MANHATTAN — Twelve years ago today, FBI agents Ali Soufan and Thomas Donlon were in Yemen hunting for the terrorists responsible for the deadly 2000 bombing of the U.S.S. Cole that killed 17 Americans.
Their mission, which was ultimately successful, was interrupted by news of the worst attack on American soil — an attack they had feared and were risking their lives trying to prevent.
They felt angry and helpless watching the towers collapse on a small television in the American ambassador's quarters: Few people had listened to their warnings about Al Qaeda, and their former boss, John O'Neill, the ex-FBI National Security Chief, was among those missing in the WTC rubble.
For years, O'Neill sounded the alarm about Osama bin Laden, but had a hard time convincing the higher-ups, including the White House, of the danger. He was ultimately squeezed out of the FBI for being too brash and took a job as the head of security for the World Trade Center, which he knew was the nation's No. 1 terror target.
Donlon, who had two brothers in the FDNY, and Soufan wondered if things could get worse.
The next day, it did.
As U.S. intelligence apparatus began to respond to the terror attacks, the CIA began to share information it had gathered on suspected 9/11 plotters with key players.
The agency faxed to Soufan and Donlon photographs taken earlier that year of a meeting of suspected terrorists in Malaysia. O'Neill had asked the CIA to conduct the surveillance, but the agency never shared what it gleaned, nor had the CIA told the FBI that two of the people present at that meeting had slipped into the United States. It turned out those two were among the 9/11 hijackers.
Soufan, who recognized the people in the photos coming through the fax machine, became physically ill, raced to a bathroom and threw up.
“We knew we could have stopped it,” Soufan told “On The Inside,” if the CIA has shared the Malaysia-related intelligence because the FBI likely would have tracked down the two hijackers, and maybe others, before 9/11.
Even though 12 years have passed, the 9/11 anniversary is a wound that reminds them that the war on terrorism has not diminished.
“I disagree with politicians and news media types who say Al Qaeda is in check,” said Donlon, who went on to supervise the FBI’s National Threat Center and later served as head the New York State Office of Homeland Security. “I think people have lost sight that Al Qaeda has been in recruitment mode for years, indoctrinating potential suicide bombers in Madrassas, and that is the force we have to deal with, the younger ones, coming up, and much more committed to violent extremism.”
Soufan, who went on to interrogate some of the most dangerous terrorists in the world, such as Al Qaeda's Iraq leader Abu Zabaydah, and is an outspoken critic of waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation techniques, maintains that “we are not dealing with the local factors" that terrorist groups take advantage of, to find new members.
“We were able to destroy Al Qaeda’s center of gravity, however they have adapted and we have to keep changing,” he said. “In some places it might simply be to build a well in a village that does not have water.
“We have to get at their hearts and minds.”
On Monday, Soufan and his company, the Soufan Group, held a “Global Town Hall” teleconference discussing a study they conducted on ways to combat violent extremism.
Amadou Tidiane Wone, a former Senegalese official, explained that the lack of education, poverty, and joblessness provided a spawning ground for Al Qaeda in his home country, where despondent young men and woman believe that they can find meaning by becoming a suicide bomber.
Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said his country enlisted imams to discuss nonviolent tracts of the Koran with incarcerated members of the Jamail Ismail terror group to help turn them away from violence. They claimed it was a successful effort.
Belfast's Chief Constable Matt Baggott said his commitment to openness and talking with people linked to terror tamped down the extremist rhetoric.
St. Paul, Minn., Police Chief Thomas Smith, who was in New York, explained that outreach bridged gaps to the city’s large Somali population, whose children were heading to Africa to join Al Shabab. His approach is becoming a model for police in this nation.
“A counter-narrative program involves not only military and intelligence aid, but also targets education tools,” the study concluded, calling for “political and economic support tailored to counter the power vacuums that terrorist and extremists exploit.”
“I always thought we needed to be more proactive than reactive,” Donlon told “On The Inside." “And I feel that way today.”
As for Soufan, he still feels ill thinking about what might have been.
“Day One and Day Two, it was personal,” he explained. “And on Day Three we took the anger and sickness and put it to work defeating the enemy.
“It is not something I can forget with the passage of time,” he concluded. “It stays with you, forever.”