John O'Neill: The FBI's sharp-dressed, sharp-tongued expert on Al Qa'ida, who died in Twin Towers

Thursday 23 January 2014 03:03
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John O'Neill had spent the last years of his FBI career tracking Osama bin Laden. In the end he would die at their hands, killed in the collapse of the World Trade Centre on his second day as the Centre's new head of security. It was a terrible irony – and a terrible loss for America's accumulated expertise on al-Qa'ida.

O'Neill, a flamboyant, driven man fond of sharp suits and attractive women, had been involved in all of America's biggest recent terrorist cases: from Islamic extremists' initial attack on the Centre in 1993 to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing; from the long and inconclusive probe into the mystery of TWA Flight 800 to the attacks on US bases in Saudi Arabia in 1995 and 1996, the US embassy bombings in Africa in 1998, and last year's attack on the destroyer USS Cole in the port of Aden, Yemen.

With the exception of Flight 800 (with which no terrorist connection was ever proved) and Oklahoma City (which turned out to be the work of the all-American Timothy McVeigh), O'Neill established links between every incident and Mr bin Laden's group.

O'Neill also stood out for his obsession with his work, his determination and meticulous attention to detail. He absorbed information like a sponge and worked without respite. The head of Scotland Yard's anti-terrorist branch, Deputy Assistant Commissioner Alan Fry, once said of him: "I wouldn't want to be the terrorist he was hunting – John O'Neill can move heaven and earth."

But the hard-driving style of O'Neill would be his downfall at the FBI. In Yemen, his uncompromising ways brought him into a collision with the US ambassador, Barbara Bodine, an equally strong-willed figure who ultimately refused to have O'Neill in the country, saying that his methods in the Cole investigation were causing intolerable friction with the Yemeni authorities.

As that row reverberated around the federal bureaucracy, O'Neill committed a second sin in July by leaving a briefcase full of classified information in a Florida conference room. The next month, denied promotion to a job he coveted, he resigned and took up a well-paid post at the World Trade Centre.

But before leaving, O'Neill shared his grievances with the French authors Guillaume Dasqui and Jean-Charles Brisard. In Bin Laden: The Forbidden Truth, published last November, they recount O'Neill's claim that his probe of Mr bin Laden and al-Qa'ida in Afghanistan had been blocked by the US oil lobby. John O'Neill was right but he paid for his judgement with his life.

Rupert Cornwell

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