John O’Neill: Ex-FBI Agent Who Hunted Bin Laden, But Died Helping Ground Zero’s Trapped

John O’Neill: Ex-FBI Agent Who Hunted Bin Laden, But Died Helping Ground Zero’s Trapped

Of the near 3,000 people killed on 9/11, no one probably knew the mastermind of the attacks better than John O’Neill.

A counter-terrorism expert at the FBI, O’Neill doggedly trailed Osama bin Laden for years before falling victim himself to the Ground Zero plot hatched by al-Qaeda’s grandmaster.

At the time of his death, O’Neill was head of security at the World Trade Center. Shortly after the hijacked planes flew into the WTC, he was working to evacuate those trapped in the South Tower, when the building collapsed less than an hour after it was struck. O’Neill perished in the rubble.

Wesley Wong, an FBI agent who had known O’Neill for more than twenty years, was in the command center with O’Neill that had been set up following the hit on the North Tower of the WTC. He said he last saw O’Neill walking toward a tunnel leading to the South Tower, likely to assist in that building’s evacuation and gather surveillance footage from the security offices located there.

O’Neill had an intimate connection to the World Trade Center, long before his death. After the 1993 bombing of the WTC that severely damaged its basement carpark, O’Neill began an intense study for the FBI on the roots of the attack, leading to the capture two years later of Ramzi Yousef, who was the leader of that plot.

A 25-year veteran of the FBI, O’Neill left the FBI due to personal frictions within the bureau, and started his new job at the World Trade Center on August 23, 2001 — less than three months before the attacks. In late August, he talked to his friend Chris Isham, a journalist, about the job. Jokingly, Isham said, “At least they’re not going to bomb it again”, referring to the 1993 incident.

To which, O’Neill replied: “They’ll probably try to finish the job.”

He never knew how right he’d be.

John Patrick O’Neill was born on February 6, 1952, in Atlantic City, New Jersey. He desired to become an FBI special agent from an early age. Not surprisingly, his favorite television show as a child was “The F.B.I.” It was a crime drama based around true cases the bureau had handled. In 1971, after graduating from Holy Spirit High School, he enrolled at American University in Washington, D.C. While there, O’Neill also started working at the FBI’s Washington headquarters, first as a fingerprint clerk and later as a tour guide. He graduated with a degree in administration of justice from American University in 1974 and later obtained a master’s degree in forensics from George Washington University.

O’Neill finally made agent at the FBI in 1976. Over the next 15 years, he worked on issues such as white-collar crime, organized crime, and foreign counterintelligence while based at the Washington bureau. In 1991, he received an important promotion and was moved to the FBI’s Chicago field office, where he was Assistant Special Agent in Charge. While there, he established the Fugitive Task Force in an effort to promote inter-agency cooperation and enhance ties between the FBI and local law enforcement.

In 1994, O’Neill also became supervisor of VAPCON, a task force investigating abortion clinic bombings. He would subsequently learn of al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, and investigate the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia and the 2000 USS Cole bombing in Yemen.

In 1995, O’Neill returned to the FBI’s Washington, D.C. headquarters and became chief of the counter-terrorism section. On his first day, he received a call from his friend Richard Clarke, who had just learned that Ramzi Yousef had been located in Pakistan. O’Neill worked continuously over the next few days to gather information and coordinate the successful capture and extradition of Yousef. Intrigued by the case, O’Neill continued to study the 1993 bombing Yousef had masterminded and other information about Islamic militants. He was directly involved in the investigation into the June 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, which took place during a retreat O’Neill had organized in Quantico for FBI and CIA counter-terrorism agents. Frustrated by the level of cooperation from the Saudis, O’Neill purportedly vented to FBI Director Louis Freeh, saying they were “blowing smoke up your ass”, although Freeh later denied this, claiming they had an excellent relationship.

In 1996 and 1997, O’Neill continued to warn of growing threats of terrorism, saying that modern groups are not supported by governments and that there are terrorist cells operating within the United States. He stated that veterans of the insurgency by Afghan rebels against the Soviet Union’s invasion in the 1980s had become a major threat. In January 1997, he moved to New York City to be Special Agent in Charge of the FBI’s National Security Division, the FBI’s “largest and most prestigious field office”.

By 1998, O’Neill had become focused on Osama bin Laden and created an al-Qaeda desk in his division. In August 1998, two United States embassies were bombed in quick succession in simultaneous attacks in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. O’Neill hoped to be involved in the investigation because he had gained a tremendous knowledge of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda terrorist network. He persuaded FBI Director Freeh to let his office handle the case, and prosecutor Mary Jo White later said, “John O’Neill, in the investigation of the bombings of our embassies in East Africa, created the template for successful investigations of international terrorism around the world.

When his friend Isham, who was a producer for ABC News, arranged for an interview between bin Laden and correspondent John Miller, Isham and Miller used information put together by O’Neill to formulate the questions. After the interview aired, O’Neill pushed Isham hard to release an unedited version so he could carefully dissect it.

In 1999, O’Neill sent a close associate named Mark Rossini to work in the CIA’s Bin Laden Issue Station in Virginia. O’Neill had a conflict with CIA station chief Michael Scheuer: O’Neill wanted Rossini to stay at the station and feed him information about what the CIA was doing, while Rich Blee, who had been appointed by CIA chief George Tenet to head of the Bin Laden Issue Station, wanted Rossini out working in the field. Later, when the Bin Laden Issue Station learned that bin Laden’s associates Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar were headed to the US with visas, Rossini and his colleague Doug Miller attempted to alert O’Neill, but Blee blocked the message. Mihdhar and Hazmi became two of the hijackers of American Airlines Flight 77 on 9/11.

Following the December 1999 arrest of Ahmed Ressam, O’Neill coordinated the investigation into the 2000 millennium attack plots, described by Richard Clarke as “the most comprehensive investigation ever conducted before Sept 11th. O’Neill has been described as having a close working relationship with Ali Soufan, a Lebanese-American former FBI agent who was involved in a number of high-profile anti-terrorism cases both in the United States and around the world. A 2006 New Yorker article described Soufan as coming closer than anyone to preventing the Sept. 11 attacks and implied that he would have succeeded had the CIA been willing to share information with him. He resigned from the FBI in 2005 after publicly chastising the CIA for not sharing intelligence with him which could have prevented the attacks.

O’Neill’s remains were recovered from the site of Ground Zero on Sept 21. — ten days after the attacks — and were buried in the Holy Cross Cemetery in Mays Landing, New Jersey. At the National 9/11 Memorial, he is memorialized at the North Pool, on Panel N-63.

O’Neill’s counter-terrorism work at the FBI as well as insights into his character and private life have been extensively detailed in books and documentaries about the build-up to the attacks.

* Adapted from Soufan, Ali (2011). The Black Banners; Weiss, Murray (2003). The Man Who Warned America; Wright, Lawrence (2006); The Looming Tower; The Man Who Knew (2002); The Path to 9/11 (2006); Wikipedia

* Banner image: FBI file picture


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