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On the Trail of Al Qaeda 

Former FBI agent Jack Cloonan comes to town to offer an inside look at terror – and some advice about handling suspected terrorists.

During his eight years on the trail of Al Qaeda for the FBI, John E. 'Jack' Cloonan says he and his fellow agents interrogated the suspected terrorists the old-fashioned way: 'They all had legal representation, with their attorneys present. We always read them their rights. Always.'

There was never any torture, Cloonan says. Nor did the FBI engage in 'extraordinary rendition,' the controversial CIA practice of sending suspected terrorists to other countries for potentially brutal interrogations on behalf of U.S. intelligence.

Did the FBI use any 'rough treatment' when dealing with Al Qaeda suspects? 'Nah! None of that!' Cloonan says, his Boston accent breaking over the phone from a hotel room in Phoenix, where he was on a business trip. 'What we did was quite a contrast to what has been reported lately,' Cloonan says, referring to widespread reports of torture at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Grahib and other U.S. detention facilities.

Whether inside sweltering interrogation rooms in the Middle East or in the United States, the protocol for Al Qaeda suspects was always the same, Cloonan says. 'Whenever I met with them – I didn't care where it was – we 'Mirandized' them,' says Cloonan, referring to the Miranda rights that U.S. law enforcement is required to read to all criminal suspects before questioning.

To hear the retired FBI agent tell it, the bureau successfully persuaded suspected Al Qaeda terrorists to cooperate in much the same way the feds 'flip' organized crime figures. Cooperating Al Qaeda suspects were offered new identities and other lifestyle changes through the federal witness protection program. They were placed under guard in 'safe houses' around the world –Êsome for as long as three years. 'We lived with them and guarded them,' Cloonan says.

There were further inducements. The feds paid for the heart transplant of a newborn baby of one cooperating terrorist suspect who was already incarcerated in the United States. The family of another was safely relocated out of a potentially hostile foreign country – all 25 family members. Other cooperating suspects were taught how to read and write.

'Each one had a problem and we found out what their problem was,' Cloonan says. 'We treated them very, very well, and we got the best information the United States government had at the time.'

The suspects the bureau won over were not those whom Cloonan contemptuously refers to as 'strap-hangers or wannabes,' but dangerous Al-Qaeda insiders who had vowed to kill Americans around the world. 'These were people who pledged their allegiance to bin Laden,' he says. 'These people knew bin Laden personally. They were directed by him and (Al Qaeda second-in-command Dr. Ayman) Al-Zawahiri to carry out surveillance operations and É.' Cloonan pauses. 'And other operations,' he concludes.

The FBI's methods of interrogating Al Qaeda terrorists paid off then and continue to benefit the United States today, Cloonan says. 'They all walked into court and at different points in time [pleaded] guilty to conspiracy to kill U.S. nationals abroad. And none of them have been sentenced because they continue to provide information and we still use them today.'

All face 'exposure' to life in prison, he says. Two Al Qaeda suspects Cloonan once interrogated are scheduled to testify soon in a military tribunal – 'if it ever goes to trial.'

In a New Yorker article earlier this year, writer Jane Mayer reported that Cloonan says he advised C.I.A. interrogators to 'do yourself a favor' and read prisoners their Miranda rights. 'The FBI agents viewed torture as counterproductive, unreliable, immoral and legally indefensible,' Mayer said. 'They were believers in law and order, and believed that the laws protected not just the suspects but the whole society. I don't think they were na•ve; I think their experience taught them that there are better ways to interrogate suspects and to fight terrorism.'

JACK CLOONAN'S OWN EXPERIENCE WITH THE FBI began in New York City. Born and raised in the Boston area, he was a self-described 'C-average' college student when he joined the FBI National Academy. After graduation, he was immediately assigned to New York City – the only post he had for his entire career.

New York then was widely considered one of the worst assignments among the FBI's 56 field offices scattered throughout the United States and its territories – because of the high cost of living in the city on an agent's meager salary. Cloonan loved it. 'I didn't know any better,' he says.

He joined the FBI in 1972 and started in the organized crime division in 1976. He soon received an undercover assignment investigating political corruption – 'which I think New Orleans knows something about,' he notes. (The New Orleans headquarters of the FBI traditionally is among the top bureau field offices for public corruption cases.) He also worked white-collar crime cases. The diversity of nationalities in New York and the plethora of diplomatic missions eventually allowed him to gravitate toward the assignments that would define his career. 'I was always interested in foreign counter-intelligence,' he says.

Cloonan left the organized crime squad for the foreign counter-intelligence squad, targeting spies from the Soviet Union from the late 1970s into the early 1980s. His work took him overseas and into close quarters with foreign-based terrorists. 'I started working Middle East targets back in the mid-80s, including representatives from Iran, Libya, the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization) and Iraq,' he recalls.

In 1996, Cloonan was assigned to a special task force of FBI, CIA and other intelligence agents. The group was formed after President Bill Clinton directed the federal government to 'eliminate bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network,' Cloonan recalls. By then, Al Qaeda had been linked to the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, a 1995 plot to kill Clinton, and other terrorist acts and conspiracies. 'We were tasked to build a prosecutable case against bin Laden, and that order came from the U.S. Attorney General – Janet Reno,' Cloonan says.

The task force worked quickly, developing information for a grand jury investigation in the federal Southern District of New York. 'We had bin Laden and Al-Zawahiri indicted – under seal – in 1997, well before the (U.S.) embassy bombings in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya.'

On Aug. 7, 1998, more than 250 people were killed and nearly 5,000 were wounded in the simultaneous explosions in Tanzania and Kenya. The two attacks led to an overarching murder and conspiracy investigation for the federal task force in New York, and Cloonan was assigned to the conspiracy end of the probe. Among those caught was one of bin Laden's most trusted aides – a man who once lived in Louisiana.

WADI EL-HAGE WAS EDUCATED at the University of Southwestern Louisiana at Lafayette (now the University of Louisiana-Lafayette), Clooney says. El-Hage became bin Laden's personal secretary and was one of the early core members of Al Qaeda.

A Lebanese Christian who converted to Islam, el-Hage had many aliases, including 'Norman,' court records show.

In the 1980s, he left Louisiana for Pakistan and joined Islamic guerillas in Afghanistan in their holy war against the Soviet Union. In 1987, he returned to the United States and moved to Tucson, Ariz. 'He made his living as a janitor, became a U.S. citizen in 1989, and became quite busy in his Arizona days,' reported Arizona Monthly magazine, citing FBI testimony at el-Hage's trial. During that time, el-Hage established an Al Qaeda financial support network, congressional testimony shows.

Throughout the 1990s, el-Hage traveled back and forth between the United States and Africa, and worked as secretary for bin Laden in Sudan in 1994. El-Hage came under investigation by the bin Laden grand jury in New York, which first subpoenaed him to testify in 1997. He was indicted in 1998 and was tried in a federal court in New York City.

'We convicted him on 302 counts, including 249 charges of murder in Kenya and Tanzania,' Cloonan says. El-Hage was sentenced to life in prison. Further investigation of records found in his possession showed that the Al-Qaeda secretary spent a lot of time in Africa on gemstone deals, a key source of financing for the terrorists. El-Hage, who is confined at the so-called Super Max prison at Florence, Colo., is seeking a new trial.

Cloonan says Bin Laden always coveted operatives like el-Hage for an important reason: El-Hage held an American passport.

ON SEPT. 11, 2001, CLOONAN WAS AT THE U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, Yemen, when he watched the attack on the World Trade Center unfold on CNN.

Yemen was a hotbed of Al-Qaeda activity. 'I was over there trying to re-invigorate the investigation of the USS Cole,' Cloonan says of the Oct. 12, 2000, terrorist bombing that left 17 sailors dead. 'I was on a secure (phone) line to Washington. And the person on the other end said, 'Jack, I can't talk to you right now. I think the Trade Center in New York has been bombed.' We turned [a television] on in time to see the second plane hit. We were all pretty much stunned. We knew right away what it was about.'

The embassy was placed in emergency lockdown. Cloonan and a group of younger FBI agents under his supervision were ordered to return stateside. They eventually made their way back through England.

The agents couldn't immediately get a plane out of London. Cloonan recalls walking out of the embassy through Grosvenor Square, a large park in the heart of the city. Londoners and people of all nationalities walked up to the group to express their grief for the terrorist victims. The sympathetic people obviously didn't know Cloonan's group was FBI – just that they were Americans, he says. 'People came up to us and said, 'We are sorry.' For the younger agents, it was incredibly powerful.'

Four days after watching 9/11 on television in Yemen, the agents were at Ground Zero. From there, Cloonan went with the Army's chief Delta Force human intelligence officers to a Florida prison to interview a former bin Laden associate.

'I went and saw bin Laden's first trainer, who created an encyclopedia of jihad, and I talked to him about how they did it,' Cloonan recalls. The prisoner was in isolation and unaware of the 9/11 attacks. The prisoner provided military intelligence with a critical piece of information for the U.S. retaliatory strikes at the Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan: the Taliban, bin Laden's hosts in Afghanistan, had no night vision goggles. Cloonan recalls that his confidential source looked at the Delta Force intelligence officers and said, 'You guys own the night.'

On the night of Oct. 7, 2001, British and American forces began air strikes against Afghanistan. The capitol city of Kabul fell Nov. 13 to American allies.

Cloonan proudly recalls the small but critical piece of intelligence his source provided for the U.S. counter-attack against Al Qaeda. 'The most effective thing we have done has been to put boots on the ground in Afghanistan,' he says.

CLOONAN RETIRED FROM THE FBI in 2002, receiving numerous awards and commendations for his investigations. On Jan. 18, 2005, he was named president of Thomas A. Clayton Consultants, a global corporate security firm with services that include 'managing kidnap for ransom incidents.' He is an on-camera consultant on terrorism for ABC News, appeared as a source in Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, and is currently on the lecture circuit. On Thursday, June 9, Cloonan will be in New Orleans to discuss 'Al Qaeda: A View from the Inside' at the annual dinner of the World Affairs Council of New Orleans, a nonprofit organization founded to promote international relations. (Tickets are no longer available to the dinner and lecture.)

Cloonan says the most common questions that Americans ask him center on when, where and how the next terrorist strike will hit the United States.

'I tell them in many ways the war in Iraq is a sideshow,' Cloonan says. He cautions that bin Laden has issued two fatwas since 1998, calling for Muslims to kill Americans anywhere and everywhere. 'There will be another attack and there will be another series of attacks (on U.S. soil),' he says.

Cloonan calls bin Laden 'very capable' of leading Al Qaeda, but adds that he sees a new generation of younger and better-educated terrorists emerging. 'They will morph into something different than what Al Qaeda is today,' he says.

While suicide bombers may be effective in Iraq, Al Qaeda cannot survive by continuing to blow up its recruits as a strategy. 'They want to punish the U.S. economically,' Cloonan says. 'They had no idea the bombing of the World Trade Center would have the effect on the economy that it did after 9/11.'

The next attack may be high-tech, Cloonan warns. 'On the morning of 9/11, there were more attacks on the computer system at the Pentagon than at any time previously,' he says.

In Iraq, Al Qaeda believes in a 'body bag' strategy based on U.S. military withdrawals from Vietnam, Beirut, and Sudan, Cloonan says. 'They told their recruits that the American public will not support a war when they see the body bags coming home with American soldiers.' He also says he is troubled by the strong anti-American sentiment that he hears as he travels around the world. 'I have never experienced such an undercurrent of dislike for America as I have recently.' Much of the antipathy can be traced to the war in Iraq, he says.

'I am not sure what my view of the (Iraq) war is anymore,' Cloonan says. 'It is certainly a venue that has jihadists going to Iraq like a moth to a flame. You really get your stripes if you take out a 19-year-old Marine.'

The FBI today says that Al Qaeda is one of more than 280 terrorist groups worldwide. Although most people believe that Al Qaeda members number in the thousands, Cloonan says that although Al Qaeda ran large training camps, the original membership list was 72, and the most recent list was 198. 'We are not talking about a monolith organization that everybody thinks it is,' Cloonan says.

He scoffs at recent news reports that the FBI is conducting 1,200 investigations of possible sleeper cells in the U.S. 'That is hard for me to understand,' he says.

Bin Laden and Al-Zawahiri remain on the run despite $25 million rewards for information leading to the arrests of both men. Both are highly intelligent men, he says, 'though Zawahiri is probably the brighter of the two.' The Al Qaeda leadership as a whole is now 'trying to think more proactively.'

Although Al Qaeda remains a threat, Cloonan sounds as if he found some satisfaction during his eight-year run with the FBI, disrupting the terrorist organization and its operatives in 60 countries worldwide.

'I was just a street agent,' Cloonan says.

click to enlarge Osama Bin Laden and Dr. Ayman Al-Zawahiri remain on - the run despite $25 million rewards for information - leading to their arrests. The FBI today says that Al Qaeda - is one of more than 280 groups worldwide. 'We are not - talking about a monolith organization that everybody - thinks it is,' Cloonan says. - VISUAL NEWS/GETTY IMAGES
  • Visual News/Getty Images
  • Osama Bin Laden and Dr. Ayman Al-Zawahiri remain on the run despite $25 million rewards for information leading to their arrests. The FBI today says that Al Qaeda is one of more than 280 groups worldwide. 'We are not talking about a monolith organization that everybody thinks it is,' Cloonan says.
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