Irish American Michael Sheehan fought hard against al-Qaeda but he also believed that too much weight shouldn’t be given to the threat they posed to the US.
Michael A. Sheehan, a former top counterterrorism official for the State Department, the Pentagon and New York City who spent decades fighting against al-Qaeda and other jihadists, passed away in 2018, after many years of battling multiple myeloma.
While only 63 years old, as CNN’s National Security Analyst Peter Bergen wrote, “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.”
“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.”
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We lost a great American this week. Sad to report that AMB Michael Sheehan, CTC’s former Distinguished Chair, passed away on Monday. Sheehan’s impact on the counterterrorism field & the growth and development of CTC has been nothing short of profound. pic.twitter.com/BiCxnBqIWM— CTC at West Point (@CTCWP) August 1, 2018
It was just months before 9/11 when Sheehan questioned what it would take for the US government to take action against al-Qaeda and whether it would be an attack on the Pentagon that would finally force its hand.
“What’s it going to take to get them to hit al-Qaeda?” he reportedly asked, regarding the Taliban’s shielding of Osama Bin Laden in 2000.
“Does al-Qaeda have to attack the Pentagon?”
Michael Sheehan fought hard against against al Qaeda and other jihadist groups. At a time when there is scant discussion of the common good and the merits of service, the Sheehan's life reminds us of these virtues, writes Peter Bergen for @CNNOpinion. https://t.co/gu6HGLDLnd pic.twitter.com/4K5yaHWb4w— CNN (@CNN) August 6, 2018
At the time working as the counterterrorism coordinator at the State Department, Sheehan was deeply frustrated that more wasn’t being done to find Bin Laden. After al-Qaeda dispatched two suicide bombers to attack the USS Cole, anchored off the port of Aden in Yemen, killing 17 US soldiers in an attack on October 12, 2000, Sheehan wanted to do more.
"This was another huge frustration,” he explained.
“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."
He has been tapped for the job in 1998 just months after al Qaeda had launched suicide bombings at two US embassies in Africa, killing more than 200 people, and from the off, as the ambassador for counterterrorism, he was given free range by then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to confront Al-Qaeda. He dispatched many strongly worded messages to the Taliban leaders regarding their concealment of Bin Laden.
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I am mourning the loss of a good friend, Ambassador Michael Sheehan. He was devoted to keeping America safe, serving with distinction as a soldier and civilian. Mike was also my student at Georgetown and a trusted colleague at the State Department and UN. I will miss him dearly.— Madeleine Albright (@madeleine) August 1, 2018
"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,” he told the Taliban foreign minister, Wakil Muttawakil, among other equally forthright messages.
After his premonition came true and the attack on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, caused the Bush administration to go after Bin Laden in the manner that Sheehan had previously called for, he himself went to work as an assistant secretary-general at the United Nations, overseeing more than 40,000 military and police peacekeepers.
After this, in 2003, he joined the New York Police Department as the deputy commissioner in charge of counterterrorism.
With Manhattan thought to be one of the main targets for terrorists, the new role was one of the most important national security jobs in the country and Sheehan spent three years here before retiring from government service. Through these years, he trained thousands of police officers in how to deal with potential threats, from car bombs to nuclear weapons.
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Michael Sheehan, a former #NYPD Deputy Commissioner for Counterterrorism, was a unique and highly-intelligent (and prescient) public servant who led what is still widely regarded as the gold standard in urban counterterrorism. He has succumbed to cancer. https://t.co/xXHG8FP9AQ pic.twitter.com/zJ2LogTexX— Commissioner O'Neill (@NYPDONeill) August 3, 2018
Despite his decades of working in counterterrorism, Sheehan fully believed that too much emphasis was being placed on the threat that terrorists posed, an opinion he aired throughout his 2008 book "Crush The Cell."
"We must remember that they're not everywhere and they're not all-powerful,” he wrote.
“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."
He maintained this stance when he returned to government service in 2011, taking on the role as assistant secretary of defense for special operations.
"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,” he said in 2013.
“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."
This is a great loss. A true leader and visionary whose exceptional service to his country was matched by his decency. Michael Sheehan, Prescient Counterterrorism Expert, Dies at 63 via @NYTimes https://t.co/ztOVTwiNv9— Antony Blinken (@ABlinken) August 3, 2018
Sheehan had started his career as an Army Ranger in Panama in 1979, later working as a part of drug-interdiction and counterterrorism operations in Colombia, El Salvador and Honduras.
“There are few people in the country, let alone the world, that really have his knowledge and understanding of terrorism as a phenomenon and from the diversity of perspective he brought to bear on it,’’ Rand Corp. terrorism authority Bruce Hoffman told the New York Times in 2006.
A book that Sheehan was working on, in which he recruited some of the nation's leading counterterrorism practitioners and thinkers to contribute chapters, will now be published in his honor.
* Originally published in 2018.