Tribute To John P. O'Neill - An
FBI Agent Who Stood Tall

By Martin Dillon

The answer to the burning question - how much did President Bush know - and when he knew about the threat of suicide attacks - may have passed beyond the grave - taken there by the greatest agent who ever served with the FBI.
He was John P. O'Neill the FBI's Executive Agent-in-Charge in New York, who died in the attack on the World Trade Center. Those who stand tall alongside him are the team who worked with him and field agents in places like San Diego.
JP, as I knew him, had resigned from the Bureau in July 2001. Two weeks before the attack on America he had taken up his new job as Head of Security at the World Trade Center.
He, the team of agents he worked with in the Bureau's New York office, and the agents in San Diego, who warned of Al Qaeda members taking flight training, can only but be commended.
But it is John P. O'Neill who stands out as the balanced voice about the threats from Al Qaeda in the years preceding 9/11. Following the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, he had become the foremost expert on the global threat from terrorism and the rise of Osama Bin Laden and his terrorist army.
I met John O'Neill through a mutual friend in 1998 while I was researching a book which I had provisionally called "Get Ready For the Bad Guys." (In 1999 I could not find an appetite in the US publishing industry for a book that warned of dire threats to America)
We met for the first time in Elaine's, a trendy Upper East Side bar-restaurant in Manhattan. It was JP's favourite haunt - a place where movie stars, writers, media moguls and rich women would hang out.
John would sometimes stand at the bar dressed in his customary dark suit and Bruno Magli shoes, his dark hair slicked back off his forehead and a Dominican cigar in his hand. His cell phone rang constantly as did his pager.
That was the John O'Neill that many of his friends and acquaintances had come to know - the man who liked the glitter of the Big Apple and wanted to be seen in trendy night spots. But behind the fashionable image were an astute mind and a wealth of knowledge.
He was regarded with awe by his contemporaries in other intelligence services across the world and many of them travelled to New York just to seek his advice and tap his knowledge.
After the 1993 WTC bombing, had led the hunt for its mastermind, Ramzi Yousef, eventually finding him and returning him from Pakistan to justice in a New York court.
By the time I met JP he had become tired of warning the powers that be Washington that waiting in the shadows was a threat like none they had seen before.
In my initial meetings with him he talked at length about the period following the defeat of the Soviets in Afghanistan.
"To understand what is now happening you have to look at the mujihadeen. They defeated the largest army on earth. Do you know what that did for them? It injected them with a feeling of invincibility. They had become the best trained fighting force on earth, thanks in part to us," he told me.
What JP had discovered was that many of those mujihadeen had returned to their respective countries and had later been recruited for a war against their former ally, the United States.
"The important thing to remember is that the Mujihadeen recruited by Osama Bin-Laden had known each other during the war against the Soviets. The benefit of that was that they had gotten specialist training and had established links with each other during the War. It just took someone like OBL to bring them back together and reignite their fervor against a new enemy. Because most of them - from places like Saudi, Iran, Yemen, and Sudan - were not on intelligence lists and had no criminal records it is difficult to identify them, track them or hunt them down. They haven't been on anybody's radar," John O'Neill added.
The investigation into the 1993 WTC attack had been seen by many in law enforcement in the US as an aberration - a one-off attack by a bunch of fanatic Muslims led by a blind Mullah in New Jersey.
John O'Neill felt that was not only a short-sighted analysis but a dangerous one. The plotters, and their mastermind, Ramzi Yousef, had links stretching into Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Middle East and the Philippines.
A detailed study of Ramzi Yousef led directly to the Saudi millionaire, Osama Bin-Laden and back to that war against the Soviets in Afghanistan.
There were other terror events which equally troubled the sharp mind of the FBI executive agent: the sarin attack in the Tokyo subway by the group known as the Cult of Supreme Truth.
He knew that Yousef had wanted to build a chemical capability - cesium 137 or sodium cyanide - into the 1500lb fertilizer bomb that devastated the base of one of the World Trade Center Towers in 1993. The use of sarin in Japan further concerned JP that Al-Qaeda, years after the attack in Japan, were even more capable of acquiring chemical and biological weapons.
But no one really listened.
It was the Clinton era of the feel-good factor, Domestic politics played better in America than the need for a robust foreign policy and an upgrading of America's counter-terrorism capabilities. Clinton's focus, like that of many within his administration, was narrow.
The bombing of the US embassies in Nigeria and Tanzania were for John O'Neill proof - if it was needed at all - that the threat he had seen emerging was much more lethal than his contemporaries were prepared to imagine.
He knew that Bin-Laden's Al Qaeda was behind those atrocities. What impressed and concerned him most was that the attacks had been planned with skill and precision.
Still his warnings that the threat to the US itself was increasing went unheeded.
Then came the bombing of the USS Cole, one of the most costly and sophisticated vessels in the US Fleet.
Suddenly, key figures in the Clinton Administration like Janet Reno, who had heard what John O'Neill had been saying, lobbied for him to be placed in charge of the Cole investigation.
For some time he had been telling his bosses and whoever would listen that Yemen, where the attack on the USS Cole took place, held the key to unraveling Bin-Laden's network.
The Yemenis, he felt, like the Saudis, had been withholding crucial evidence about Al Qaeda. In one trip to Saudi Arabia intended to allow him to interrogate suspects, he discovered on his arrival in the country that the suspects had been executed.
He had not expected much more from the Yemenis when he arrived in Aden, the Yemeni capital, in 2,000.
What he had not anticipated was that the US State Department, through its representative in the country, Barbara Bodine, would seek to stymie his investigation.
Bodine would later describe her first meeting with John O'Neill in an Aden hotel in terms which were less than glowing. In fact, she trivialized the episode by saying that when she saw him walk into her hotel room she thought, "You'd better get rid of that suit" in this climate.
The fact was that Bodine was there to smooth out the political relationship with the Yemen government. O'Neill was there to find the terrorists who bombed the USS Cole and the masterminds behind it. Of all the intelligence he had, there was one crucial piece: satellite phone intercepts had identified a leading Al Qaeda operative in Aden who had been regularly in touch with Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan.
While Bodine wanted to play footsie with the Yemenis, John O'Neill wanted results and he had arrived there prepared to kick in doors to get them.
His other genuine concern had been for the safety of his large team of agents and others he had planned to arrived in the country. He told Barbara Bodine that they needed to have the necessary firepower to protect themselves - not their customary .38, 9mms or .45 semi-auto pistols.
That had not sat well with Bodine who insisted that O'Neill and his agents should maintain a low profile.
He had known better what he was up against. He and his men would be a target and a vulnerable one if not properly armed.
After heated arguments, Bodine with the approval of her bosses in the State Department in Washington reluctantly agreed that 25 FBI agents could carry automatic weapons.
Her dislike of John O'Neill's brusque, no-nonsense style - the only one likely to be effective - led to her firing off complaints to Washington that O'Neill's tactics could damage US-Yemen relations.
In effect, she quickly won the battle but lost the war. Her constant sniping at O'Neill reached the media in the US. I wrote to John O'Neill an off-beat piece about Bodine and later talked to him about her.
What she had failed to understand - and it would become apparent later - the Yemeni who had been in contact with Bin-Laden turned out to be an uncle of the one of the 9/11 hijackers.
The coverage of the O'Neill-Bodine dispute led to the State Department lobbying the White House and the FBI Director, Louis Freeh, to remove John O'Neill from Yemen. Freeh had been reluctant to do so but had to give way to the pressure on Capitol Hill.
It would prove to be a crucial error by Bodine and her allies in Washington. The one man with an intimate knowledge of Al-Qaeda had been removed from the case.
It would prove to be the last straw for John O'Neill. He had banged his head against a brick wall long enough.
That awful morning when the first plane struck the WTC, John O'Neill was seen outside looking up at the carnage. If anyone had known that his warnings had been realized, it was him.
As usual he was on his cell phone.
"There are bodies everywhere," he told his son as he rushed back into the tower to his office on the 34th floor...
Within an hour his would be one of the 3,000 dead.
I had bought him a cigar book which I had never been able to give him. It remains in my apartment in New York.
When I read what Barbara Bodine had said about her encounter with him in Aden, I was angry. That later turned to sadness and dismay.
Among the heroes who died on 9/11 John O'Neill can be surely counted among them. For the FBI and his colleagues in the Bureau's New York office, he was indeed one of their very best.
I wrote the following (in an as yet to be published book, Stones Don't Die) as a tribute to him following the discovery of his body five days after the tragedy:
You were found in the rubble of the twin towers by hands torn and bloody.
Your pain was theirs in memories time won't kill.
Did you see God in the flames,
or just the axis of life and death?
He was there in another stone rolled back,
waiting for you and the others.
A man barefoot in Palestine,
or a Prophet on his way to Mecca.
Martin Dillon is a world-ranking authority on Eastern European intelligence. He is also the author of the global bestsellers: The Shankill Butchers (Random House), The Dirty War (Random House) and God and the Gun (Routledge, New York).


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