An interview with Malcolm Nance, counterterrorism expert and Pentagon rescuer

by Leonardo Salvaggio. An Italian translation is available here.

Twenty years have passed since the 9/11 attacks, in this special anniversary Undicisettembre is offering its readers the personal account of Malcolm Nance, a former Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer and counterterrorism expert and, on 9/11 witnessed the crash of American Airline 77 into the Pentagon and went to the site to become of the first responders.

We would like to thank Malcolm Nance for his kindness and willingness to help.

Undicisettembre: Can you give me some background about yourself and how much you knew about al-Qaeda before 9/11?

Malcolm Nance:
On 9/11 I had just retired from the military a few months before. I spent twenty years in naval intelligence, specialized in counter terrorism, especially Middle East counter terrorism and we were working the al-Qaeda mission before people started calling it al-Qaeda, we used to call it GJM, Global Jihad Movement. Then in 1995 the FBI started using a term that was 50% of the actual name of the real group; it was al-Qaeda al Jihad, which is Arabic for “The Headquarters of the Holy War”, but the FBI was referring to them as “al-Qaeda”. The first time I saw that I thought “The base? The headquarters? There’s something missing in here.” I knew all about how this organization was developing: their operations in Sudan, there was suspicion that in 1981 they bombed a hotel that had US soldiers in it in Yemen, and then there there was the attack to the Khobar Towers in 1995 in Durhan, Saudi Arabia. Everyone was blaming the Iranians, Hezbollah or Hamas and this misdirected US intelligence to go look for these groups but that was an al-Qaeda operation. In 1996 Osama bin Laden made his first declaration of war against the west, at that time I was running a very specialized school in Coronado, California, called Advanced Terrorism Abduction and Hostage Survival and I was teaching the Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape program, which is for Tier 1 soldiers who go behind the enemy line and are high-risk-capture and would be at elbow distance from al-Qaeda. Back then a lot of people didn’t believe that there was this global jihad movement, they thought it was just a bunch of amateur Arabs and even Cofer Black from the CIA used to call bin Laden an opportunist and a grifter. I had been in operations for seventeen years back then so I knew where their power and passion came from so I didn’t believe people like Cofer Black.

The morning after we started the course the Kenya and Tanzania bombing happened in the middle of the night, I started the course and said “Good morning gentlemen, welcome to al-Qaeda 1.01; some of you will be leaving here very soon.” Sure enough we cut the course short, we did it in 72 hours and they all started going around the world hunting for al-Qaeda.

Undicisettembre: Can you give me an account of what you saw and experienced on 9/11?

Malcolm Nance: 9/11 started out as a normal day, it was a very nice day. I lived in Washington DC and that morning I had the only counter terrorism consultancy in the city. After retiring from the military I was doing consulting for special operations command and specifically the Naval Special Warfare Command. We were planning a counter terrorism exercise for the Commander Pacific Fleet which was going to take place three weeks later, we were trying to sink three ships from the sea as a terrorism training exercise and they were supposed to find us.

That morning was the first day of working of my new chief of staff Beverly, who was a sort of combination between a secretary and a manager, and I was taking her around Washington DC. Around 8 o’clock we went around Capitol Hill to show her where the House and Senate offices and committees we would be working with were and we stopped for a coffee at a Costa Coffee and they had a television above the coffee station.

I looked up at the TV screen and I saw Tower 1 had a fire and I though “Oh, that’s strange! The weather is really clear, maybe it’s a tourist aircraft.” Another component of my school was teaching hijacking survival, so if you are skyjacked there are certain behaviors you must and must not do, because there’s also a time to fight back, so we started hearing these reports that airplanes were hijacked and I thought “They can’t be hijacked, the pilots would put it on the ground immediately”, but I was not thinking right, cabin doors were not locked back then and the pilot or co-pilot would come up immediately if there was disturbance with the passengers. We didn’t know these guys stormed the cockpits and took command of the aircrafts.

I was really focused on the TV when suddenly the second plane came in. I grabbed my phone, hit the speed dial button for Brad, my deputy who was still in Coronado, because one thing from my years in counter terrorism came to my mind “If you are involved in an emergency, call someone who’s nowhere near you.”. But he had his phone on answering machine. At that time I knew what was happening: it was al-Qaeda and somehow they had taken command of the airplanes.

I knew Brad was probably a little awake so I start screaming into the phone “Brad, get up! This is Malcolm! Brad get up!” He understood my voice was in panic and he answered the phone and all I could say was “CNN! CNN! CNN!” because I could not describe it; he went to the TV and yelled “What the fuck is happening?”, I said “New York is under attack, go to work” which would have been the office I had there where we have access to all the terrorism database “and call me back in fifteen minutes.”

My chief of staff and I took our coffees, I think I even forgot to pay for them, and went into my car and turned on the radio. She said “Where are we going?”, I said “We are going back to the office, then I’m going to New York”. She said “You are going to New York?! Why are you going to New York?”, I said “This is the greatest fucking terrorist attack in American history! I’m going to New York to help”.

To go to Georgetown, where my office was, I could have gone down Independence Avenue which would have been near the White House which I was sure at that point would have looked like an armed fort; so we went down Constitution Avenue instead. I stopped at a street light right across the water from the Arlington Cemetery and I saw an airplane off in the distance and I casually said “Look, they have redirected the aircrafts to come from the west so that they don’t come near Washington”. To the right I saw the Arlington Cemetery, the Marine Corps Headquarters, the Navy Annex and the plane started flying down and I though “Now it’s going to bank right and go to Reagan Airport”. Instead it goes, it goes, it goes… I'll briefly stop here, about one second before the crash to tell you something else.

In 1988 I was in a missile battle with the Iranians and I had to watch on my radar a cruise missile coming at us at 400 mph and it was terrifying; the way we say it when a missile is coming at you is “VAMPIRE”, it’s a crazy word so you know there’s a real threat. So I was sitting there on this ship, we are fighting this Iranian ship, they launch a missile at us and we hear “VAMPIRE, VAMPIRE, VAMPIRE” meaning “Cruise missile inbound”. It missed us by 150 meters.

So when I saw the plane was not banking this phrase went to my head: “VAMPIRE, VAMPIRE, VAMPIRE”. The light changed to green but I could not come, I was frozen and the only thing I could say to my friend was “Stand by!” which is what we say in the military for “That thing is about to happen”. She goes “What?” and then BOOOM! There was a huge fireball. She starts screaming “What's happening??” and I say “It's hit, the Pentagon is hit! We are under attack! We are under nation wide attack!” Before she can say another word I hit the gas and went right through the lights and I thought “Do we have more human guided weapons?” which is what we call hijacked aircrafts.

I instinctively knew where to go, right to the Pentagon. It turned out that state troopers had cut out the road about an hour before for security purposes because they didn't think an airplane was coming. The building was burning, engulfed, huge columns of black smoke. I could not go any further so I told Beverly “Take my car, go back to my office and start calling me every fifteen minutes.”

I got out of the car and I had a fucking disaster in front of me. People were coming out of the north side of the Pentagon, the side that was hit was the west side next to the helicopter pad. I started running through the crowd and since I had been a paramedic once in the military I started checking and assessing all the wounded. I saw a woman covered in dirt and dust, she had a baby in her arms and she was bleeding from the head. We have a rule in the paramedics “Silent baby bad, crying baby good” The baby was crying and people had bottles of water to wash the baby off, so I thought “The baby is okay, they don't need me here”.

I saw a three-star woman Navy Admiral and I said “Admiral I need your help to mobilize these people and to start a rescue effort.” she said “We have it under control” and I thought “She has no idea what's happening here, she thinks it's just a fire.” We have a saying in the military when you are in a panic situation “Look for a point of sanity.” I looked to the right and I saw this woman who was pointing decisively giving orders, she knew what she was doing, and I saw people bringing wounded people to her. Then an ambulance arrived and it had backboards, and that was very smart to do, it was a paramedic company who was just a few kilometers away, they heard about the attacks and knew what to do because they had knowledge of mass casualties.

Next thing I saw was Donald Rumsfield and his staff pushing a stretcher, next to him was an army flight paramedic who was assigned to the secretary of defense's office, but the helicopter never stays at the Pentagon, it goes across the river for refuels and that was good because the airplane hit the helicopter pad directly and I know because I saw it when it impacted: it hit the pad and slid into the Pentagon. So I run to the point of sanity and there was this woman who I thought was a doctor and who is my personal hero of the day, her name is Patty Horoho and she was running this mini triage. She was a colonel and she was an expert, she had a very very high fear threshold. I told her “I'm a Senior Chief petty officer”, which was not true, I was retired “What do you need me to do?”. She said “I need you to get all these people organized.” There were hundreds of people. “I need you to start stretcher teams on the north door and bring the wounded out to this triage.”

I was in civilian clothes. I had khaki pants on and a black shirt with the name of my company on that said “Real World Rescue”, but that was a cover name because the company was actually called “Special Readiness Service International”. I went to a colonel and said “Colonel, bring me a bunch of people here and put them in line”. He came back with eight colonels and I said “Are you shitting me?? Really?? The only people you know at the Pentagon are colonels?? There are four hundred enlisted people here.” I saw marine officers and I yelled “Marine! Get your asses here!” and the colonel, who was a marine colonel said “I have orders to report to the Commandant of the marine corps.” I said “You can take one person and report to the marine corp, I want all the others to stay over here.” That's when I saw my salvation, I saw a marine sergeant and with my command voice I yelled “Sergeant!” he run over “Get everyone here, I want all these people lined up in formation, we are going to start the rescue on this building”. Suddenly he gets all these two hundred people into formation; it was beautiful, it broke my heart.

I said “Hats off, ties off, backpacks off, take anything that can burn off, sleeves down. Form six man teams, each team go to a stretcher, six more men go behind them as support”, because a stretcher can get heavy with a person on it. I added “Go stand by the north door”. This was the first mobilization at the rescue effort at the west side of the Pentagon. I go over to colonel Horoho and said “I got them moving back and forward over there”, and she said “Who are those people next to the crash site?”. I looked over and there was a group of people near the door “They look screwed up, get them over here and get them start moving people.” I run over there and asked who was in charge, there was a guy in civilian clothes with suspenders who was an army colonel and the liaison to Congress; I told him “Listen up, we need to start moving all your victims out of here” and he said “We are going back in through this door” which was the door closest to the crash site. Now everybody in the military takes firefighting, so I knew firefighting; I told him “You go through that door and you die. The smoke is down to your knees, black rolling smoke. You can not get through that door.” He said “We've already been in there.” and I said “Get everybody out of that door. Everyone in your team go to the north door and help the stretcher teams. Don't go through that door anymore, we can't lose anyone else.” Just as I said that flames started coming out of that door.

We were still waiting for firetrucks, they were not there yet, but in ten minutes a hundred firetrucks arrived, every truck in northern Virginia and Washington DC was coming to the Pentagon. I turned around and there was colonel Horoho. There was a fire truck close to the helicopter hanger which was on fire, the right door was open, next to it were some cars, next to it it's where they kept liquid oxygen and propane. I feared everything was going to explode soon.

Colonel Horoho told me “I want you to have these teams bring condition yellow” which is wounded “to the left of that tree. Condition red” which is critical wounded “to the right of that tree. Condition green to the cemetery, and condition black behind this wall.” It suddenly struck me that I started to panic a little bit, my fear threshold was about to be crossed:, she instructed me to put all the dead bodies behind the helicopter hangar, where they put it for long storage, where nobody could see them.

I looked down at her and next to her leg was a two meter silver disc and it had the red, white and blue letter “C”. I thought “What am I looking at?” and then I understood it was the letter “C” from American Airlines. Then I saw there were tiny little pieces of the airplane all around. Later on I would see a turbine blade in the side of a tree.

There was no condition black where I was because that was the point of impact. There was no body left for those who were dead; the injured where coming out of other doors. We left and went back to the triage. There were nine patients and the paramedics were arriving and she was decidedly giving instructions to them as well; all the wounded were taken away with ambulances.

I then got a call on the phone, it was my friend in Coronado. He said “Malcolm, I'm sitting here with Commander Second Fleet and he doesn't know what is going on, he can't get in touch with the Secretary of Defense” He was a man who commanded like a hundred and fifty ships and all he knew about the Pentagon was what I was telling him, I told him the Secretary of Defense was fine and that he was in the Command Post trying to coordinate New York City, therefore they could not get through to him. I said “I need something from you: how many planes are still missing?” He said there were two: one out of Saint Louis and one near Ohio, which turned out being United 93, the other one turned out to be a false alarm. I told him I needed to know any change of status of these two planes, I was going to keep the line open.

I went to the colonel and told her about the two missing planes and told her we needed to be ready in case of additional attacks. Brad was still on the line, but the line got cut off; because they were cutting lines all over the United States. A few seconds later we heard another loud sound and someone said there was a car bomb at the State Department, I said no one would have used a car bomb if they had hijacked planes; minutes later we found out it was a part of the building had collapsed.

As we were standing there two F-16's came flying very low over the Pentagon and the Capitol and were happy and cheering to see we had top cover. They had no weapons, nothing, they would just use the airplanes themselves as a barrier. Seconds later a Fire Chief came and said we were going to be under attack again because there was another plane inbound. Colonel Horoho said “I want you to move all this triage to the Arlington Cemetery.” We ran on the other side and fifteen minutes after we heard a rumor that a F-16 crashed into United 93. when we heard that, colonel Horoho ordered to bring the triage back to the crash site which we did and at this point a lot more of resources arrived, one of the closest hospitals brought in the whole emergency room staff and all the doctors started receiving orders from colonel Horoho.

They made us move the triage again to an underpass on the south west side of the Pentagon and at this point we all had silver duct tape on our arms to identify ourselves because we had to go into the building to remove the dead but I wasn't there for that and I'm glad because what I saw was enough.

At six in the evening they started sending people home because rescue was over, it was now recovery. There was no transportation in Washington so I walked and then I hitchhiked and they drove me to my office.

Undicisettembre: You are one one of the few eyewitnesses who saw the plane crash, can we rule out once and for all that it was something different from a commercial airliner?

Malcolm Nance: First off, hundreds of people saw the plane. I spoke to the guy in the crash truck at the helipad which was on fire and he told me “I was in the truck and the plane went right by me” He told me they keep a person in the crash truck at all times, the Secretary of Defense was in the building and the helicopter was scheduled to come fifteen or twenty minutes later. So he was there and he had his bunker suit bottom on, not his top, and he was sitting there listening to the news about New York City when he saw this plane coming over the Sheraton, over the Navy Annex, which was the big Navy office building which has been destroyed since, then it came down, hit a light post which fell onto the car of a state trooper who was sitting inside it, hit the ground and slid into the building. This firefighter was sitting in his truck and saw the airplane coming at him. He said the plane exploded all around and his truck just blew up, but he had like eight tons of firefighting foam behind him, it also exploded, turned into gas and protected him. He then opened the right door and got out, when later Colonel Horoho and I were there the right door was still open.

Later I met the Virginia state trooper who was in the car and he said the same thing: he was sitting there, he saw the light post fall on his car and then the plane hitting the building. Everyone on the highway also saw this airplane, everyone in Crystal City saw this airplane fly in. Hundreds of people.

Some time later someone sent me a link of a blog by a French guy who said the Americans used a car bomb to fake an attack and blame it on the Arabs. I was furious, furious! Two years later I was giving an interview to a very famous French journalist in Time Square. She says “Next time you are in Paris you should come to the studio and we do this again.” The year after I went to Paris and she said “Do you mind if we have another guest on?” My late wife, who was a native French speaker, understood the guest would have been the guy who made that blog post and they were going to put me in the same room as him and I didn't know this was happening. My wife told them “If you bring Malcolm to that room and he realizes who the other guest is at some point he will get up and beat that man on television.” I heard her screaming in French and I understood what was going on. They canceled that segment at the end.

Undicisettembre: You are also an expert in fake news propaganda and 9/11 started the conspiracy movement on a bigger scale. What are you thoughts on this?

Malcolm Nance: Conspiracy theories have been around forever, even in that 60s movie “Doctor Strangelove” the general orders the attack to Russia because they are putting fluoride in the water and he thinks it's making sperm impure: that was a very, very popular conspiracy theory in the USA in the 50s and in the 60s.

While I can understand that, what I can't understand and gets me instantly ready to fight is people saying 9/11 was a conspiracy. Because “Who are you going to believe? Me or your lying eyes? Are you going to believe your lying eyes?” We have these Americans who say “Oh you can't melt steel” and so on, but if you get an airliner and fly it into a building at 400 knots there's nothing that's going to stand.

Undicisettembre: What is the role in today's world of disinformation farms such as the Internet Research Agency in Saint Petersburg?

Malcolm Nance: I wrote the book “The plot to destroy democracy” that was from the perspective of Russian intelligence. Russia has become an oligarchy country where they have money now and it filters down to the average person, it is still a very soviet-like country; the Soviet Union used disinformation and misinformation all the time to further their state goals. Vladimir Putin was a career KGB officer until the Soviet Union collapsed, he is a devout communist and he believed in the strategy of the Soviet Union to dismantle liberal democracy and damage the west. When the Soviet Union collapsed that became the interest of money. You want to make money in the west or have access to market places? You have to destroy their governments. Putin said two years ago “Liberal democracy in the west is dying, it's a failed ideology”. He understood that you can use disinformation to dismantle western democracy. And he didn't start in the United States with Trump, he started in Europe with parties founded by Russia: Lega in Italy, Orban in Hungary, Golden Dawn in Greece, Marine Le Pen in France, SDF in Germany. All these groups don't call themselves fascists but they are fascists and they are funded by Russia.

In the 70s and in the 80s the Soviet Union funded left wing terrorism. Today Russia funds right wing conservative groups. Putin knows how the west works, he uses misinformation and lies and then he uses democracy to eliminate democracy, he uses a vote to eliminate a vote. If you control all the strings to the people who are making the vote you make democracy look weak and illiberalism and fascism look strong. With social media you can do that and that's what the Russians did.

We call what they did against the United States Web War 2; they attacked the United States using their information warfare doctrine that says that you want to provide so much disinformation that a sizable part of your enemy population will greet you like victors and allies so that you can invade the country without putting one soldier in that country. It has been successful, 40% of the United States would believe Russia instead of believing their eyes.

Undicisettembre:: What do you think of what is going on right now in Afghanistan? Do you think this was the only unavoidable ending or could the situation have been handled differently?

Malcolm Nance: I went to Afghanistan in January 2002 to do an intelligence assessment of the post Tora Bora operation, when Osama bin Laden and his men escaped into Pakistan. Afghanistan is not a nation-state, it's a collection of tribes, and these tribal leaders play for themselves, they don't play for a central government. Every tribal chief flipped instantly and cut a deal with the Taliban because it's their culture and because the Taliban are Afghans while we were foreigners.

The peace deal that was cut with the Taliban was done by the previous administration but without Afghan President Ghani, cutting the Afghan government we've been propping out for nineteen years out of the negotiation. The previous administration wanted this giant deal to show they could bring peace to Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is now reset back to 2001, or even 1843, minus Osama bin Laden. The real threat today is ISIS Khorasan and the question is if the Taliban will allow them to plan and to project terror from their land. But it's unlikely.

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