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Context of 'August 19, 2001: New York Times Reports that the FBI Is Investigating Its Top Al-Qaeda Expert'

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Bombings of the Nairobi, Kenya, US embassy (left), and the Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, US embassy (right).Bombings of the Nairobi, Kenya, US embassy (left), and the Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, US embassy (right). [Source: Associated Press]Two US embassies in Africa are bombed within minutes of each other. At 10:35 a.m., local time, a suicide car bomb attack in Nairobi, Kenya, kills 213 people, including 12 US nationals, and injures more than 4,500. Mohamed al-Owhali and someone known only as Azzam are the suicide bombers, but al-Owhali runs away at the last minute and survives. Four minutes later, a suicide car bomb attack in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, kills 11 and injures 85. Hamden Khalif Allah Awad is the suicide bomber there. The attacks will be blamed on al-Qaeda. [PBS Frontline, 2001; United States of America v. Usama Bin Laden, et al., Day 38, 5/2/2001] The Tanzania death toll is low because, remarkably, the attack takes place on a national holiday so the US embassy there is closed. [Miller, Stone, and Mitchell, 2002, pp. 195] The attack shows al-Qaeda has a capability for simultaneous attacks. The Tanzania bombing appears to have been a late addition, as one of the arrested bombers will allegedly tell US agents that it was added to the plot only about 10 days in advance. [United State of America v. Usama bin Laden, et al., Day 14, 3/7/2001] A third attack against the US embassy in Uganda does not take place due to a last-minute delay (see August 7, 1998). [Associated Press, 9/25/1998] August 7, 1998, is the eighth anniversary of the arrival of US troops in Saudi Arabia and some people will speculate that this is the reason for the date of the bombings. [Gunaratna, 2003, pp. 46] In the 2002 book The Cell, reporters John Miller, Michael Stone, and Chris Mitchell will write: “What has become clear with time is that facets of the East Africa plot had been known beforehand to the FBI, the CIA, the State Department, and to Israeli and Kenyan intelligence services.… [N]o one can seriously argue that the horrors of August 7, 1998, couldn’t have been prevented.” They will also comment, “Inexplicable as the intelligence failure was, more baffling still was that al-Qaeda correctly presumed that a major attack could be carried out by a cell that US agents had already uncovered.” [Miller, Stone, and Mitchell, 2002, pp. 195, 206] After 9/11, it will come to light that three of the alleged hijackers, Khalid Almihdhar, Nawaf Alhazmi, and Salem Alhazmi, had some involvement in the bombings (see October 4, 2001, Late 1999, and 1993-1999) and that the US intelligence community was aware of this involvement by late 1999 (see December 15-31, 1999), if not before.

Entity Tags: Salem Alhazmi, Nawaf Alhazmi, Mohamed al-Owhali, Hamden Khalif Allah Awad, Khalid Almihdhar, Al-Qaeda, Azzam

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

John O’Neill, special agent in charge of the FBI’s national security division in New York, has his briefcase, which contains important classified information, stolen when he leaves it unattended during a conference and he will subsequently be placed under investigation over the incident. [New Yorker, 1/14/2002; PBS, 10/3/2002] O’Neill is required to attend a pre-retirement conference in Orlando, Florida, even though he currently has no plans to retire from the FBI. He brings his division’s annual field office report with him, so he can complete it during the event. The important document outlines every counterterrorism and counterespionage case in New York, and will be used to help determine his division’s future funding levels. During the seminar, O’Neill sits at the back of the conference room so he can ignore the presentations and instead work on the report.
Briefcase Is Taken While O'Neill Makes a Phone Call - His pager goes off during the seminar. He goes out of the room to return the call, but leaves his briefcase in the room unattended while he does so. When he returns a few minutes later, he finds the other agents at the conference have left for lunch. Moreover, his briefcase is missing. He immediately realizes the seriousness of this. [Weiss, 2003, pp. 278-280; Wright, 2006, pp. 317; Graff, 2011, pp. 260] FBI agents are prohibited from removing classified documents from their offices without authorization and violations can be punished by censure, suspension, or dismissal, depending on how serious they are. [New York Times, 8/19/2001] Furthermore, the annual field office report contains strategic plans that show what the FBI is doing around the issues of terrorism and counterintelligence. O’Neill knows if it fell into the hands of foreign agents or enemies of the US, these people would have details of every case the FBI is working on under his command. The report is “the crown jewel of an FBI office” and, “in the wrong hands, it would undo years of the entire division’s work,” journalist and author Garrett Graff will later comment.
Briefcase Is Found with the Report Still Inside - O’Neill immediately calls the local police to report the theft. He then calls his boss, Barry Mawn, director of the FBI’s New York office, and Neil Gallagher, the head of the FBI’s national security division, and tells them what has happened. FBI Director Louis Freeh and Attorney General Janet Reno will subsequently be notified of the incident. Fortunately, the briefcase is found a few hours later in a nearby hotel. It appears to have been stolen by a petty thief who was unaware of the value of the documents in it, since the annual field office report is still there. All that has been taken are O’Neill’s Montblanc pen, his silver cigar cutter, and an expensive lighter. FBI fingerprint examiners will soon determine that no one has touched the report.
FBI Will Investigate the Incident - All the same, the FBI’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) will promptly launch an investigation to determine whether any criminal charges should be brought against O’Neill over the incident. There will also be an internal investigation to determine if O’Neill violated FBI guidelines and should be punished. [Weiss, 2003, pp. 280-281; Wright, 2006, pp. 317; Graff, 2011, pp. 260] The OPR inquiry will end in the summer of 2001 with a decision not to prosecute and O’Neill will retire from the FBI before the internal investigation has been completed (see August 22, 2001). [New York Times, 8/19/2001; New Yorker, 1/14/2002] O’Neill is “the FBI’s top expert on al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden,” according to New York magazine. [New York Magazine, 12/17/2001] He previously got into trouble for taking his longtime girlfriend to a secret FBI garage and letting her use the bathroom there (see Summer 1999). [Graff, 2011, pp. 260-261]

Entity Tags: Janet Reno, Barry Mawn, John O’Neill, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Neil Gallagher, Louis J. Freeh, Office of Professional Responsibility

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

October 12, 2000: USS Cole Bombed by Al-Qaeda

Damage to the USS Cole.Damage to the USS Cole. [Source: Department of Defense]The USS Cole is bombed in the Aden, Yemen harbor by two al-Qaeda militants, Hassan al-Khamri and Ibrahim al-Thawar (a.k.a. Nibras). Seventeen US soldiers are killed and 30 are wounded. The CIA will later conclude that with just slightly more skilled execution, the attack would have killed 300 and sunk the ship. [ABC News, 10/13/2000; Coll, 2004, pp. 532; 9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 191] The Islamic Army of Aden (IAA) immediately takes credit for the attack. This is a Yemen-based Muslim militant group widely believed to have close ties to al-Qaeda (see 1996-1997 and After). [Guardian, 10/14/2000] The IAA statement is released by its spokesman, Abu Hamza al-Masri (see Early 1997, (June 1998), and December 28, 1998 and After). Abu Hamza says that the attack was timed to mark the anniversary of the execution of the IAA’s former commander (see October 17, 1999). [O'Neill and McGrory, 2006, pp. 184] The prime minister of Yemen at the time of the bombing will say shortly after 9/11, “The Islamic Army was part of al-Qaeda.” [Guardian, 10/13/2001] The US soon learns the names of some al-Qaeda operatives involved in the attack, including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Tawfiq bin Attash and Fahad al-Quso (see Early December 2000), and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri (see November-December 2000). 9/11 hijackers Ramzi bin al-Shibh (see October 10-21, 2000) and Khalid Almihdhar (see Around October 12, 2000) may also have been involved. This is a repeat of a previously attempted attack, against the USS The Sullivans, which failed and was apparently undetected (see January 3, 2000). [Los Angeles Times, 12/22/2002] The 9/11 Commission will later say the Cole bombing “was a full-fledged al-Qaeda operation, supervised directly by bin Laden. He chose the target and location of the attack, selected the suicide operatives, and provided the money needed to purchase explosives and equipment.” [9/11 Commission, 7/24/2004, pp. 190]

Entity Tags: Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Khallad bin Attash, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, Islamic Army of Aden, USS Cole, Osama bin Laden, Ibrahim al-Thawar, Khalid Almihdhar, Fahad al-Quso, Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, Hassan al-Khamri, Al-Qaeda

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline, 9/11 Timeline

John O’Neill.
John O’Neill. [Source: FBI]An article in the New York Times reveals that the FBI has launched an internal investigation of John O’Neill, one of its most senior counterterrorism officials, for losing a briefcase that contained highly classified information. [New York Times, 8/19/2001] O’Neill, special agent in charge of the FBI’s national security division in New York, had his briefcase, which contained his division’s annual field office report, stolen when he left it unattended during a conference in Orlando, Florida, in July 2000 (see July 2000). The briefcase was found a few hours later with the report still in it. [Wright, 2006, pp. 317; Graff, 2011, pp. 260] However, the FBI’s Office of Professional Responsibility immediately launched an investigation to determine whether any criminal charges should be brought against O’Neill. [Weiss, 2003, pp. 281] That investigation recently ended with a decision not to prosecute, but the FBI’s internal affairs unit subsequently began an investigation to determine whether O’Neill had violated FBI rules. According to the Times: “FBI officials were alarmed, in part, because of the sensitivity of the documents involved, including details about the bureau’s counterterrorism and counterintelligence operations. One document contained highly sensitive information about an FBI source.” [New York Times, 8/19/2001]
Story Appears Timed to Stop O'Neill Getting a Job on the NSC - The New Yorker will later comment that the leaking of the details of the FBI investigation to the Times “seemed to be timed to destroy O’Neill’s chance of being confirmed for [a National Security Council] job.” The leak was “somebody being pretty vicious to John,” Thomas Pickard, acting FBI director, will say. [New Yorker, 1/14/2002]
Several Officials Will Be Suspected of Being the Article's Source - A number of people will be suspected of leaking the details of the investigation to the Times. [Weiss, 2003, pp. 347] O’Neill will suspect Pickard. The acting director “was out to get John for a long time and John never really knew why,” Valerie James, O’Neill’s longtime girlfriend, will say. Pickard will deny being the leaker, though, when O’Neill confronts him about the issue. [PBS, 10/3/2002] Other possible sources of the leak, according to journalist and author Murray Weiss, include Dale Watson, assistant director of the FBI’s counterterrorism division; Barbara Bodine, the US ambassador to Yemen; and Richard Clarke, the White House counterterrorism chief. [Weiss, 2003, pp. 347]
O'Neill Has Overseen Major Terrorism Investigations - O’Neill’s job is among the most powerful in the FBI, and O’Neill has overseen cases such as the bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998 (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998), and the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in October 2000 (see October 12, 2000). [New York Times, 8/19/2001] He is the FBI’s “most committed tracker of Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network of terrorists,” according to the New Yorker. But he will retire from the FBI on August 22 and take up a new job as head of security at the World Trade Center a day later (see August 22, 2001 and August 23, 2001). [New Yorker, 1/14/2002; Weiss, 2003, pp. 349-350]

Entity Tags: Valerie James, John O’Neill, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Office of Professional Responsibility, Barbara Bodine, Dale Watson, Thomas Pickard, Richard A. Clarke

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

John O’Neill (left) with Dan Coleman at O’Neill’s retirement party on August 22, 2001.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]

Entity Tags: John O’Neill, Jerome Hauer, Larry Silverstein, Chris Isham, World Trade Center

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline


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