Alumni

With the Pentagon Burning, He Thought, “This Is the Magnitude of Pearl Harbor”

As a young FBI agent, Commerce alum John Wyman was on the scene minutes after terrorists steered a hijacked plane into the Pentagon. It changed his life’s work.

By McGregor McCance, cmm9vg@virginia.edu

When he graduated from the University of Virginia in 1994, McIntire alum John Wyman took his first professional job at an investment banking firm in Nashville. The career path ahead seemed clear, if relatively predictable.

But Wyman’s growing interest in government service and fighting organized crime pulled him in a different direction. By 1998, he had switched careers. Now an FBI Special Agent, Wyman would become a part of global counter-terrorism investigations. The work fascinated him. It tapped into some deep desire to help people who had been wronged.

Some of this work in the late ’90s also focused on an organization that was already blinking on the FBI’s radar, if not yet on the minds of the average American. The group was called al-Qaeda. And on Sept. 11, 2001, it exploded into the nation’s consciousness, revealing itself as a lethal, global threat.

For Wyman, the day reoriented his career once again, sending him in new directions in the nation’s “war on terror” that continues even now. In the two decades since 9/11, Wyman has participated in or helped manage hundreds of investigations as part of the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force. Today, he serves as Chief of the FBI’s Behavioral Threat Assessment Center in Quantico. The work relies on collaborations with other agencies, partners, and sources with an expressed goal of preventing terror attacks–foreign or domestic–as well as mass violence, such as school shootings, and myriad ongoing or emerging threats.

“After 9/11, the FBI and all of our intelligence community partners had to figure out ways to work better together, and knock down barriers to information sharing. This is what we’re pushing here at the Behavioral Threat Assessment Center,” he said. “The same type of approach that helps us counter the terrorism threat is what’s needed now to counter this whole host of threats that are out there.”

UVA Today recently visited with Wyman to talk about how 9/11 influenced his life and career and how, through it all, his experiences as a UVA student have continued to serve him.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Where were you on Sept. 11, 2001, and what were you doing when you heard about the attacks–and specifically the Pentagon attack?
My partner and I had been out early that morning making an arrest. We were on our way driving back into the office and listening to the radio, and I started hearing some of the reports of what was going on up in New York. We were heading back to the Washington Field Office, which is right in downtown D.C. We then heard reports of an explosion at the Pentagon. So we redirected from the office and went directly over to the Pentagon and saw the chaos that was underway and quickly tried to figure out a way that we could interject and help.

What were your mental and emotional reactions at the time?
I’ve worked terrorism, obviously, before 9/11 and was aware of the threat that was out there, but really in that early time on the morning of 9/11, there was so much confusion. On the way over to the Pentagon, it was very difficult to piece together or to connect the event any one particular thing. But once we arrived at the Pentagon, it was clear that at least what had happened at the Pentagon was something huge.

What did you do when you arrived?
One of the things in a crisis situation, or critical incident response, that you’re trying to do is to establish some sort of some sort of command structure. How do we organize our people? Where do we get them to come in? We were able to link up with a couple other FBI folks in an area that gave us a clear view of the face of the wall which had been struck and to then really begin right away with interviews and reporting back into our office to try to give them some sense of ground truth. They’re relying on people like us who are on the ground who can piece some of it together and start giving them some of that critical information.

When you arrived, how much earlier had the plane crashed into the wall?
Probably about 30 minutes, maybe even maybe even a little bit less. There were a lot of people evacuated already and evacuating. But we were some of the first FBI agents on scene.

Was the Pentagon engulfed in flames at that time?
Absolutely. Huge fire. Debris all over the place.

One of the first interviews I remember doing was the guy who sat in the air traffic control tower or booth for the helipad next to the Pentagon. He had a bird’s eye view of the plane coming in. It’s that kind of firsthand information that that you’re getting right off the bat, back to the office. And that’s going into the whole machine to figure out what’s really happening.

Why is it so important to get on scene like that and to talk to people so quickly?
You have to accept in critical incident response that there’s going to be that chaos. But as quickly as you can, you want to try to get things organized. How many do I need to go to the Pentagon? What’s the role there? We’ve got to start standing up an investigation as to what actually happened. This is going to be a huge thing. This is probably connected to New York. We’ve got to start getting initial leads from our people on the ground at the Pentagon to start following up. What flight was it that went in? We’ve got to get people out to the airport, start gathering info there and start gathering video footage. All those decisions that can make the investigation move quickly and efficiently require having your people on the ground.

When you got there, was your gut saying this is a terrorist attack? Were you worried about more attacks?
Absolutely. There was an air raid–some sort of an announcement that went out that advised a plane was inbound. This was the one, we found out later, that went down in Pennsylvania. There was concern that it was coming in as a second plane to our location. So there was a call to take cover. Basically, everyone tried to figure out, “How do you take cover from a plane that’s about to hit right on top of us?” So we huddled up under a bridge with people who had evacuated, people who worked there, and responders.

I remember about that time looking kind of down at the Pentagon and the fire and thinking that this is the magnitude of Pearl Harbor. I mean, this is going to change everything–that type of feeling. Things are going to change from this day on and seeing it, especially seeing the huge amount of damage and destruction, combining that with what I knew from my work previously on terrorism, that it was a game-changer. That’s for sure.

After the first day you ended up sticking around the Pentagon for some period of time. Why did you do that and what did that work entail?
I ended up staying there for about 10 days, and the initial work was really what we can do on the outside to gather, retrieve evidence. We needed to get in and get to the pieces of the plane that were embedded inside the building, because that’s where the identities of the hijackers, things on their persons at the time, were going to be discovered. I wasn’t on the [Washington Field Office’s] formal evidence response team, but this job exceeded the personnel that they had so I helped. Part of my role in evidence recovery was to document the locations of victims and to retrieve them. [The intentional crashing of American Airlines Flight 77 killed 125 people in the Pentagon, and all 64 people on the jet.]

What was the scope of things you found that ended up being submitted as potential evidence for the investigation?
My piece was focused on collecting a wide variety of potential evidence from inside the Pentagon. We later also moved over to working on the parts that were coming out of the crater and going through that. Within there, among other things, was the driver’s license for one of the hijackers. And that’s the one thing that I can kind of remember personally resonating.

What kind of license was it?
It was Virginia. That was part of the follow-up investigation that I ended up doing once I rotated back … and they assigned me to the squad that was investigating the case.

One of the early leads that we started running down was on how [the terrorists] acquired their licenses. So we found the people that were in line in front of them and in the back of them at the Virginia DMV. We interviewed them, and many others, trying to piece together all of the highjackers’ activities prior to the attack. What were they doing in Virginia leading up? Who were they talking to? Are there other people out there that we need to be concerned with? Are there other cells that we’re not aware of? We have to identify every last movement that they had while they were here and every last person that they ever talked to and go talk to them.

The work of identifying bodies and victims–that had to be difficult to do, even for a person with your experience.
Yeah, I mean, certainly there’s an emotional reaction, but you have to put that in check in order to be able to do what’s necessary. And yet you think about the people who were going about their workday in an office and didn’t see this coming, and they’re not going back to their families. I can remember vividly the time that I spent there at the Pentagon. I think it’s because of the magnitude of the event and the emotional reaction that’s burned into your memory. The end goal is you’ve got a job to do and you’ve got to do it.

How old were you when 9/11 happened, and what kind of career path were you on at that time?
I was almost 30. Interestingly, I started off my career at Washington Field Office on the Terrorism Squad, and I had just recently moved over to a squad that was working narcotics, drug diversion, and things like that in Washington, D.C. So my career path was certainly still undetermined at that point. Who knows where it would have gone without 9/11, but after 9/11 I was pulled back immediately to the same squad that I worked with before. They had the lead investigative role for the Pentagon attacks within the Washington Field Office.

You mentioned when you’re under that bridge and thinking it was a Pearl Harbor moment that was going to change everything. At that moment, there was no way to know that your career was one of those things that was going to be completely turned around or put in a new direction by 9/11.
Absolutely right. I tell this to a lot of people, especially new agents coming into the FBI–you have ideas about what you want, what your career is going to be, but you have no idea how it’s going to end up. It depends on where you get assigned, what big case comes your way, what you get pulled into, and it could go down a completely different path than you ever imagined.

I read all the books about the way the FBI was able to build organized crime cases against the La Cosa Nostra [an organized crime entity]. And I really like piecing together and thinking creatively to use prosecution to take down big criminal organizations. That’s one piece that drew me to the FBI. Certainly I hadn’t ever really thought about terrorism, but the same types of investigative, creative, forward-leaning tools and techniques that were used to take down the mafia, the same types of things were used to go after terrorist organizations.

Twenty years after 9/11, with your career having gone the way it’s progressed, has this work been rewarding personally and professionally?
Oh, absolutely. I mean, I can’t think of a better career. Very happy about my decision to join in and really grateful for all the opportunities.

On the big-picture level, how is it meaningful?
Almost all of the violations we work are going to have victims–people who have been wronged and people who have done them wrong. People who have broken the law and have put some degree of pain and suffering on others. And there’s obviously a huge level of satisfaction in going after that. It becomes pretty clear that you’re on the side of what’s right.

Our job as counter-terrorism investigators and the FBI, the priority is to identify and to prevent acts from occurring before they do. So that’s a little bit different. This is where I think it’s been so rewarding, because we’re working cases and we’re resolving them before they can act. Disrupting would-be attackers. We’re preventing really bad things from occurring and oftentimes without anybody even knowing. From a personal satisfaction standpoint for terrorism investigators, really that’s part of what drives us.

Has the proliferation of technology, the internet, and social media introduced a new set of difficulties?
Yes. Technology has evolved as an accelerator for how fast people can be radicalized, can go find like-minded individuals and inspiration to go conduct violent acts. It’s made it easier in some ways for them to go do that without being noticed. It’s changed from when you had to go and hang out in somebody’s basement and listen to some charismatic person face-to-face. You can do that online. You don’t have to travel overseas.

Also it’s challenging now in that your traditional terrorists are being copied. The tactics and techniques are being copied by those who are doing acts of violence that really have no connection to a terrorist organization. But they are still using violence as a way to solve their problems–your school shooter, other active assailants, mass attackers, and things like that. That’s what I’ve been working on the last four years here.

Technology has definitely enhanced the challenge that we face.

It’s hard to imagine, 20 years later, some malignant actors, either foreign or domestic, commandeering an aircraft and crashing it into something again. That’s not really the threat that you’re probably most worried about at this point, is it?
We certainly have to keep our eye on that threat … that long-term, sophisticated, coordinated attack planning emanating from overseas. But what has really evolved over the last 10 years or five years, is that evolution of threat – actors who are motivated by a wide variety of ideological political motives and then personal motives, who are looking to use violence as a solution. How do we prevent those attacks from occurring the same way we’re looking to prevent others?

And it gets down to training and educating bystanders and making sure that they’re reporting information the same way we would have to report, say, someone leaving a backpack in a crowded subway. We want people to know how to recognize and report and where to report information about [someone] that they’re concerned is becoming obsessed and fixated on the idea of using violence to get back at people who have wronged them. And then how do we, as the FBI and all of our law enforcement partners and other stakeholders, how do we work together to effectively manage those threats? It has blossomed into more of this kind of whole-of-government and even whole-of-society approach

This article was first published in UVA Today July 30, 2021.

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