Belfast Telegraph

Cut down by hate but the memories endure

Martin Dillon remembers his FBI Special Agent friend who was denied the chance to apprehend al-Qaida's 9/11 plotters only to end up perishing in the flames of the World Trade Center himself

Some people carry with them faded photos of loved ones or friends who have passed. In my wallet, I have a business card to keep fresh my memory of a dear friend who died in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

On the front of the card is a Justice Department seal and underneath it the name John P O'Neill, FBI Special Agent in Charge. Known to his close friends as 'JP', John was America's foremost counter-terrorist expert, based in New York.

Long before 2001, he knew about the threat that awaited America in the wilds of Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden knew all about JP and marked him down as a target for assassination.

In 1999, over dinner in my New York apartment, JP talked about the threat posed by the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan and the problems he had persuading "the suits in Washington" to acknowledge the danger.

"These guys in Afghanistan are not intimidated by us," remarked JP. "They reckon they can take on anybody because they defeated the Soviets, who had the largest army in the world."

JP was not the kind of man to play politics when it came to terrorism, but he had learned the hard way that Washington often did just that. For example, when he flew to Riyadh in Saudi Arabia to interview captured terrorists he arrived to discover the Saudis had executed them before his plane touched down.

He asked Washington to lodge a formal complaint with the Saudi royals, but his request was denied because the rulers of the oil-rich state were as important to Bill Clinton as they would be to George Bush two years later.

JP liked to tell the story of how he once flew across Manhattan in a helicopter with the al-Qaida terrorist Ramzi Yousef in shackles alongside him. Yousef had masterminded the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and JP had tracked him down to a safe house in Pakistan and arrested him.

According to JP, he drew Yousef's attention to the fact the twin towers of the World Trade Center were still standing in spite of his effort to bring them down. Yousef looked out the helicopter window, grinning. "If we'd had the right gear, they would have been flattened," he told JP.

Everyone admired JP for his loyalty, charisma and sharp intellect, but it was his humour that endeared him to his friends.

He was proud of his Irish-American heritage and never ceased to remind everyone of his roots. Dark-haired and round-faced, he had the stature of an American football linebacker and liked to dress in fine Burberry suits and highly-polished Bruno Magli shoes. He was rarely without four or five of the finest Dominican cigars in a holder inside his jacket and sometimes wore dark sunglasses, which are an accessory for all FBI agents.

His favourite hangout was Elaine's, a trendy Manhattan bar-restaurant that catered to the powerful and famous. He could often be found there late night drinking with New York's mayor, Rudy Giuliani, or dining with friends like the actor 'Bobby' De Niro. Few people knew he was a devout Catholic, who attended Sunday Mass in St Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue. He once joked with me that the only person permitted to hear his confession was Cardinal O'Connor.

I always thought JP's confessions must have been fun events, though I doubt he confessed his innermost secrets, especially those that concerned his conflicted personal life.

He was above all a true friend and those of us who knew him well felt we could call on him in a crisis. In 2000, he took a large FBI team to Yemen to hunt the al-Qaida fighters responsible for bombing the USS Cole.

While there, he ran into conflict with the US State Department, which had received complaints from the Yemeni government about JP's brash investigative style and habit of kicking down doors.

He was recalled to Washington, but the evidence now shows he might have unraveled the 9/11 plots had he been allowed to remain in Yemen.

He sensed his return Stateside signalled the end of his FBI career and, though we never discussed it, he hinted as much to me in an e-mail after he left Yemen.

His professional life changed dramatically on August 23, 2001 when he took the prestigious job of head of security at the World Trade Center. He assured me he would invite me to dinner at his latest hangout, the famous Windows on the World restaurant atop the North Tower.

I bought him a cigar-box, hoping to give it to him when we met up, but sadly we would not see each other again. The box remained in my study for several years until I gave it as a gift to Ian Kennedy, a former BBC Northern Ireland colleague.

On the evening of September 10, 2001, JP arrived at Elaine's to celebrate his new job and did not leave until the early hours of September 11.

One friend later recalled seeing him outside Elaine's, boasting that at least New York had not been hit on his watch while he was the FBI's executive agent in charge of the city.

At 8.45 that morning, after a few hours' sleep, he was in his new office on the 34th floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Minutes after the first plane struck, he was seen outside co-ordinating rescue efforts.

I am certain that, when the second plane crashed into South Tower, he knew who was responsible. Only two weeks before, he had shared a premonition with a friend that Bin Laden would not stop until he brought down the twin towers.

Witnesses last saw JP rushing into the South Tower before it collapsed. His body was found in the rubble five days later.

I watched the nightmarish attack unfold live on television and sensed I would not see my friend again. On hearing, five days later, that his body had been recovered from the rubble, I unearthed his business card and it has remained in my wallet ever since.

It is a reminder of our good times together and of a brave Irish-American, who sacrificed his life for the security of his country.

Fate weaves a strange web, because I have another reason to remember 9/11. Hours after the towers came down, the Sunday World journalist, Martin O'Hagan, rang me to ask if I was okay. I assured him I was, but I recall telling him to be careful about his personal security.

Perhaps the attacks in Manhattan had suddenly brought home to me the dangers back in Northern Ireland. Sadly, Martin was shot dead 19 days later while walking home after an evening spent with his wife in a Lurgan pub.

Nowadays, when I think of 9/11, I am reminded of those two victims of terror and the thousands of others who died in New York that day and throughout the Troubles on the island of Ireland.


From Belfast Telegraph