After the terrorist attacks on the United States of America by Al Qaeda terrorists on September 11, 2001 there were only three official federal law enforcement counterterrorist teams in the United States: the original being the United States Marshal Service Special Operations Group formed in 1971 (an organization I officially trained on numerous occasions out of the San Diego, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C. offices), the FBI Hostage Rescue Team founded in 1982 in preparation for the Los Angeles Olympic Games (I have not trained the HRT, but I have trained a couple of their FBI regional S.W.A.T. teams, notably the Los Angeles and Phoenix offices), and the United States Federal Air Marshal Service created in 1968 (where I was a federal agent). Of course there were numerous federal Anti-Terrorist Task Forces around the country at the time as well as military counterterrorist teams, but federal military teams are legally not allowed to operate on American soil in a law enforcement capacity.
After 9/11 the United States government believed that there was going to be many more attacks on American carriers and suicide bombings in American airports. The government was desperate for qualified active law enforcement or military personnel who were recently discharged. Initially the priority in the hiring process was to recruit anyone with special operations experience as was indicated on the original application form. I ranked as HIGHLY QUALIFIED and was therefore selected for the U.S. Federal Air Marshal Service program under the authority of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The Department of Homeland Security did not exist until a few months later on November 25, 2002.
A day after the infamous attacks, September 12, 2001, I was serving as a Reserve Sergeant for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department (Level 1 Reserve Designate with full police powers due to my Intermediate P.O.S.T. Certificate Municipal Police. This certificate is issued after the P.O.S.T. Basic Certificate only after 5 years of full-time police service, and only after accomplishing all Advanced Officer Training AOT). The Orange County Sheriff’s Department, the fifth largest in the United States had approximately 2,000 full-time deputies and 200 Reserve deputies. my position at that time was that of a Team Leader and instructor (bodyguard tactics, advances, and defensive tactics) for the Dignitary Protection Unit (a ten-man team) under Sergeant Wilfred Moreno and Captain John Hensley (Reserve).
The day after the attacks I was assigned to the John Wayne Airport Sheriff Sub Station in Orange County California. At the requested of the Incident Commander Sergeant I gave a morning briefing to over 20 deputy sheriffs, the regional FBI, the Federal Aviation Administration, and airport authorities, because I had just returned from instructing and receiving training from the Israeli military and police on radical Islamic terrorism. I also had extensive training with American and European anti and counterterrorist units. As such I was assigned as the supervisor of the main check point for all traffic coming into the airport. It was here that I, and my deputies, conducted field interviews and bomb searches of all vehicles coming into the airport. I was photographed by a journalist from the Orange County Register newspaper and I appeared on the front page on September 13, 2001; proof of my direct involvement in the security of the United States directly following the attacks.
While at the Sheriff’s Department I applied for the position of United States Air Marshal, and I was selected. The government sent me to the William J. Hughes Technical Center in Atlantic City, New Jersey. At this location FAA instructors taught me and my group aviation security, how to handle and dispose of explosives on aircraft, and about world terrorist organizations.
I was then sent to the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center Office of Artesia Operations FLETC, New Mexico where I was assigned to class A TSATP-206B from March 14, 2002 to April 11, 2002. Phase One of the training was a new program for FLETC. Never before had the government trained so many agents at one time in counterterrorism. The facility was literally training hundreds of agents every week. Most of the courses centered around live-fire firearms training (for qualification as well as domestic and foreign ground conflict scenarios), foreign weapons familiarization, terrorism case studies, and some mandatory federal law enforcement courses such as constitutional law, sexual harassment, and report writing. I qualified as an EXPERT on the Practical Pistol Course and I also received an Academic Award for having achieved an average score of 97.68 on all written examinations. It was because of this counterterrorism heavy curriculum that the FAMs (Federal Air Marshals) were not eligible to lateral transfer over to other federal agencies strictly on their FLETC training. A normal FLETC academy is good for multiple agencies. Next was a Transportation Security Administration Follow on Basic course from April 12, 2002 to April 17, 2002 with class A TSAFB-216B.
During my initial counterterrorism training at FLETC I had the good fortune to have Greg Thompson as one of my Combatives instructors. Greg Thompson was a black belt directly under Royce Gracie and a Level IV instructor in the Modern Army Combatives Program, and the creator of his own H2H (Hand to Hand Combat system), which he introduced into the FAM program.
Greg Thompson signed his book for me, and in it he wrote, “After 9/11 I was hired to teach the United States Federal Air Marshals hand-to-hand combat. I was, and I still am, very proud to have had the opportunity to train and advise them. The best-of-the-best came together to help teach those in the war on terrorism, and our students learned the most effective tactics and techniques at that time. Jim Wagner was one of those students that came through the training at the program’s peak.”
Greg Thompson told me that “at the program’s peak,” when I was going through FLETC, that the government decided to cut the H2H training and go with mere basics. They justified the change because they wanted the Air Marshals to get the H2H training in the Field Offices, but that never materialized as intended. After FLETC Greg Thompson went on to write the book H2H published in 2006 and invented the Defenseband; a self-defense watch band used like a sleeve choke.
Phase Two of my training was the Federal Air Marshal training. This included live-fire shoot house training, Simunitions (FX) training in various aircraft and airport environments, hands-on surveillance courses that included exercises among the public in the city of Artesia, bomb searching and identification for both land and aircraft operations, armed and unarmed defensive tactics, team tactics, and updates on how the new Department of Homeland Security and newly revised U.S. Federal Air Marshal program would run (the program was taken out of the hands of the FAA and placed under a new authority).
On April 18, 2002 I graduated with honors (Academic Award achieving the average score of 97.68 and qualifying as EXPERT on the Practical Pistol Course), and I was sworn in as a full-time Federal Agent and given my badge, handcuffs, and a gun. Upon graduating the two academies and being sworn in, we in Class 206 A and B were all told by the academy commander that we were officially part of Operation Enduring Freedom and that “you are the country’s counterterrorists in the skies.”
I, Federal Agent Wagner, was assigned to the FAM Los Angeles Field Office; one of the largest cities in America, and one of Al Qaeda’s self proclaimed targets (eventually they did hit it while I was off duty that day when an Egyptian terrorist, armed to the teeth, ran up to the El Al airlines ticket counter and murdered a few people). The Los Angeles Field office proudly displayed the new FAM logo pinned up on a wall at the El Toro Marine Air Station with the words wrapped around it that read, "Operation Enduring Freedom."
After only three days of filling out forms and learning how to do federal travel vouchers my team and I were out doing missions at the Los Angeles International Airport. The men and women on my team were well trained agents on the front line on the Global War on Terrorism ready to confront the nation’s enemies both domestically and internationally. The job of the early FAMs was not only to fly on American air carriers in teams to "neutralize" terrorist threats, but the job also included airport surveillance and finding weaknesses in the aviation security system. Al Qaeda was constantly testing the aviation system during the time that I was a Federal Air Marshal.
During my service in the Los Angeles office agents from the German Air Marshals approached me wanting advice on defensive tactics in aircraft for their new program. These were friends of mine when I had trained the tactics instructors of the GSG9 and then later on their own group at the Bundespolitzeischule (Federal Police Academy) in Lubeck before the Global War on Terrorism had started. Just a year and a half earlier I had been flown to Germany to teach all of the federal academy instructors on the use of Simunitions (FX) and help establish their training program using the new system. Many of these men were the same instructors who headed up the German Air Marshal program.
On a hot summer day at the John Wayne Airport (SNA) one of my team members, FAM Shawn Black, phoned me up on his government cell phone just before a rendezvous for a mission and told me, "Jim, I am being followed by some Middle Eastern men. I believe they are terrorists. Do me a favor and set up a counter-surveillance when you come into the airport. I am at carousel 2. How many minutes before you are here?"
I went up to the second floor and observed my team member below who acting like he was waiting for some luggage. There was a Middle Eastern man talking on the phone. Shawn was on the phone with me, but playing it cool acting like he was just talking to a friend to let him know where to pick him up at. When Shawn started to move to the carousel in the next terminal the suspect started following him. From what I had learned about conducting a surveillance from the London Metropolitan Police and counter-surveillance courses with the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center I knew this was definitely a bad guy I was watching.
We didn't want to “burn our cover,” so we had the Airport Police, the Orange County Sheriff's Department, respond to the terminal where the man in question was starting to exit the building – without any luggage. A female deputy sheriff arrived and made contact with the man I had kept under observation. I never did see the second suspect Agent Black spoke about. Unfortunately the female deputy had apparently never received any anti-terrorism training, for she spoke with the suspect for a mere thirty seconds, and then let the man go. The procedure was to bring the man, with sufficient back-up, into the sub station and let me and my partner question him. It was just one of many blunders that would happen between agencies in the early years proceeding 9/11.
Also recalling that event at John Wayne Airport Agent Black stated, "Many of our past and current Federal Air Marshal Missions are still classified. During several of our past missions I had the fortunate experience of serving with Agent Jim Wagner. While serving together on one particular domestic counterterrorism mission several years ago, our own team including Agent Jim Wagner, was under surveillance from Al Qaeda related associates. Agent Wagner's past experience and quick thinking as a former patrol and S.W.A.T. Officer proved instrumental in the continued success of the mission and the continued success of the Federal Air Marshal Service."
A few years later Agent Shawn Black left the Federal Air Marshals and did two tours in Iraq. His last tour in 2008 was with the United States Department of State. He then went on to be a bodyguard for many Hollywood celebrities.
Another exciting day on the job as a FAM was when I spotted a Pakistani man doing surveillance on an aircraft bound for Washington, D.C. I followed him into the aircraft with his team and blended in with the boarding passengers. Upon my signal I, with my team covering me, took the man into custody. The rest of the team secured the aircraft and searched for other possible suspects.
Not knowing if it the suspect's briefcase contained a bomb or not, and not having the luxury of calling a bomb squad should there be a second terrorist in the plane with a cell phone who could activate it remotely, I said a quick silent prayer and opened the briefcase immediately while in the middle of the jetway. Fortunately there was no bomb inside. However, upon searching the contents of the briefcase I found suspicious documentation inside. The unorganized papers, that seemed to have been just thrown into the briefcase haphazardly, contained unusual diagrams that I did not understand, even though I had taken years of architectural, mechanical, and electrical drafting in school. When I pressed my prisoner for an answer the man nervously spouted off, "They have to do with nuclear!" and he would not elaborate further. He refused to answer any more questions. Two hours later the FBI whisked the man off.
I was never given any further information about the man that I took off of the aircraft. I don’t know what happen to the man I pulled off of that plane. I don’t know if he had plans for a nuclear weapon or a dirty bomb. He could have been a legitimate scientist. I’ll never know, but I did my part in fighting the Global War on Terrorism. At least I stepped up to the plate at a time when my country needed fighters.
After I completed 146 Federal Air Marshal missions, suspicious activity started dying down in the aviation sector. At the same time my monthly column HIGH RISK in Black Belt magazine, and my regularly feature articles in Budo magazine in Europe (in five different languages) were becoming increasingly popular. Since writing for these two publications, first in 1999 and then in 2000, the martial arts community was finally awakening to the real threats society was facing thanks my reality-based techniques and training methods that are based upon military, police, and special operations training.
In conjunction with several other events happening at the time, I decided to resign from the federal government working my last day on September 11, 2003 - the one year anniversary of the terrorist attacks. You can only tail so many people, fly back and forth so many times before it gets a little repetitive. In addition, the FAM higher-ups, all former Secret Service agents, were starting to put too many restrictions on the FAMS, and officer safety was being compromised. It was no longer the "elite team" I had originally joined, and so I left. I went back to HSS International to train law enforcement agencies and military unit again.
A couple of months later, on January 21, 2003, I parted ways with HSS International and started the Jim Wagner Reality-Based Personal Protection system.
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