The Cell: Inside the 9/11 Plot, and Why the FBI and CIA Failed to Stop It

by John Miller and Michael Stone with Chris Miller

Published by Hyperion

304 pages, 2002

Buy it online

In New York City, a handful of veteran FBI agents, police officers and investigative journalists had known for years that a terrorist event on the scale of 9/11 was likely. Ironically, one of the men who had been most aware of the threat posed by Osama bin Laden had recently left the FBI, where he had been following the movements of bin Laden and Al Qaeda, to become Chief of Security at the World Trade Center. John O'Neill died on that awful day. The FBI's O'Neill, along with Neil Herman, Kenny Maxwell, reporter John Miller and very few others, had been on Bin Laden's trail for years. To them, he had long been considered the most dangerous man on the planet.

In The Cell: Inside the 9/11 Plot, and Why the FBI and CIA Failed to Stop It, John Miller, an award-winning journalist and co-anchor of ABC's 20/20, along with veteran reporters Michael Stone and Chris Mitchell, takes readers back more than ten years to the birth of the terrorist cell that later metastasized into Al Qaeda's New York operation. This remarkable book offers a firsthand account of what it is to be a police officer, an FBI agent or a reporter obsessed with a case few people will take seriously. The Cell also contains a first-person account of Miller's face-to-face meeting with bin Laden and provides the first full-length treatment to piece together what led up to the events of 9/11, Ultimately delivering the disturbing answer to the question: Why, with all the information the intelligence community had, was no one able to stop the September 11 attacks?




September 11, 2001, started out as such a nice day -- no, a beautiful day. Then it all turned.

ABC News/Good Morning America, 9:05 A.M.

Well, we see -- it appears that there is more and more fire and smoke enveloping the very top of the building, and as fire crews are descending on this area, it -- it does not appear that there's any kind of an effort up there yet. Now remember -- Oh, my God!


Oh my God! Oh my God!


That looks like a second plane has just hit ...

How many times have you heard someone say, "Well, things will never be the same." It is rarely true. Things always go back to being the same. But not this time. Before the day was out many of my friends were dead. Many had just barely escaped. Many of them were badly hurt. Many who got out without even a scrape will be emotionally scarred for years if not forever. Many of them don't even know it yet, or just won't admit it.

Things will never be the same.

I have been a crime reporter since I was a teenager. I have seen or heard everything that a crime reporter could. Or so I thought, until September 11, 2001. I was listening to the citywide radio frequency of the NYPD when I heard Joe Esposito, the NYPD chief, yell into his radio: "Car 3 to Central, advise the Pentagon New York City is under attack!" Been around a long time. Hadn't heard that one before.

I sat with Peter Jennings at the anchor desk in New York watching the flames when a plume of white smoke appeared where the South Tower had stood.


The second building that was hit by the plane has just completely collapsed. The entire building has just collapsed . . . it folded down on itself and it's not there anymore.


We are talking about massive casualties here at the moment and we have -- whoo -- that is extraordinary.


There is panic on the streets. There are people screaming and running from the site. The gigantic plume of smoke has reached me and I'm probably a quarter of a mile north of there.

By the time the Towers collapsed in a cloud of metal and dust and humanity, I knew this was the work of bin Laden. No one told me. No one had to. It had been a long time coming. I was part of the small club, regarded by many as alarmists, who had been predicting a major attack on U.S. soil since just before the millennium. Even so, I never imagined this result. Nor, do I think, did anyone else.

Things will never be the same.

Those of us who had studied terrorism in general or bin Laden in particular knew that the most reliable way to predict future behavior was to examine past behavior. Truck-bombs, murders, yes -- even airplane hijackings. But no one had ever used a huge jetliner as a projectile -- a missile -- against a skyscraper before. No one had ever committed mass murder on this scale in a set of coordinated acts of terrorism in a single day. Not until September 11, 2001. That was the day my crime story turned into a war. Or had it been one all along?

We all asked, how could this have happened, how could we not have known, why were we not prepared? This book will answer many of those questions. No doubt years will be spent parsing every memo and intelligence report to see what little clues might have been missed. We will deal with that in this story too. But if there is any true value to this narrative, it is not the little picture of the single clue passed over; it is the big picture to stand back from, to appreciate its shape and detail.

How did this happen to us? To find the answers we had to go back more than a decade and follow the thread forward to September 11, 2001. As we did, a recurring pattern emerged. It raises questions: Was the FBI fully up to the job of countering terrorists? What about the CIA? Was terrorism a priority in the Bush White House or in Ashcroft's Justice Department prior to September 11, 2001?

This is not a book about how the FBI agents or the CIA's officers on the front lines screwed up. Quite the contrary. Successful cases and captures were made. A number of horrific terrorist plots were disrupted. We found in almost every case that the cops, agents and spies who followed their instincts were usually in the right place and on the right trail. But we found a recurring pattern. Over and over again the investigators were waved off the right trail. The reasons ranged from risk-averse bosses to bureaucratic resigned to ensure that the left hand would never know what the right hand was doing.

What struck us was the remarkable stories of those investigators. What we learned is that for more than a decade, the very system they worked for seemed to conspire against them as often as it supported them.

In many ways it seems like America was the sleeping giant. Every time the terrorism alarm went off, the giant stirred to consciousness, hit the snooze button and went back to sleep. Each time it sounded the alarm was a little louder. The Kahane murder, the World Trade Center bombing, the plot to blow up the bridges and tunnels, the East Africa embassy bombings, the USS Cole attack.

In 1998, I sat with Osama bin Laden in a hut in Afghanistan as he told me he was declaring war on America. His words at the time may have sounded hyperbolic, but read them now.

"We are sure of our victory. Our battle with the Americans is larger than our battle with the Russians. We predict a black day for America and the end of the United States."

From the moment bin Laden declared war on America, one of his frustrations seemed to be that he couldn't get America to declare war back. Not until the loudest and bloodiest alarm sounded on September 11 did the giant finally awake. | August 2002


Copyright © 2002 John Miller Enterprises Ltd. and Michael Stone


John Miller is an Emmy Award-winning broadcast journalist and co-host of ABC's 20/20 with Barbara Walters, and one of the few Western reporters ever to have interviewed Osama bin Laden. He lives in New York City. This is his first book.

Michael Stone is a veteran journalist who has covered many of New York's most notorious stories, including John Gotti, Robert Chambers and the Central Park jogger assault, and is the author of Gangbusters. He lives in New York City.

Chris Mitchell is a senior editor at The Week. His previous collaboration, Jack Maple's The Crime Fighter, inspired the television drama The District.