MANHATTAN — Everyone has a 9/11 story.
The most heartbreaking accounts involve the loss of a loved one or close friend in the worst attack ever on America soil.
Mark Rossini has that. But his sorrow is compounded by a powerful emotion — guilt.
"It is the guilt of knowing that 9/11 100 percent did not have to happen," said Rossini, a former top FBI agent who worked at the Central Intelligence Agency.
Fifteen years ago this Sunday, Rossini, the Bronx-born son of a blacksmith and social worker, was the FBI’s point man inside the CIA’s covert “Alec Station,” a specialized counter-terrorism and intelligence unit devoted solely to defeating Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda.
Within two hours of the attack, the names of Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi showed up on the manifests of the hijacked jets that killed nearly 3,000 people.
The dead included Rossini’s cousin, a high school friend, his best friend’s mother-in-law and his beloved former FBI boss, John O’Neill, a bin Laden expert who had just taken a job as head of security at the World Trade Center.
Rossini was sickened at the sight of the two names because he knew the CIA was aware — for two years, it turned out — that the al Qaeda terrorists had been living in the United States and that the CIA had “purposely” never informed the FBI about them.
In fact, CIA officials had even warned Rossini and another fellow agent at the Alec Station that they could face disciplinary charges if they ever told the FBI, which is responsible for conducting domestic terrorism surveillance, about the secret intelligence information.
In the years since the attack, federal inquiries into 9/11 have faulted a lack of shared information among law enforcement and intelligence gathering agencies as one of the reasons the terror plot wasn't foiled.
Rossini, 55, who speaks four languages, believes that if information about the hijackers living in the United States had been shared with the FBI, they "would have been all over it" and could have set up surveillance on the pair and possibly "all of this tragedy could have been prevented."
What still “gnaws at my soul," he said, is that he believes the myriad inquiries into 9/11 have never sufficiently drilled down to find out why that information wasn't shared.
To explain Rossini’s frustration, he returns to 1998 when two U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, were destroyed in simultaneous bombings that killed hundreds of people, including a U.S. ambassador, his young son and nine other Americans, and injured 5,000 more.
Rossini was among the first wave of FBI agents dispatched to Africa to investigate. He and his colleagues witnessed the “enormity of the violence and destruction” and vowed to catch the terrorists responsible.
During the investigation, the FBI discovered a "terror switchboard" operating at a house in Sana'a, Yemen, and told the CIA, which is responsible for intelligence gathering abroad.
But when the CIA and National Security Agency eavesdropped on the house and learned of a January 2000 terrorist meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, attended by al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi, they did not share intelligence with the FBI.
And the CIA also learned that these two Saudi nationals had obtained U.S. visas and were heading for America, where they eventually took up residence in California.
Rossini and another FBI agent at the Alec Station were prepared — they believed even obligated — to share that intelligence with the FBI, but were specifically ordered not to by CIA officials.
“I was told the Kuala Lumpur intelligence was not a matter for the FBI,” Rossini recalled, adding that the CIA officials insisted that the next al Qaeda attack was going to be in Southeast Asia.
“If they come to the USA, it is just a diversion to throw us off,” the officials said, according to Rossini.
"If we want to let the FBI know, we will when and if we want them to know, and you are not to say anything about it,” Rossini recalled being told.
The other agent, meanwhile, had prepared an official communication to alert the FBI about al-Mihdar and al-Hamzi.
“He was told it was a ‘no go,'” Rossini recalled.
At the time, Rossini trusted that the CIA must have had a valid reason not to share the intelligence and would do so at an appropriate time, "and not put Americans in grave risk," he said.
“But at that very moment," Rossini said, "9/11 could have been prevented.”
In fact, it was not until June 2001 that the CIA, now in a panic, convened a secret meeting with the FBI in New York and told the bureau about the terrorists, ordering them to find them, although they still refused to say why, according to Rossini.
It was later learned that al-Mihdhar had returned home to Yemen in June 2000 to be with his wife who was giving birth to their child, and subsequently traveled to Mecca and Afghanistan, before re-entering the U.S. through JFK Airport on July 4, 2001.
He and al-Hamzi would only resurface months later as names on the 9/11 flight manifests along with 17 other hijackers.
Since that fateful day, Rossini, who now works as a private security consultant traveling mostly in Europe and the Middle East, says his “soul has been drained every day" about what could have been done to prevent 9/11.
“But what is worse than that,” Rossini concludes, “is that no one has been called before a grand jury and forced to tell the truth, to fill the gaps and explain why this tragedy happened so it will never happen again.”