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Tracking the Terror


By Kristen Matthew

How a web browser and a fascination with 9/11 turned Nelson-based author Paul Thompson into a world terrorism authority

The Sunday Star Times
March 13, 2005

Paul Thompson is occasionally overwhelmed. “I've had to deal with burnout,” the New Zealand-based American author says. “It's very negative material and can be very frustrating. I have to take breaks.”

Thompson is a terrorism expert, and burnout, as he calls it, is an occupational hazard. As the author of The Terror Timeline, a history of terrorism leading up to the World Trade Center in 2001, he deals daily with grave and shocking information.

It's not a job he trained for. Thompson, who is in his mid-30's, studied psychology and political science at Stanford, and was working as an environmentalist in Berkeley, California, specializing in saving South-East Asian rain forests, when the September 11, 2001, attack occurred. Like most “reasonably informed” people, he says, he began to read extensively about the event.

Then, in May 2002, it came out that President Bush had been warned about an imminent act of terrorism, specifically in an August 2001 briefing titled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US.” The news galvanized Thompson.

“I went online and found obscure stories from reputable sources that were really astounding,” he says.

“The government seemed to be covering up embarrassing information. I started making the timeline as a way for myself to understand.”

“Then after a while it snowballed, got bigger and bigger. That interest eventually took over.”

By early last year, Thompson was completely preoccupied with his research. He quit his job to work on it, and resolved to move to New Zealand. He had been here on holiday and liked it, and his work now required only a computer and an internet connection, so he moved to Nelson.

“I'm very impressed with New Zealand,” he says. “It is going in a great direction and I don't think the US is. I would rather be a part of what's happening here.”

Thompson has compiled a hoard of dates, facts, and figures from more than 5,000 news articles. People email him information they have found online, and he has help from the Center for Cooperative Research in California, which has published the timeline on its website. More recently it has come out in book form, from Harper Collins. The book is not for sale here yet, and may never be thanks to our rigorous libel laws, but can be seen at or purchased online [US only - eds].

The Terror Timeline in unsettling reading. The 20 chapters are laid out chronologically and chart the development of Islamic fundamentalism, al Qaeda's plans, and myriad governmental inefficiencies in the years up to 2001 and since. A section that seeks to show that many Muslims and US citizens knew of a planned attack on American soil well before it happened is particularly compelling: for example, in July 2001 a New York taxi driver told a reporter from the Village Voice that al-Qaeda planned to strike in August or September; a Middle Eastern child at a school in New Jersey warned his teachers to stay away from downtown Manhattan; three men in a Florida bar boasted of “impending bloodshed” the night before the attack.

These claims have an air of urban myth, but Thompson has used only mainstream media sources, and has checked each piece of information with its news source.

Thompson also writes about how the mainstream media failed to do their job after September 11. That irks him still, and spurs him on in his work.

“There's a remarkable lack of interest in 9/11 by most journalists and media organizations,” he says.

“It's fascinating, because it's such an important event, but it's like we can't pay journalists enough money to do anything with it. People aren't covering the kind of stories that need to be written.”

“There are some real psychological barriers to people, especially Americans, looking into and talking about 9/11.”

“People see this as very painful; they want to move on. They want to believe the government did a good job, that 9/11 wasn't stoppable. Think how heart-breaking it is for all those people who lost family to know that it could have been easily avoidable.”

There is no doubt that the attack could have been prevented, Thompson says, and he is non-partisan in his distribution of blame. President Clinton was slow to make terrorism a priority, he says, and once he did, all his good work was undone by George W. Bush.

The current government's behaviour is “criminally negligent,” Thompson says.

While he is quick to give his opinions on US politics - he calls the findings of the 9/11 Commission “a complete whitewash” and finds it hard to believe the American public was “fooled” into believing Bush deserved another term—Thompson never gets irate or over-excited.

He is a man obsessed, a zealot even, but he is not a hysteric, and he is careful to keep a considered countenance. “As someone trained in the scientific method, I want to keep an open mind and perspective,” he says.

His even temper may explain his popularity as an interviewee: since the book's publication Thompson has appeared on the right-leaning Fox News and the left-wing Air America. He has done more than 100 radio interviews in the US and was profiled in Esquire magazine's “Genius” issue last December.

He was pleased to hear last month that Richard Clarke, the US government's head of counterterrorism under Clinton and Bush Jr., has put The Terror Timeline on his required reading list for his terrorism class at Harvard.

Thompson says he'd like to return to environmentalism, but there is too much to uncover in the world of terrorism, enough for him to spend eight hours a day at the computer for the foreseeable future. “I'd never in a million years have thought I'd get into this. But I have to try to do all I can to inform people, so they realize what is happening.”

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