his firm Silverstein Properties is set to assume control of the buildings. O’Neill had agreed to this. [Weiss, 2003, pp. 336-338, 345-346 and 349-351] After hearing that O’Neill has got this job, Chris Isham, a senior producer at ABC News who is a close friend, says to him, “Well, that will be an easy job. They’re not going to bomb that place again.” O’Neill replies, “Well actually they’ve always wanted to finish that job. I think they’re going to try again.” [PBS Frontline, 5/31/2002] After a few days as the WTC security director, O’Neill will move into his new office on the 34th floor of the South Tower. [Weiss, 2003, pp. 353-354 and 366]
George Tabeek. [Source: Fairleigh Dickinson University]George Tabeek, a security manager with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, expresses his concerns about an aircraft crashing into the World Trade Center, perhaps in a terrorist attack. [CBS News, 2/11/2009; New Jersey Star-Ledger, 9/6/2011] The Port Authority was, until late July, responsible for the management and operation of the WTC (see July 24, 2001), and most Port Authority World Trade Department employees are still working in the WTC. [Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, 7/24/2001; IREIzine, 7/26/2001; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 281]
Possibility of Plane Hitting WTC Discussed - Tabeek, the Port Authority’s security manager for the WTC since 1999, will later say that, following the 1993 bombing of the WTC (see February 26, 1993), the Port Authority “put thousands and thousands of hours into safety construction and safety procedures.” Over $100 million has been spent on improving security and fire safety. Therefore, according to Tabeek, “the World Trade Center was safer on 9/11 than 99 percent of the buildings in America.” Tabeek will say: “We were already looking into bio-chem. We were talking about weapons of mass destruction.” He will add that, just two weeks before 9/11, “[W]e talked about ever getting hit by a plane, but it was never in our wildest dreams a commercial airliner.” [FDU Magazine, 6/2008; CBS News, 2/11/2009]
Possibility of Attack Using Plane Discussed with New Head of Security - Tabeek discusses the possibility of a plane hitting the WTC again on September 6, the Thursday before 9/11. That evening, John O’Neill, the new head of security at the WTC (see August 23, 2001), calls him to a conference room in the South Tower, to discuss security and “threat assessment.” During the meeting, Tabeek describes the improved security at the WTC, telling O’Neill: “We’re 99 percent locked down. You’re not going to get in here with a bomb that’s going to do substantial damage within the building, because we minimized that.” According to Tabeek, O’Neill asks: “Okay, you say to me we’re 99 percent locked down. What’s the other 1 percent?” Tabeek replies, “A plane.” O’Neill says, “Come on, you’re grabbing at straws.” But Tabeek tells him, “No, in ‘93 we’re an American economic bad cop… and now we’re an American-Israeli economic bad cop, more of a threat today than we ever were.” He adds that the plane involved would be “a corporate jet slamming into the building,” with “minimal loss of life, minimal economic loss.” Tabeek will later comment, “I never expected something bigger.” [New Jersey Star-Ledger, 9/6/2011] An analysis carried out on behalf of the Port Authority after the 1993 WTC bombing identified the scenario of terrorists deliberately crashing a plane into the Twin Towers as one of a number of possible threats (see After February 26, 1993). [Jenkins and Edwards-Winslow, 9/2003, pp. 11 ] Tabeek will tell one magazine, “We had planned for the possibility of a small airplane—a corporate jet, maybe—crashing into one of the [WTC] buildings by accident.” [FDU Magazine, 6/2008]
Former FBI counterterrorism chief John O’Neill recently started his new job as director of security at the World Trade Center (see August 23, 2001). From the outset, he has engrossed himself in discovering what security systems are in place there, and what will be needed in future. On this day, he runs into Rodney Leibowitz, a friend of his, and complains to him about the very poor standard of security at the Twin Towers. For instance, he mentions that, even though the complex receives bomb threats on a daily basis, its telephone system does not feature caller identification. [Weiss, 2003, pp. 354 and 358] The Trade Center has in fact recently been on a heightened security alert, due to numerous phone threats (see Late August-September 10, 2001). [Newsday, 9/12/2001] Leibowitz is the president and CEO of a company called First Responder Inc., which provides bioterrorism preparedness training to healthcare professionals. [First Responder Inc., 1/14/2004 ] Until the 9/11 attacks intervene, First Responder Inc. is in fact scheduled to send in a team to conduct a threat assessment of the World Trade Center for O’Neill on September 15. [Swanson, 2003, pp. 52]
John O’Neill, who is later described by the New Yorker magazine as the FBI’s “most committed tracker of Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network of terrorists,” recently retired from the bureau and started a new job as director of security at the World Trade Center (see August 23, 2001). [New Yorker, 1/14/2002] On this day he meets up with his old friend Raymond Powers, the former New York Police Department chief of operations, to discuss security procedures. Their conversation turns to Osama bin Laden. According to journalist and author Murray Weiss, “just as he had reiterated since 1995 to any official in Washington who would listen, O’Neill said he was sure bin Laden would attack on American soil, and expected him to target the Twin Towers again.” He says to Powers, “It’s going to happen, and it looks like something big is brewing.” [Weiss, 2003, pp. 355 and 359-360] Later on, O’Neill goes out in the evening with his friends Robert Tucker and Jerome Hauer. Again, he starts discussing bin Laden. He tells his friends, “We’re due. And we’re due for something big.” He says, “Some things have happened in Afghanistan. I don’t like the way things are lining up in Afghanistan.” This is probably a reference to the assassination of Afghan leader Ahmed Shah Massoud the previous day (see September 9, 2001). He adds, “I sense a shift, and I think things are going to happen.” Asked when, he replies, “I don’t know, but soon.” [New Yorker, 1/14/2002; PBS, 10/3/2002] O’Neill will be in his office on the 34th floor of the South Tower the following morning when the first attack occurs, and dies when the WTC collapses. [Weiss, 2003, pp. 366; Fox News, 8/31/2004]
Howard Rubinstein. [Source: Rubenstein Public Relations]Howard Rubenstein cancels a meeting he had scheduled at the World Trade Center for the morning of September 11. [Lifestyles, 9/2004] Rubenstein, a famous public relations man for powerful New Yorkers, has represented Larry Silverstein, the World Trade Center leaseholder (see July 24, 2001), for many years. [Daily Deal, 6/7/2004 ] He will later recount how a staff meeting at his own firm requires him to cancel a meeting he has scheduled for the morning of 9/11 with John O’Neill, who was recently appointed as director of security at the World Trade Center (see August 23, 2001): “The Monday before the Tuesday, I get a call from John O’Neill.… He said, ‘Why don’t you come down on 9/11, come to a breakfast meeting at 8:00, where we’ll talk about what we’re doing to prevent terror attacks?’ So I said, ‘Okay.’ And he said, ‘Bring your staff, two people.’ I said that’s fine, because we were then representing the World Trade Center. Then I thought about it on Monday, and I called him, I said, ‘I have a staff meeting on Tuesday, do you mind if I don’t go?’ He said, ‘No, send somebody.’ I said, ‘But that somebody is also at my staff meeting.’ He said come at 9:00 instead of 8:00.” Rubenstein’s cancellation of this meeting appears to save his life. He will recall that, the morning of 9/11: “I’m sitting in my staff meeting, and my secretary runs in and said the World Trade Center just got hit, and you were supposed to be there. Everyone at that breakfast meeting died, including John O’Neill.” [PBS, 7/15/2004] After the attacks, Rubenstein and his firm, Rubenstein Associates, will play a leading role in publicizing Larry Silverstein’s legal claims against several insurance companies (see September 12, 2001). [PR Week, 2/10/2003]
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