When Preventing Another 9/11 Is Your Day Job
There have been many terror plots since 9/11. Not all of them involve buildings.
BY JOHN MILLER | Sep 11, 2016 | Culture
Editor's note: The author of this story is a journalist who currently serves as the NYPD Deputy Commissioner for Intelligence and Counterterrorism. He has contributed to ABC News, CBS News, 20/20, 60 Minutes, and Esquire, among other media outlets over a span of four decades.
I have the same flashback every time I drive past the new World Trade Centre, which is to say, almost every single day. I see Ground Zero, but I see it at night, the way it was the first time I saw it after the towers fell. I see it with the lights and the smoke and the ashes and the dust. That's all it was. Ashes and dust. Strange, right? So many dead. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust.
The flashback goes by quickly now, but the image doesn't change. I see Osama bin Laden sitting across from me when I interviewed him that night in 1998. I see my good friend, John O'Neill, who had led the FBI's investigation into bin Laden until he retired. John later picked up a gig as chief of security for the Twin Towers. His second day on the job was September 11, 2001. He died. So many of the dead were never recovered. Burned in the fire or vaporised in the collapse, the bodies no longer existed. They were just ashes or dust.
The Blackberry was rattling on the bedside table.
It was 5:45AM on June 2, 2015.
"Hey, Commissioner, it's Jimmy," the caller began. "The guy in Boston isn't coming down here to do the beheading. He's going out right now to kill a cop."
In my job, calls like this are normal.
"Wow. Let me know how that goes," I responded.
The caller, Jim Waters, is the Chief of NYPD's Counterterrorism Bureau, which supplies 100 NYPD detectives to the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force. The JTTF manages teams of local police and federal agencies under the FBI's leadership to try to prevent terrorism. There are 103 JTTFs across the United States. New York's is the oldest and the largest.
As I drove down the West Side Highway that morning, I wondered what made the man, Usaama Rahim, change his plan. An ISIL online recruiter named Junaid Hussain had allegedly tasked Rahim to carry out an attack in New York City. The plot was messy but simple enough: Rahim and two accomplices were to find a woman who was known as a virulent critic of Islam and behead her in the street on New York's Upper East Side. The secondary goal was to get video of the attack to be posted online in support of ISIL, in hopes of getting millions of views.
But now, Rahim seemed to be on a suicide mission to kill a Boston cop with a knife.
At any one time, there are three or four plots to attack New York City. Each morning, I go over the cases with Tom Galati, Chief of NYPD's Intelligence Bureau, gauging how our cases are developing. Every afternoon, in a lead-lined room called a Secret Compartmented Intelligence Facility (SCIF), I get an update on the FBI cases from Jim Waters, and the FBI Special Agent in Charge of the JTTF, Carlos Fernandez. Between the NYPD Intelligence Bureau and the FBI JTTF, we de-conflict all the cases, looking for connections or gaps. It's a big machine. It has more than 2,000 people combined. It goes 24/7. Some of the cases are long, slow, intricate conspiracies.
We focus on intent versus capability. Rahim had plenty of intent, nurtured by ISIL propaganda. His capability was obtained on Amazon. Rahim ordered the two Ontario Knife Company Model SP-10 Marine Raider Bowie Fighting Knives. Those knives were each 15 inches long, with a 9 3⁄4 inch double-edged blade and cost USD55.02 each. On Amazon Prime, you could have them in a day.
At any one time, there are three or four plots to attack New York City.
Back on the phone with the Chief.
"They confronted him in a CVS parking lot outside of Boston and he charged at the JTTF agents with the knife," he told me. "He's dead.”
Rahim's "suicide-by-cop" eliminated one problem. The lead player in a planned beheading in New York was now dead in Boston. Two other suspects in that plot would soon be picked up by the FBI Boston JTTF. But Rahim's death, in a public place, streaming across the television sets of America and then the world, was loud and clangy. It created other issues in our investigation of Junaid Hussain, the leader of the ISIL's "hacker group" and their chief online recruiter. Hussain had recruited other fans of his Twitter feed. These were young men who were willing to kill for ISIL here. Some of them were in New York. When it came out that Rahim was one of them, we believed the others might go to ground. It meant that the JTTF would have to move more quickly than we intended on other suspects.
In the days following the death of Rahim in Boston, the detectives and the agents of the New York JTTF, backed by the NYPD's Intelligence Bureau, moved in on other ISIL recruits. Two of them, young men from Queens, were suspected of plotting to use pressure-cooker bombs against the crowds watching New York's Fourth of July fireworks. They charged at the agents and cops surveilling them with long tactical knives, just as Rahim had, but they had the better sense to stop when the guns came out.
On June 17, 2015, while FBI agents and NYPD Intelligence Detectives were executing a search warrant in Staten Island, another suspected recruit, Fareed Mumuni, came down the stairs from the second floor bedroom, reached around his mother, and stabbed an FBI agent in the side with a 10-inch carving knife. The agent's body armour stopped the knife, and the suspect bought himself a charge of Assault on a Federal Officer.
Fifteen years after 9/11, terrorism has morphed and changed much like the rest of the world. The Al Qaedas and the bin Ladens, the big corporate structures of terrorism, have given way to the startups like ISIL and Boko Haram, whose members use social media to make terrorism go viral. Two brothers with a bomb at the Boston Marathon can own days and weeks of television coverage. One man with a knife on the Upper East Side could have done the same with a televised beheading.
On July 4, 2015, I watched the fireworks from a police launch in the harbour with Bill Sweeney, an FBI colleague.
"When does this slow down?" I asked. "Let's get through tonight first," he said. A couple of college kids with pressure-cooker bombs would have re-written the story of that summer in New York City. But nothing blew up that night that wasn't supposed to.
As July turned to August, the counterterrorism apparatus built as a result of 9/11 had broken four separate plots against New York City. One of the investigations had lasted a year and a half.
For the rest of that summer, Junaid Hussain continued to recruit. He changed Twitter handles 80 times in two months. As fast as Twitter would shut one down, he'd open another under a new handle, like the Gingerbread Man playing "catch me if you can" as he flitted and tweeted. He eventually moved his acolytes to encrypted channels that defy court-approved law enforcement monitoring. In the last days of that summer, we heard Hussain had been killed in Syria when a hellfire missile immolated him as he walked to his car.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
The counterterror machine still runs day and night. There will be other Junaid Hussains. There are other plots.
From: Esquire US.