Michael A. Sheehan, counterterrorism expert who warned of bin Laden, dies at 63

WASHINGTON — Michael A. Sheehan, who led counterterrorism efforts around the globe with the United Nations, State Department, and New York City Police Department, died Monday at a military hospital in Bethesda, Md. He was 63.

The cause was multiple myeloma, said his wife, Sita Graham Vasan.

Mr. Sheehan, who began his career as an Army Ranger, first took part in clandestine operations in Panama in 1979. Later, he was part of drug-interdiction and counterterrorism operations in Colombia, El Salvador, and Honduras, scaling buildings and jumping out of helicopters as a ‘‘real-life Rambo,’’ in the words of a New York Daily News profile.


He helped investigate the 1993 ‘‘Black Hawk Down’’ incident in Somalia, in which two US helicopters were shot down, killing 18 service members. In 2000, almost a year before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Mr. Sheehan raised alarms about Osama bin Laden and the dangers of Al Qaeda.

Get Fast Forward in your inbox:
A look at the news and events shaping the day ahead, delivered every weekday.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

‘‘What’s it going to take to get them to hit Al Qaeda?’’ he reportedly asked at the time. ‘‘Does Al Qaeda have to attack the Pentagon?’’

After the 9/11 attacks, Mr. Sheehan spent two years as an assistant secretary general of the United Nations, coordinating antiterror efforts around the world. In 2003, he joined the New York City police as a deputy commissioner and directed what was widely recognized as one of the country’s foremost counterterrorism units. He trained thousands of police officers in how to deal with potential threats, from car bombs to nuclear weapons.

‘‘There are few people in the country, let alone the world, that really have his knowledge and understanding of terrorism as a phenomenon and from the diversity of perspective he brought to bear on it,’’ Rand Corp. terrorism authority Bruce Hoffman told The New York Times in 2006.

Mr. Sheehan later founded an international security firm and, from 2006 to 2011, often appeared as an NBC News commentator on terrorism.


His 2008 book, ‘‘Crush the Cell: How to Defeat Terrorism Without Terrorizing Ourselves,’’ spelled out his sometimes unorthodox theories of fighting terrorism.

‘‘Having spent the first twenty years of my career as a soldier,’’ he wrote, ‘‘the need to be on the front lines was firmly imbedded in my psyche.’’

He believed the most effective way to prevent terrorist cells from attacking the United States and other countries was to stop them from forming in the first place, through diplomacy and what he called a ‘‘small-footprint’’ and low-cost presence in countries that gave rise to militants.

He recommended that US spy services and military forces ‘‘drain the swamps’’ through strategic operations to eliminate training camps for terrorists.

‘‘It is important to understand that terrorism is an instrument of the weak,’’ he said in 2008, ‘‘and that the terrorist depends on a psychological overreaction to an attack on an innocent civilian target.’’


Some of Mr. Sheehan’s harshest criticism was directed toward Congress and the geyser of cash dumped into the fight against terrorism — much of which did little but line the pockets of contractors.

‘‘Since 9/11,’’ he told Harper’s Magazine in 2008, ‘‘the U.S. Government has spent hundreds of billions on activities I consider a complete waste of time and money, or on activities that have a very marginal impact on our safety.’’

Security checkpoints at airports did little to deter terrorism, he said, and only served to annoy the ‘‘white haired grandma’’ whose life was ‘‘turned upside down by overzealous airport inspectors.’’

He pointed out that when he drove onto military bases, armed guards looked through the dirty laundry in his luggage — but the hotels next to the bases were completely unguarded because they weren’t funded by the Department of Homeland Security.

Instead, he believed the war on terror should be carried out primarily by joint efforts of diplomats, military officials, the CIA, and the FBI.

From 2011 to 2013, Mr. Sheehan was able to put his ideas into practice as the assistant secretary of defense for Special Operations and low intensity conflict. In that role, he directed all Special Operations branches of the military, including the Army Rangers and Navy SEALs, as well as the drone strikes that targeted terrorist leaders overseas.

‘‘He had both the global experience of fighting Al Qaeda on a diplomatic level but also the experience of carrying an M-16 in the jungle,’’ James Rubin, a former State Department spokesman, said in an interview.

Michael Andrew Sheehan was born Feb. 10, 1955, in Red Bank, N.J. He father was an engineer, his mother a teacher.

After graduating from the Military Academy at West Point in 1977, he entered the Special Forces. He received a master’s degree in 1988 from the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and a second master’s degree, in 1992, from the Army Command and Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

The next year, while still on active duty with the Army, he joined the staff of his former Georgetown professor, Madeleine Albright, when she was US ambassador to the United Nations. He retired from the military as a lieutenant colonel in 1997.

After leaving the Defense Department in 2013, Mr. Sheehan became a fellow at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point and lectured.