World Trade Center: an interview with former DEA agent Jeffrey Higgins

by Hammer. An Italian translation is available here.

Today Undicisettembre offers its readers the personal account of former DEA agent Jeffrey Higgins, who on 9/11 arrived at the World Trade Center after the collapse of the second tower and was later deployed to the DEA office in Kabul.

We would like to thank Jeffrey Higgins for his kindness and availability.

Undicisettembre: Can you give us a general account of what you saw and experienced on 9/11?

Jeffrey Higgins: I was working as a DEA agent, doing domestic criminal investigations like organized crime and things like Colombian transnational criminal groups. I was at the gym that morning before going to work and I remember hearing that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. So while at the gym, I watched the attack on television. I saw the second plane hit and knew it was terrorism at that point. I got dressed, jumped in my car and drove down to the World Trade Center, I’ll never forget going down the West Side Highway and there were literally thousands of people running up the sidewalks along the banks of the river, like in a horror movie, trying to get away from downtown Manhattan.

While I was coming down the West Side Highway I heard a radio call and somebody said, “The tower is gone.” The operator said, “Can you repeat that?” and he said “Two World Trade is gone.” I’ll never forget that, when I got to south Manhattan there was just one tower standing there while the smoke obscured the rest of the city. I drove to our office on 17th Street, right by the Chelsea Pier, about a mile from the World Trade Center. I went into my office and everything was is disarray. People were running around not sure what to do. I got together with a handful of agents - there were twelve of us -, and we decided we were just going to go down to the site and see how we could help. We left our names with the base operator, so if they were looking for us he knew where we were. As we left the office, the second tower came down.

We drove south into the scene and it looked like a war zone, so much smoke and debris in the air. Groups of police officers were standing around the cars and they couldn’t believe what had happened. The twelve of us found a ranking NYPD officer and we asked him what to do, but nobody knew. People were in shock and most of the emergency personnel that had gone into the buildings were dead. We couldn’t see anything, everything was obscured by this heavy metallic-tasting smoke, which covered the entire southern tip of Manhattan.

I separated from my group and went to the site and ended up bumping into an FBI agent who was there doing the same thing that I was, trying to figure out how to help. I walked alone towards the site right after the second collapse, so there was no one around and this guy walked out of the smoke towards me. He was Don Riley, a Suffolk County detective I had worked with on a homicide case a couple of years before. We were joined by a female NYPD officer and the three of us became the first people to get to the North Tower after it came down.

Underneath the street level there were parking garages and sewers, many stories underneath, and there were flames coming out of cracks. I remember walking by a parking lot about a block away, flames were coming out, and a car blew up. We walked to the Verizon building at the northwest corner of the World Trade Center and we found a guy laying in the rubble. We called an EMT, because the man was still alive, but he was missing an arm and burned and obviously barely hanging onto life. We gave aid to him and got him out of there.

So, Don, the NYPD officer, and I decided we were going to search the rubble. We broke into an EMT’s emergency vehicle and took masks and flashlights. We geared up as best as we could. I took a fire helmet. We went vehicle to vehicle. Fire trucks were covered with rubble and there were flames coming out of the ground. I climbed on a large fire truck with the tires on fire, I climbed in and opened up the cab and there was no one in there. I jumped down and got four or five feet away when the engine was consumed in fire.

Slowly, more emergency personnel arrived. Law enforcement people were running into the danger, while everyone else was running away. We had a mix of people: firefighters, medical personnel, and EMTs. Anyone who was in the area converged down there. We went from having three people to dozens. We went back to the Verizon building and searched some of the floors because there was debris from the towers that came crashing into the building and made holes in the side of it. Then we took fire extinguishers and we went back out to the site. Small fires kept cropping up because the ground was littered with paper from the offices. There were several feet of paper and debris, so every time flames would shoot up from down below, things would catch fire and we put them out.

We kept looking for survivors but we couldn’t find any. I spent a few hours there and at one point I helped firefighters pull an injured firefighter out and carry him on a stretcher to an ambulance. While I was doing that, I got a call from my base asking where I was. I said I was at the site and they told me all the agents were required to come back to the office. I wasn’t going to do that, so I refused and the operator said “Ok, just stay down there, we know where you are.”

I stayed there for five hours trying to help, running fire hoses to the site, digging through the rubble. I didn’t find anyone else alive. Then I went back to the office on 17th Street in the afternoon. They gathered all the agents together and the DEA decision was to send everybody home. I suggested they keep us there as a reserve force or just send us down to try to help anyway we could, but they told us it wasn’t our mission. There were over a hundred agents there and they sent us home. That really bothered me for a long time.

We went home and everyday after we asked, “How can we help? What can we do?” After two or three days they told us we could go down to the site and help with the recovery effort, but we had to do it on our own time. We couldn’t identify ourselves as agents, so I went down and spent a couple of days digging at the site. It was horrifying and really a life-defining thing at the same time.

Undicisettembre: You were also part of JTTF after 9/11. What did you do while at JTTF?

Jeffrey Higgins: Yes, the JTTF is a federal task force run by the FBI that includes other agencies. Three weeks after the attacks, my office sent about twenty-five DEA agents to the task force to see how we could help. We were assigned to the PENTTBOM operation and the DEA agents were sent to search the warehouses in the area to look for signs that any of the hijackers had used any of these storage facilities. I spent weeks searching these facilities. DEA is a pretty aggressive law enforcement agency. Another agent and I went to a facility to check their customer list against the names of suspects that we had. We also asked “Who else is here? Did you see anything suspicious? Any other possible links to terrorism?” So we interviewed people and we started turning up to other crimes like drug related organizations that were using the storage facilities.

We were in one of these units in Queens and I was interviewing the manager and he told me he did have a guy from the Middle East who rented a place and fled a few days after 9/11 and he hadn’t paid his dues. I went to the storage unit and looked at it and found chemicals and bags. It looked like the storage unit had been used for either cutting drugs or maybe he was just storing his stuff there and doing business elsewhere. I tracked the guy down to an address in Queens, talked to his manager and he told me the guy left in the middle of the night a few days after 9/11 and fled to Beirut. I followed some leads and found someone who knew the guy and he was able to contact him in Beirut. I called the suspect there, talked to him a little bit, and got some information. I told him I was more concerned about terrorism than drug trafficking and asked him to help develop intelligence for us.

I developed another source while I was investigating this man in Beirut. I learned from this source that another suspect had claimed he had lived with one of the 9/11 hijackers and had assisted them.

My partner and I tracked that lead down and we identified the guy, who lived in New Jersey, right across the river from Manhattan. We went to New Jersey and we interviewed people who knew the suspect, including a guy who had worked with him. At first he denied knowing this associate of the hijackers and denied knowing anybody from the Middle East. We took him apart in our interviews and he eventually acknowledged he knew who the suspect was. So we identified the suspect who was allegedly an associate of the hijackers and found a car he was using, which he may have used to drive the hijackers around when they arrived in the US. We discovered the suspect had been arrested for immigration violations one week before in New Jersey. He had been picked up for being illegally in the United States. When we interviewed him it was a couple of months after 9/11 and DEA pulled us off the investigation and the FBI took it over.

Undicisettembre: So, was this second man in your opinion an al-Qaeda member?

Jeffrey Higgins: Well, the guy had told people he had lived with the hijackers before and he assisted them when they came to the US. I was never able to prove that and in the end the FBI took over the investigation. I believe he just ended up being deported because other than his statements we weren’t able to tie him to the hijackers. It’s worth noting that the approach we used in counterterrorism is very similar to the approach we used in other crimes like drug enforcement—very proactive and very human intelligence based. DEA tries to proactively discover crimes and the same tactics work very well with counterterrorism. Terrorist cells are similar to small drug cells. They are both amorphous organizations and decentralized. Approaching them using human intelligence and a mixture of other things is really a good approach.

Undicisettembre: What do you think of the alleged Saudi support that the hijackers received?

Jeffrey Higgins: The only information I have on the Saudi Arabian support is the congressional report. It looks fairly evident that there were people within the Saudi regime that were supporting them.

Fundamental Sunni Islam is antithetical to western civilization. There are other sects of Islam which have learned how to be more tolerant of other religions, but Sunni Islam has not. Fundamentalist Sunni Islam is were you find groups like al-Qaeda, ISIS or the Taliban. When you look at these regimes in the Middle East, they are theocracies and they are dealing with a large number of fundamentalist people within their society. Even the Saudi regime has people who are more fundamentalist or more extreme than others, so clearly there were people in that royal family who were supporting the hijackers. Clearly there are people in Saudi Arabia who are supporting a fundamental version of Islam.

In the last few years you saw that change in Saudi Arabia quite a bit. Who knows what the motivation is. Maybe they wanted to reform from within, but you saw the top financiers, who were supporting fundamental Islam, incarcerated in Saudi Arabia. So you see some kind of shift. I don’t know what caused it.

Even Qatar, despite having US bases, is number one financier of Sunni Islamic terrorism in the world. You have nations all across the Middle East which are supporting terrorism whether they are publicly acknowledging it or not.

Undicisettembre: You have also been to Afghanistan during the war and you also told me you had to wrestle a suicide bomber. Can you tell us something about this?

Jeffrey Higgins: At the beginning of 2004 DEA opened up an office in Kabul because 90% of the world’s heroin comes out of Afghanistan. DEA has offices in 93 countries all over the world, and most of the offices are involved in helping law enforcement with training and intelligence gathering. DEA’s strength is in developing human intelligence. If you drop a DEA agent on the face of the Moon he will probably find an informant in the first couple of days. We do signals intelligence and wiretapping, but one of the main ways is by developing human sources within criminal organizations.

My partner at the time - Tim Sellers - developed a source in a terrorist bomber cell, which was operating in Kabul, and which had claimed responsibility for killing a dozen Germans at the airport in December 2003. I got there while Tim was working on this case and on my third day I wanted to go out and have a meeting with his source, who was going to meet one of the bomb suppliers from this cell. The DEA Country Attaché at the time - John O’Rourke - told me we had to go meet the US Drug Czar for dinner and for an informal briefing to explain what our agency was doing there.

So while I was at that meeting eating shrimp, my partner was out with his source driving around surveilling a bomber who was trying to deliver a bomb to a suicide bomber for another attack in Kabul. My partner called the International Security Assistance Forces, the ISAF, and he couldn’t get a quick reaction force to react in time and he ended up losing the bomber. Luckily the exchange was never made, so the next day our source told us the bomb maker from the terrorist cell was going to deliver this IED to a suicide bomber for the attack in Kabul.

We got the ISAF forces and the military forces who were responsible for security in Kabul, we got them together and we set up a quick reaction force. We had helicopters flown by the Dutch and the main force were the Canadians who were in charge of that point. ISAF had command and control of the operation and the Norwegians had a special forces team we were working with.

The bomb-maker was supposed to meet with the suicide bomber at a tea house by the Kabul River to deliver this bomb. The source was at the teahouse and we were in a car down the street. When we got word that he was there, we called in the QRF (quick reaction force, a convoy of military vehicles) from the ISAF base in Kabul and they surrounded the teahouse. We got out with them and they went inside the teahouse and when we got in there the suicide bomber was not in there. We debriefed our source and he said the bomber hadn’t arrived yet, because there had been a miscommunication between our source and our translator.

So my partner and I threw the source into the car. He had called the bomber and learned he was on the other side of the river. So we went to the other side of the river trying to get eyes on the bomber and we saw him walking with a plastic bag. He had an IED in a pressure cooker with three kilograms of plastic explosives and a detonator and he was walking with our source. So we called the ISAF convoy to come and make the arrest but they had these large military vehicles and it was too crowded and too congested and they weren’t able to turn around and cross the river. So my partner and I and another guy from the US and the Norwegian radio operator followed the bomber down the street in a very crowded area right by the river. The road opened up into a square and on the far side of the square there were hundreds of Afghans boarding buses to go to various parts of the country.

The guy with the bomb was heading right towards one of the buses and we couldn’t get the QRF to come and make the arrest, so my partner and I jumped out and ran across the square and my partner tackled him. The bomb was flying into the air and landed near us. I jumped on top of the guy. He was a terrorist. He was fighting and while he was fighting he tried to get his hand into his pocket. We fought him for several minutes. I think it was fifteen minutes that we were on the ground with that guy. At a certain point my partner said, “You are going to need to kill him because I can’t get to my gun.” He knew the terrorist was trying to detonate the bomb, which was right next to us. So I took out my gun, put it in the guy’s head and when I did that there was a huge crowd around us, maybe two hundred people, and they all started screaming and yelling because there was a westerner with a gun to the head of an Afghan man (he was Pakistani actually).

The crowd started to get closer and they were throwing bottles. It got very heated and the Norwegian radio operator jumped out of the car and came running while our translator was yelling at the crowd that the suspect was a bad man that we were trying to arrest him. The Norwegian took his rifle and kept the crowd off us, but they were closing in. An Apache helicopter swept over the square and pushed the crowd back. My partner was choking the bomber to knock him unconscious until eventually the QRF came and took custody of him. They recovered the bomb and the detonator, which was in his pocket.

Undicisettembre: Apart from this, what did you guys do in Afghanistan?

Jeffrey Higgins: We were in the DEA office in Kabul and we were training the Afghan police along with the French and the Germans. We also ran intelligence. We developed sources and ran them all over the country to get terrorism and drug intelligence. In Afghanistan it is more or less the same thing, because the drug traffickers support the terrorist groups.

We worked with the police. We stood up like an international force. We did helicopter airborne operations from Kabul, so that we could project the power of the Kabul government into the provinces. I was there from 2004 to 2010, for the first year and few months we established the Kabul office, then DEA realized that in order to function you have to be self sufficient, so they created FAST teams (Foreign-Deployed Advisory and Support Teams), which are basically DEA’s international tactical teams. I joined them in 2005 and I was with these teams until 2010. We would work with US Special Forces around the country, in places like Kandahar and Nangarhar which is historically one of the most criminal provinces of the country and there’s a strong legacy of Taliban and it is one of the highest heroin-producing provinces of the country. I spent a lot of time there working on the nexus between drugs and terrorism.

Undicisettembre: What do you think of conspiracy theories that claim that 9/11 was an inside job?

Jeffrey Higgins: They are ridiculous. They are absurd. Conspiracies do happen, so if something looks like a conspiracy, it should be looked into. People come up with these ideas all the time and it’s worth thinking about it and looking for evidence, but coincidence is not evidence. Things that don’t seem rational do not mean they are evidence.

This idea that the US government would have anything to gain by committing an attack against its own people is just absurd. This doesn’t mean that governments don’t lie or that this government hasn’t lied, but in this case there isn’t a shred of evidence. A country doesn’t need to attack itself to justify military intervention.

Undicisettembre: What do you think of security today? Is the country safer than in 2001?

Jeffrey Higgins: Well, we are a free society and in a free society you can only be so safe. But we are safer now because people understood the threat from fundamental Islam and our efforts have made the situation better. Intelligence networks work better, data collection is better, the understanding of the threat is better. So I would say, yes, we are safer because we understand what the threat is, but we are also vulnerable in a lot of ways, like in the shooting in Las Vegas: one guy with a gun. So you can have a handful of terrorists with guns paralyzing the country for a while. In a free country it’s very easy to attack soft targets, like civilians. We are safer than we were, but you can never be completely safe from terrorism.

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