Remembering the 9/11 Victim Who Hunted Osama bin Laden
By Murray Weiss
DNAinfo Contributing Columnist
Of the nearly 3,000 people killed at the World Trade Center by Osama bin Laden, one victim, John O'Neill, knew what was happening at the moment of his death.
For the six years preceding the 9/11 attack, O'Neill served as the FBI's National Security Division chief leading the investigations into every major terrorist event against American interests — the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia where 19 US personnel were killed; the 1998 destruction of two U.S. embassies in Africa where 247 people were slaughtered and 5,000 injured; and the 2000 bombing of the U.S.S Cole in Yemen where 17 sailors died.
And until he lost his own life at Ground Zero, the indefatigable and forward-thinking O'Neill desperately sounded the clarion call that Osama Bin Laden was the single greatest threat to the safety and security of the United States. He was telling everyone right up and into the White House.
But O'Neill was squeezed out of the bureau in the late summer of 2001, and he took the job as Director of Secruity at the World Trade Center to continue to try to protect the country's No. 1 terror target. He died just days later.
In the end, his warnings were not heeded until it was too late and the towers collapsed nearly 10 years ago.
As President Obama visits Ground Zero Thursday to memorialize John O'Neill and the cops, firemen and other victims following the death of bin Laden, it seems appropriate to recall the one victim who truly understood the events of that fateful morning.
"The greatest sadness is that this all could have been prevented if they had only listened to John and shared all the information with the FBI," said Mark Rossini, a former counter-terrorism agent who was the first FBI agent imbedded inside the CIA at O'Neill's urging.
Rossini was referring specifically to information the CIA learned in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, not long before the Twin Tower attacks. The CIA knew that two Al Qaeda members the FBI had been tracking had just left Malaysia and were traveling to the United States. That information was never shared with O'Neill and the bureau. The two Al Qaeda suspects later flew planes into the towers.
"That information, information we were requesting, was never delivered to us until it was too late," said Ali Soufan, a Lebanese-born FBI agent hand-picked by O'Neill to work counter-terrorism and who became the case agent in Yemen on the Cole case and later interrogated several of the world's most fearsome Al Qaeda leaders.
"It all could have all been different," Soufan wistfully said Wednesday.
I wrote a biography about O'Neill and his global hunt for bin Laden. It was titled, "The Man Who Warned America." The PBS television program "Frontline" produced an separate O'Neill documentary appropriately called, "The Man Who Knew."
O'Neill was born in gritty Atlantic City before there were casinos and long after the heyday of Miss America pageantry. As an only child of cab drivers, O'Neill grew up in a third-story walkup. On Sunday nights, he was fascinated by a popular television show about FBI agents and dreamed of becoming a famous G-Man. And he did, starting out in Baltimore, then onto Chicago before heading to FBI headquarters in Washington.
On his first day in charge of counter-terrorism for the FBI, O'Neill found himself in the FBI's situation room participating in the long distance capture in Pakistan of Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993. Yousef was also the nephew of Khalid Shiekh Mohamond, the terrorist responsible for the 9/11 attacks.
Finally in 1997, O'Neill brought his 24/7 work ethic and networking lifestyle to New York where he left his indelible imprint all over town. One of my favorite stories about O¹Neill involves his work on the twin African embassy bombings.
Imagine the scope of the challenge to literally bring two crime scenes and witnesses from the African continent to a Manhattan Federal Courthouse, where Al Qaeda terrorists would be convicted of mass murder. That was the genius and power of John O'Neill.
But there was another aspect to his personality. One evening during the trial, O'Neill had to take several African officials and witnesses out for dinner. But his companions were not prepared for the chilly New York weather. So O'Neill took them shopping during the day for overcoats. He paid out of his own pocket and then picked up their checks for steaks and pasta at one of his favorite haunts, Elaine¹s Restaurant. That was John O'Neill, too.
The last images of O'Neill was captured in a 9/11 video shot by two French filmmakers. O'Neill was standing among the fire chiefs at the makeshift command center inside the north tower and then he walks off toward the south tower to assist others. He clearly knew what had befallen America. His body was among the few ever recovered intact.
"John would be elated that they killed bin Laden," Rossini said.
Rossini and Soufan both agreed on that point ‹ and on one other.
"John definitely would have wanted to know one thing more," Rossini added. "What took you so long?"