Ex-Port Authority detective says he predicted WTC was terrorist target a decade before 9/11

“I live with a lot of guilt that I let those guys down," Matthew Basheer said.

ByABC News
September 6, 2017, 4:14 PM

— -- Former Port Authority Intelligence Unit Det. Matthew Besheer says he predicted a decade before the 9/11 terror attacks that the World Trade Center would be a terrorist target.

“In 1991 leading into 1992, I was asked by the commanding officer of the World Trade Center to do a vulnerability study,” Besheer, 66, told ABC News’ “Nightline.” “My report that I submitted was that the building was vulnerable to attack in the parking garages.”

Besheer is unsure whether his warnings were heeded.

“You complete the report and you pass it up the chain. What they do with it after that is their business, not mine,” Besheer said.

In 1993, just a year after his report, Besheer’s prediction came true. Six people were killed, and more than 1,000 were injured when a bomb inside a van parked in the World Trade Center garage went off.

“It was an eye-opener at that time. But of course, as we get further down the road and other things have happened, it was really a huge warning sign,” said Besheer.

Besheer’s story is just one of the many pieces of the Sept. 11 puzzle, put together in History’s new documentary series, “Road to 9/11.” History is part-owned by Disney, which is also the parent company of ABC News.

For Besheer, the road to 9/11 started in the 1970s, when the World Trade Center was being built. His losses on Sept. 11 were deeply personal.

“As a child, I would take my allowance, and I would jump on the double-R local. And I would take it into Manhattan, and I would watch them blasting and digging the hole for the foundation of the Trade Center,” he recalled. “I watched ‘em be built. I worked there. And I sifted through the rubble for my 37 guys that I lost that day.”

Besheer eventually teamed up with the FBI, helping them track down and capture the mastermind of the 1993 attack, Ramzi Yousef.

The night they took him into custody in New York, Besheer said, Yousef gave law enforcement his own grim prediction about the Twin Towers.

“It was Feb. 7, 1995, about 8:30 at night when we came around lower Manhattan, and we took the blindfold off of him and said, ‘See, Ramzi? They’re still standing,’” Besheer said. “And he took the time to look us each in the eye in the helicopter and he said, ‘Next time we’ll have more money, and we will bring ‘em down.’”

Yousef’s uncle, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, or K.S.M., would fulfill that promise six years later, working at the behest of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden to mastermind the 9/11 attacks.

Richard Clarke, who was the chief counter-terrorism adviser on the National Security Council at the time, oversaw the growing threat from Al Qaeda operatives like Mohammed.

“We knew in the mid-1990s that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was trouble,” Clarke told “Nightline.” “We were looking for him, and we had an indictment -- a sealed indictment against him from a federal grand jury.”

Mohammed was wanted for his role in planning an attack on the Pope and an elaborate plot to bring down planes over the Pacific Ocean.

“To many of the people that knew him, he was the boss. He was the leader. He called the shots,” Besheer said of Mohammed. “So when you’re looking at somebody who’s thought of that way, you’ve got to put more effort into him.”

Besheer, along with his FBI partner Frank Pellegrino, crisscrossed the world throughout the 1990s hunting terrorists they say had unfinished business in New York, including Mohammed.

The U.S. government tracked him to Qatar in 1996, but Clarke says when he requested help in capturing and extraditing Mohammed, he was turned down.

“We asked the FBI. We asked the CIA. We asked the Pentagon: ‘Can any of you mount a snatch operation to go into Doha and pick him up and fly him out?’ And all of them said that was not within their capacity,” said Clarke.

Mohammed would go on to hand pick the 19 terrorists who hijacked the planes on Sept. 11, 2001. Mohammed was later captured in Pakistan on March 1, 2003, and is still imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay.

But trying to stop terrorists -- like Mohammed -- before they acted was not the only frustration in the years leading up to 9/11.

“Nobody was really looking at it as, ‘This is going to be a bigger picture. We’ve got to really see that this is a growing threat.’ And we had resources that were just spread very, very thin,” Besheer said.

“Prior to 9/11, it was extremely difficult to convince the Congress and some people in federal departments that there really was a terrorism risk in the U.S.,” said Clarke. “Since there had never been a major foreign terrorist attack -- a catastrophic attack -- in the U.S., even though the evidence suggested it could happen. A lot of people didn’t believe -- truly believe -- that it would happen.”

Besheer retired from the Port Authority in 2000 and was living in Florida on 9/11. But he says when the first plane hit that September morning in 2001, he knew exactly what was happening and who was responsible.

“I felt my entire insides just fall out, and as I was standing there watching it, I saw the second plane come in and hit. And I knew they came back,” Besheer said. "And at that point I lost it. I just sank to the floor and I just started bawling. And as I was doing that, my phone rang, and it was my partner. And he was crying too, and he said, 'Besh, look what they did to us.'"

Besheer said he grabbed his gear, got in his car and drove through the night to Ground Zero.

“Initially, I didn’t know what to do. I just knew I needed to do something,” Besheer said. “The people from the Port Authority knew I was back. Actually, they told one of the range officers to sign out my old weapon and give it to me.”

Besheer stayed for two weeks and swore he would never return.

“It’s too painful a memory for me, you know, watching the buildings be built, working there, watching them come down, but also working on the investigation to try to catch the guys that did it the first time and maybe try to prevent it a second time and missing them,” Besheer said. “I live with a lot of guilt that I let those guys down, that I lost a lot of good friends because I didn’t get it done. It’s tough to live with every day.”

Besheer returned to Manhattan recently and visited the 9/11 Memorial for the first time with ABC News’ “Nightline.” The names at the memorial are filled with the stories of his friends and co-workers that he doesn’t want the world to forget.

“Jimmy Ramito is the one who gave me my retirement shield. Georgie Howard -- knew him for a long time on the job. His mom gave George Bush his shield, and George Bush actually carried it in his pocket for the rest of his term as president. Bruce Reynolds, there wasn’t a kinder, nicer guys than Bruce Reynolds,” he said in front of the 9/11 Memorial.

Besheer says it’s important that he keep their memories alive.

“Chris Amoroso kept going in again and again to get people out. Bobby Cirri -- I told him, ‘Be careful. These guys are coming back.’ But they still did what they needed to do,” Besheer said of his colleagues. “They still needed to be God’s warriors to get those people out of those buildings.”

In the 16 years that have passed, Besheer said it never gets easier.

“I never wanted to see their names etched like this," said Besheer.

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