A View from the CT Foxhole: James A. Gagliano, Former FBI Hostage Rescue Team Counterterrorist Operator
May 4, 2017
James A. Gagliano, a 1987 West Point graduate, joined the Federal Bureau of Investigation as a Special Agent in 1991. In 1997, Gagliano was selected for the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team and participated in numerous overseas deployments and high-risk tactical resolutions. In November 2002, he was selected as the Senior Team Leader of the 45-man FBI New York Office SWAT Team and also served as an attachment to Joint Special Operations Command units in Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom between 2002 and 2003. In November 2005, Mr. Gagliano was named to head the FBI’s Crisis Management and 24/7 Operations Center Programs in New York. Assignments included oversight of the SWAT Program, Crisis Negotiation, the Special Agent Bomb Technicians, and the Hazardous Materials Response Team. Between 2008 and 2015, Gagliano held a variety of positions to include Supervisory Senior Resident Agent for the Hudson Valley Resident Agency (HVRA), Acting Legal Attaché in Mexico City, Mexico, and Chief-of-Staff (Special Assistant to the Assistant-Director-in-Charge) for the FBI’s New York Office. He is currently an adjunct assistant professor at St. John’s University and frequently provides on-air analysis for CNN and Headline News. He and other SWAT Team colleagues were awarded the FBI’s Medal for Bravery for their roles in the June 1993 apprehension of terrorists planning to bomb the Holland Tunnel and other New York City landmarks.
CTC: The terrorist attacks on a café in Sydney, a music hall in Paris, and a nightclub in Orlando all involved hostage standoffs culminating in assaults by law enforcement. When the decision is made to go in, what is the key to saving lives?
Gagliano: Effective hostage rescue requires four interrelated components for success, and these are, inarguably, speed, surprise, violence-of-action, and a failsafe breach. If you’re unable to get in, you simply can’t save hostages. If any of these principles get degraded, then you’re forced to come in heavier and harder. It’s all about momentum in this business. Every second counts. You can also add a diversion to supplement your tactics, but the four I listed are the most critical.
Let me provide you with an example from early in my career. In June 1993, I was a young shooter on the FBI SWAT team that moved in to arrest five terrorists who were part of a group linked to the “Blind Sheikh” Omar Abdel Rahman, which was planning to bomb the Holland Tunnel, Lincoln Tunnel, the FBI’s New York office building, the United Nations, the George Washington Bridge, and the St. Regis Hotel. We effected entry into their “bomb factory” in a Brooklyn warehouse as they were literally stirring their “witch’s brew”—as it was later described in media accounts—a drum of diesel fuel and fertilizer. One of the terrorists exited a side room and immediately confronted the entry team, with a SWAT operator immediately shouting, “Gun!” The bewildered bomb-builder wisely chose to hand the Kalashnikov-style assault rifle he was holding to our Number One man who was armed with a ballistic shield and a handgun.a
We needed to get to him and overwhelm him before he could think about raising the weapon. It was a textbook example of speed, surprise, violence of action, and successful mechanical breach. We didn’t have an explosive breaching capability, so the team used mechanical tools, such as a pneumatic door-jamb spreader and a “Halligan Tool” to breach the doors at the front and the back of the warehouse. I was among those stationed at the back door. At the prearranged signal, our SWAT operators then converged on the suspects with great momentum and precision from both directions.
In hostage rescue or with any barricaded subject incident, as operators burst into a room, it’s all about that split-second decision-making the bad guy has to make: fight or flight. We want them to give up on those two conditioned response options and force them to recognize there’s nowhere to go and no way to defeat our team. Overwhelming force and momentum saves lives by changing the immediate calculus of the people you are up against.
In the Blind Sheikh case, we had several advantages as we knew who we were dealing with—the case squad had completed an exhaustive workup on the subjects—and we had time to painstakingly prepare in advance. We also had the warehouse wired up with audio and video feeds because we had a solid cooperating witness. The CCTV video feed accurately showed us in real time where people were positioned and where weapons were emplaced in the room, so we were able to make the entry with informational superiority. Knowledge, or intelligence, is power and a force multiplier. In situations where you are responding to an active shooter or a hostage standoff, you have much less time to appraise a kinetic situation. In those instances, rehearsals, standard operating procedures, and experience are what you rely on to augment the momentum necessary to effect a successful rescue.
As a responding tactical unit, the success of your action is always going to depend on your evaluation of the situation before going in, reducing as many variables as conceivably possible. The key here is to obtain what we call “speculative intelligence”—a profile assessment, if you will—to figure out how likely it is the hostage-taker(s) are going to kill the hostage(s). You need to understand the mindset, desperation level, and motivation of the attacker(s). In all cases, you need to come up with a “hasty assault plan” basically right away. That then forms the genesis of your “deliberate assault plan” as intelligence improves and more resources are assembled.
CTC: As outlined in our cover article this month, in the Orlando terrorist hostage standoff, police gained entry to the part of the nightclub where Omar Mateen was barricaded in a bathroom by breaching an outer wall with an explosive charge as well as an armored vehicle equipped with a ram. Explain how important breaching is.
Gagliano: If and when you need to “go in,” a failsafe breach is absolutely key. There are a number of techniques for this, including mechanical breaching, which we employed in the Blind Sheikh case, and may involve implementation of a hydraulic or pneumatic device to separate a door from its jamb and shotgun breaching, which involves the use of a short-barreled shotgun to blast open the lock on a door with a round comprised of dental plaster. But the most reliable way to enter is to apply a suitable amount of explosives. Explosive breaching is one of the key domain capabilities of the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team (HRT) at Quantico, Virginia, a team I was proud to be a member of once. It is also a capability that has been developed by a small number of police departments across the country, as illustrated in the response by the Orlando Police Department to the nightclub attack. But many local police forces and municipalities do not have explosive breaching capabilities in their department’s tactical arsenal. Many are only armed with simple and rudimentary sledge hammers, crowbars, heavy battering rams, “Halligan Tools,” and maybe a “rabbit”—pneumatic door-jamb spreaders—if they’re lucky. All of these breaching accoutrements are similar to what most fire departments and emergency rescue units have in stock.
Neither the NYPD’s Emergency Services Unit (ESU) nor the FBI tactical response teams in New York City have an explosive breaching capability. If and when a hostage situation were to occur in New York, on-scene command authorities would need to wait for the arrival of the FBI Hostage Rescue Team from Quantico to bring this capability to bear. That would likely take more than an hour or two, under the best set of circumstances. While there are reservations in some quarters about arming police departments and part-time SWAT teams with explosives, in my view the current terrorist threat, and ISIS’s calls for attacks against soft targets all across the United States rather than just against high-profile, more traditionally hardened targets, means there are strong arguments for police forces around the country developing and maintaining this capability. As the current FBI director has repeatedly stated, the FBI has open cases against ISIS subjects in all 50 states. That’s a lot of territory for law enforcement to cover and maintain a posture so that immediate entries into barricaded locations can be effected safely and expeditiously. Minutes, and seconds, in this business absolutely matter.
CTC: What makes a SWAT Team officer or Hostage Rescue operator good at their job?
Gagliano: Keeping calm is critical. As an operator, it’s about controlling your own fears. Fear is a natural emotion. And while it is to be acknowledged and respected, it must be controlled and channeled properly. Left unchecked, it has a deleterious effect on the effectiveness of a unit. At the FBI Swat Team in New York and at the Hostage Rescue Team in Quantico, we weren’t interested in bringing on people who said they’d never been scared. Fear is a rational response to impending danger, and those who sense it are more prone to make sensible decisions to protect themselves, their teammates, and the hostages they are trying to save.
Being able to adapt and improvise in a kinetic situation is a necessary trait for counterterror operators and SWAT operators. They must be able to adapt to fluid circumstances against an unconventional enemy. Therefore, split-second reaction to an adversary’s unanticipated action is a critical skillset for new team members. The countless hours spent training together as a tactical response team are vital because they allow individuals to react with muscle memory, on autopilot, which frees the mind to have a capacity to improvise in fluid and dangerous situations. This tactical choreography is what sets team members apart from their less skilled adversaries who don’t have the same familiarity with each other. One example of an improvisation that likely saved lives was the use of a bomb disposal robot loaded with explosives to neutralize a gunman in Dallas, Texas, in July 2016.
Being able to learn from valuable experience is also crucial. In the units I was part of with the FBI, there was a huge focus on the After Action Report process so that best practices could be shared. Success shouldn’t be accidental. And mistakes should never be repeated.
CTC: In an era when Islamist extremists are being instructed by the Islamic State to kill as many as possible before embracing death for heavenly reward, do protocols and best practices in hostage standoffs with Islamist terrorists need to change?
Gagliano: I think the short answer is yes, once you’ve established in a crisis situation that this is their motivation. The Orlando police received criticism for waiting some three hours, but they were properly following current protocols and best practices to slow down in standoffs when transitioning from active shooter to hostage rescue. Given those protocols and the fact I wasn’t there, I don’t want to Monday morning quarterback what happened in Orlando, but there are strong arguments for making changes to the protocols for first responders so that the best practice is determined to be to make entry sooner in Islamist terrorist hostage standoffs. The ISIS-inspired terrorists of today tend not to be interested in negotiating their way out.
Depending on the nature of the case, there is still obviously some potential utility in opening communications with suspects in hostage standoffs. These negotiations—talking it out, stalling for time—can play a role in slowing down their killing to help play for time as more resources can be brought to bear. Islamist terrorists, after all, have an interest in getting their message out, as was seen in the grievances they communicated to negotiators in the Orlando and Paris attacks. Communications with the suspect(s) can also play a role in pinpointing their location as well as provide opportunities to distract the perpetrators just before a planned assault. In the final phase of the Bataclan hostage standoff in Paris, when two of the terrorists had barricaded themselves with hostages in a corridor inside the venue, French RAID commandos placed a call to one of the attackers, as a distraction, moments before the assault. While the hostage-takers were taken down, no one else in that corridor was killed.1
All this means that while necessary adjustments need to be considered in how on-scene command elements tackle ISIS-inspired hostage-taking, it is not to say that the hostage negotiation component should be rendered obsolete. Quite the contrary. Not every hostage or active shooter case is identical. The individual mindset of each ISIS-inspired potential terrorist must carefully be weighed and considered, and tactical resolution elements should forever remain contiguous with negotiator units.
But when it comes to terrorism cases, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the era of drawn out, negotiation-heavy hostage standoffs is over. Let me give you a bit of a reflection on hostage rescue history. In the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, we witnessed a proliferation of aircraft hijackings, domestic terrorist attacks from radical leftist groups, and bank robberies that resulted in hostage-takings. But the emphasis in hostage situations was about “stall, stall, buy time, promise them the world, and for each thing we give them, we have to extract hostage capital from them in return.”
This was encapsulated in the approach taken by Harvey Schlossberg, who founded the NYPD’s Hostage Negotiating Team in 1973, and was key to developing many of the unit’s protocols and practices. He stressed that listening was much more important than talking. One of his successors Jack Cambria, who retired from the NYPD in 2015, continuously reinforced the unit’s motto to his charges: “Talk to me.”
But while this approach worked with secularist Palestinian terrorist groups, and even as the 1990s drew to a close with the hijacking of Indian Airlines Flight 814 by a Kashmiri terrorist group linked to al-Qa`ida,b the 9/11 attacks and the later rise of ISIS have drastically changed the equation.
For ISIS and its sympathizers, the purpose of carrying out hostage attacks is to gain global headlines rather than to win concessions or even battlefield victories. They control the narrative, and any publicity for them is good publicity. The Orlando shooter, Omar Mateen, for example, showed no interested in negotiating when the police got through to him in several short calls.
When it comes to active shooter situations, a key turning point was the Columbine high school massacre in April 1999. As the two attackers went on a shooting rampage inside the school and tried to set off bombs, first responders formed a perimeter to try to assess and contain the situation, as was then the protocol. You were supposed to establish a wide perimeter before creating a smaller perimeter and executing a tactical assault. You were supposed to gather as much intelligence as you could. And you were also supposed to wait for the arrival of homogenous units to respond. While the shooting was going on, in a parking lot just outside the school, you had a sheriff’s deputy assigned to work at the school who exchanged fire with one of the perpetrators from the parking lot but did not enter the school building. He called for backup and was joined by six other law enforcement officers while the attack progressed. Those who first arrived on the scene were from several agencies in the Denver area.2 In that sort of situation, you’re going to have maybe an FBI agent who lived nearby and heard the news on his police scanner and a few local uniformed police officers in range. The problem was there wasn’t a consensus understanding of how to take a heterogeneous group of people, have them commingle, and then expect they’d work effectively to eradicate the threats by employing sophisticated and nuanced tactical resolution techniques.
The killing of 13 high school kids in an attack in which the attackers wanted to inflict maximum carnage understandably shook things up, forcing soul-searching. It led to law enforcement officers across all agencies and police forces training on Active Shooter Response tactics and adopting an improved inter-agency protocol to take immediate action to confront, rather than contain a threat. This resulted in universal training and tactics so when various law enforcement agents find themselves responding to a shooting, they can work together more effectively than was the case at Columbine.
As a then member of the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team, the lessons learned from Columbine centered on the on-scene law enforcement’s “paralysis by analysis.” It describes the inherent difficulty in immediately coalescing disparate “parts” of “good guys,” upon arrival, into a homogeneous tactical unit prepared to rapidly move toward the sounds of the guns, which in military terms translates to a full-speed, hyper-urgent movement to contact.
Just as the Columbine attack established new best practices for active shooter situations, the Orlando attack should be an impetus to a wholesale protocol review for hostage rescue. In cases where there is a jihadi terrorist motivation, in many cases the best “worst option” is now, inarguably, immediate hasty or deliberate plan implementation to neutralize the threat. This will ultimately save as many hostages as possible. In the immortal words of General George S. Patton, “A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.”
The operational calculus turns into simple arithmetic. Go get the bad guys. Accept a higher level of risk for your trained professionals that comes with a dynamic entry. Save as many innocents as can be saved. Know that inaction can lead to even more deleterious results.
CTC: In several recent terrorist attacks, patrol cops—who do not have the same specialized training as tactical units—have been the first to respond. And in several recent terrorist incidents, most of the killing was done in the opening minutes of the attack—including in the Bataclan, San Bernardino, and Orlando attacks—before tactical units had any realistic chance of arriving on the scene. Given what you have said about a need for speed in both active shooter and hostage rescue situations, what can be done to best equip local police and mitigate the risk to themselves, especially given that terrorists may seek to target first responders, including with explosive devices?
Gagliano: This is a significant problem. Most police forces do not have the budgets or available time to appropriately train all their personnel to confront terrorist active shooters and hostage-takers. And SWAT teams and tactical units belonging to local police departments will rarely be the first to arrive on scene. There are no easy solutions, but given that ISIS is encouraging sympathizers to attack everywhere in the United States, funds need to be found to provide local police forces more training to improve capabilities and expertise. Every time law enforcement “goes in” to try to neutralize a terrorist suspect, there is, as you point out, a risk they themselves may be deliberately targeted. That appears to have been the plan of the San Bernardino attackers who planned to remotely detonate an explosive device as police arrived. But at the end of the day, when you join the police or a law enforcement agency, you sign on to accept a higher personal level of acceptable risk. And for those joining tactical or hostage rescue units, that “acceptable risk” increases exponentially. On FBI New York SWAT and HRT, it was expected that the first operator to enter the door frame may draw bullets. HRT’s motto is Servare Vitas—to save lives. We consider that duty sacrosanct.
What ultimately aids the local police forces, the tip of the tactical response spear in terrorist attacks, is giving these departments the capability to quickly marshal enough firepower to overcome increasingly better armed and equipped terrorists. When they employ vehicles as weapons or are outfitted with armor piercing rounds, how does one better protect responding officers? The Bataclan attackers, armed with Kalashnikovs, were able to easily outgun the two French cops who responded to the attack. And the San Bernardino attackers were armed with powerful AR-15s. There has been a lot of criticism in the media about the “militarization of the police.” And that’s a fair debate to have—about what is appropriate—but local forces need the tools to neutralize terrorist active shooters without putting themselves in unreasonable danger.
In the future, advances in robotics, surveillance drone technology, and miniaturization as well as other technologies could provide significant new capability to law enforcement agencies to have better “eyes on” the perpetrator(s) during hostage situations.
CTC: While at the FBI, you were assigned to Joint Special Operations Command for several short tours to Afghanistan. How did you assist in their missions, and what lessons did you take away from the experience?
Gagliano: Then FBI Director Mueller, a former Marine who served in Vietnam and who took over the helm of the FBI one week before 9/11, attached particular significant priority to establishing close relations with the military to aid the prosecution of the “war on terror.” There were three critical things we were able to assist the military with in Afghanistan: interrogations/interviews; field-expedient fingerprinting, aided by advancements in digital technology; and DNA collection from high-value targets and dead enemy combatants. The military had very little experience at the time with these matters.
What I gained from my time in Afghanistan was better appreciation for just how the enemy fights, how the enemy thinks. I felt there were valuable lessons learned from witnessing U.S. Special Forces in action confronting the problem at the source, degrading their personnel resources there as opposed to here. These unique experiences left me convinced that cooperation was essential for this fight. It’s why the U.S. military embeds officers on FBI JTTFs.
CTC: As the FBI’s Crisis Management Coordinator for New York between 2005 and 2008, overseeing the response to terrorist attacks that involved supervision of the SWAT Team and the Hazardous Materials Response Team, what kept you up at night?
Gagliano: Two things. One, a suitcase nuclear device set off in Manhattan, which, while very unlikely, is everyone’s worst nightmare. And two, the detonation of a dirty bomb or radiological device. While this would not necessarily lead to significant loss of life, it would create panic, which would be very hard to manage. Beyond isolating and cleaning up the site, the most important part of the response to such an attack is good communication with the general public to reassure them about the threat. I also worried about chemical or gas attacks in New York. Another issue with such events was that before consequence managers could be brought in, our responding officers conducting tactical resolution would need to wear bio-hazard suits, which results in more difficulty in engaging in potential firefights with any terrorists remaining inside the crisis site.
What helps me to sleep at night now is the sheer numbers of professional law enforcement personnel in the city focused on the threats and prepared to immediately respond in New York. CTC
[a] Editor’s note: James M. Fox, the head of the FBI’s New York Office, was quoted at the time as saying, “we entered so fast, some of the subjects didn’t know we were in the bomb factory until they were in handcuffs.” Robert McFadden, “Specter of Terror: The Overview: 8 seized as Suspects in Plot to Bomb New York Targets and Kill Political Figures,” New York Times, June 25, 1993.
[b] Editor’s note: In late 1999, Kashmiri terrorists linked to al-Qa`ida hijacked an Indian passenger jet en route from Nepal to India. The plane eventually landed in Taliban-controlled Kandahar. After several days of negotiations, the hostages were released, after India acceded to demands to release several terrorists from prison. The attackers killed one hostage. Celia W. Duggar, “Hostages Recall Times of Terror Amid Boredom,” New York Times, January 2, 2000.
[c] Editor’s note: Nearly all those killed in the Bataclan attack were killed in the first 20 minutes of the attack. The killing stopped after two local patrol officers entered the concert hall. The attackers responded by barricading themselves inside a corridor with hostages. See Paul Cruickshank, “The Inside Story of the Paris and Brussels Attacks,” CNN, March 30, 2016, and Simon Piel, Emeline Cazi, and Soren Seelow, “Attentats de Paris: l’assaut du Bataclan, raconté heure par heure,” Le Monde, December 30, 2015.
 See Paul Cruickshank, “The Inside Story of the Paris and Brussels Attacks,” CNN, March 30, 2016, and Simon Piel, Emeline Cazi, and Soren Seelow, “Attentats de Paris: l’assaut du Bataclan, raconté heure par heure,” Le Monde, December 30, 2015.
 For more detail on the police response to the Columbine massacre, see “What Really Happened at Columbine,” CBS 60 Minutes, April 17, 2001, and Timothy Egan, “School Attack May Bring Changes in Police Tactics,” New York Times, April 28, 1999.