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Michael Sheehan on al Qaeda's return (2012)

An exclusive interview with global terrorism expert and U.S. Asst. Sec. for Special Ops Michael Sheehan

Posted: Aug 7, 2018 11:10 AM
Updated: Aug 7, 2018 11:35 AM

At a time when our public life is full of acrimony and there is scant discussion of the common good and the merits of service, the life of Michael Sheehan reminds us of these virtues.

It's hard to think of a public servant who fought the war against al Qaeda and other jihadist groups for longer and with greater tenacity than Sheehan.

Over the course of the past two decades, Sheehan worked in senior national security positions at the State Department, the Pentagon, the United Nations, the New York Police Department and at West Point.

Sheehan died last Monday at age 63 after many years of battling multiple myeloma.

In December 1998, just months after al Qaeda had launched suicide bombings at two US embassies in Africa, killing more than 200 people, Sheehan was tapped for the job of counterterrorism coordinator at the State Department. (It was during this period that I first came to know and admire Sheehan.)

His job as ambassador for counterterrorism put Sheehan at the center of the fight against al Qaeda. The Taliban were then hosting Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. Sheehan was given wide latitude by his boss, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, to confront them.

Sheehan, an intense, blunt, wiry former Special Forces officer universally known as Mike, dispatched a strongly worded cable to Taliban leaders that said they would "be held fully accountable" for another attack by al Qaeda.

In early 2000, Sheehan followed that up with a 45-minute phone call with the Taliban foreign minister, Wakil Muttawakil, during which he read him a unambiguous statement: "We will hold the Taliban leadership responsible for any attacks against US interests by al Qaeda or any of its affiliated groups."

Sheehan later recalled that Muttawakil "went through his long list of talking points, which I'd heard all before. Number one was: 'We have bin Laden under control. He's not going to do anything else.'"

Sheehan pushed back against the Taliban foreign minister, telling him a story to illustrate the American position: "If we're neighbors on a block, and you have bin Laden in your basement, and at night he's coming out and setting fire to the other houses on the block and then going back into your basement, you are accountable now, because you are harboring that guy."

After the 9/11 attacks, this was the doctrine the Bush administration would use when it launched a war against the Taliban because they were harboring bin Laden.

In the years before 9/11, Sheehan was also battling the Air Force and the CIA over Predator drones that he wanted to deploy to hunt for bin Laden. Sheehan recalled, "This was another huge frustration. They had more Predators flying around in the Balkans than they had over Afghanistan at that time, which really frustrated me because I was working on both programs and, quite frankly, I thought bin Laden was a much higher priority."

On October 12, 2000, al Qaeda dispatched two suicide bombers to attack the USS Cole, anchored off the port of Aden in Yemen. 17 American sailors were killed in the blast, which almost sunk the warship.

The Clinton administration, which was about to complete its second term in office, did nothing to respond to this act of war.

Sheehan was enormously frustrated, exclaiming to his close friend Richard Clarke, the White House counterterrorism coordinator, "Does al Qaeda have to attack the Pentagon to get their attention?"

This would prove to be a prescient observation since the Bush administration also did nothing to respond to the Cole attack after it assumed office, and it was only after al Qaeda attacked both the Pentagon and the World Trade Center on 9/11 that the Bush administration responded.

After the 9/11 attacks, Sheehan worked for two years as an assistant secretary general at the United Nations, where he oversaw more than 40,000 military and police peacekeepers.

In 2003, Sheehan joined the New York Police Department as the deputy commissioner in charge of counterterrorism, which was in many ways one of the most important national security jobs in the country, because Manhattan remained a key target for terrorists.

After three years managing counterterrorism in New York, in 2006 Sheehan retired from government service. An enormously energetic man, Sheehan took on several jobs, working as an analyst for NBC News, as a fellow both at NYU's Center for Law and Security and at West Point's Counterterrorism Center and as a partner in Torch Hill Equity.

Sheehan also wrote an important book about terrorism, "Crush The Cell," which was published in 2008, seven years after the 9/11 attacks.

In the book, Sheehan pushed back against those politicians and commentators who were overplaying the threat posed by terrorists writing, "We must remember that they're not everywhere and they're not all-powerful. They have limitations — personal, organizational, and ideological — and they've proven their limits by their inability to attack the United States again since 9/11."

The book was dedicated to his wife, Sita, his daughter, Alexandra, and his son, Michael.

In 2011 Sheehan returned to government service to take on what was in many ways his dream job as assistant secretary of defense for special operations. During his Army career, Sheehan had served as a Special Forces officer in Panama. Now he was in charge of all Special Operations Forces deployed around the world and their fight against al Qaeda and other jihadist groups.

Even in this role, Sheehan remained a skeptic of those who wanted to inflate the threat posed by terrorists, telling a group of counterterrorism experts in New York in 2013: "If you allow the terrorists to be 10 feet tall and allow their small attacks to represent strategic threats to the US, you empower them. So it's important to understand the nature of the threat and how dangerous it is, but not to exaggerate it, because that plays into their hands. That's what they want you to do. So that requires some nuance, which is, of course, not a great quality of discourse in Washington."

Sheehan, a 1977 graduate of West Point, remained a senior fellow at West Point's Counterterrorism Center until he died.

His final project was a gift to his beloved West Point. Sheehan recruited some of the nation's leading counterterrorism practitioners and thinkers to contribute chapters to a book that will be given to all West Point cadets, titled "Counterterrorism and Irregular Warfare: The Long War Against Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and their Affiliates."

The book will now be dedicated to Sheehan.

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

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Cases: 608519

Reported Deaths: 9693
CountyCasesDeaths
Marion840461335
Lake45349684
Allen32803548
Hamilton29394315
St. Joseph27380381
Elkhart24404345
Vanderburgh19411249
Tippecanoe17970138
Johnson15069295
Porter14783169
Hendricks14401248
Madison10965221
Vigo10726181
Clark10677144
Monroe9383110
Delaware9116134
LaPorte9065163
Howard8236144
Kosciusko806983
Warrick672999
Hancock6697104
Bartholomew6484100
Floyd6428110
Wayne6136162
Grant5991115
Dubois555579
Boone551168
Morgan541295
Henry507864
Marshall503984
Cass483263
Dearborn479845
Noble473059
Jackson425047
Shelby417581
Lawrence391079
Clinton373043
Gibson370359
Harrison348144
DeKalb347164
Montgomery345754
Knox335639
Miami321444
Steuben313745
Whitley307326
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Starke175443
Jay167623
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Carroll158015
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Martin73713
Warren6817
Switzerland6615
Union6287
Ohio4907
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Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 859841

Reported Deaths: 10680
CountyCasesDeaths
Franklin101171707
Cuyahoga855711125
Hamilton64017448
Montgomery43107418
Summit34836761
Lucas31350625
Butler30973232
Stark25786435
Warren19671140
Lorain19017223
Mahoning17321338
Lake16080154
Clermont15926111
Delaware1438878
Licking13204137
Trumbull12809316
Fairfield1279381
Greene12055137
Medina11591168
Clark10942265
Wood10348158
Allen9897126
Portage9296109
Miami916873
Richland9139118
Marion7459113
Tuscarawas7381182
Columbiana7327124
Pickaway726150
Wayne7034171
Muskingum703141
Erie6152129
Hancock552390
Ross548998
Scioto539164
Geauga508455
Darke470292
Ashtabula453073
Lawrence452654
Union451828
Sandusky436662
Mercer433589
Seneca430166
Huron428741
Auglaize422264
Shelby421222
Jefferson419269
Belmont416840
Washington388740
Athens38009
Putnam374975
Madison355129
Knox352622
Ashland344938
Fulton338443
Defiance330086
Crawford322374
Preble320637
Brown312921
Logan307332
Ottawa293943
Clinton290143
Williams278667
Highland275118
Jackson263845
Guernsey254125
Champaign252028
Fayette236530
Morrow23234
Perry231318
Holmes225474
Henry218749
Hardin213033
Coshocton205622
Van Wert202245
Gallia196726
Wyandot196051
Pike176217
Adams176115
Hocking172024
Carroll155616
Paulding144321
Noble120540
Meigs108624
Monroe100732
Harrison89121
Morgan83130
Vinton70213
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