Tinker Tailor Soldier Agent

For nearly two decades, Harold Shaw has worked some of the FBI’s most high-profile cases, rising from rookie field agent to CIA liaison to leader of the bureau’s Boston Division. As he has evolved, so has the FBI.


Five years ago, on a warm, clear day in July, Rezwanul Ahsan Nafis walked through Central Park bound for an important meeting. The 21-year-old Bangladeshi had entered the U.S. seven months earlier on a student visa. Slightly built and boyish looking, he had studied briefly at a Missouri college but soon dropped out and was living in Queens, N.Y., sharing a secondfloor apartment in Jamaica. Crossing the bosky park in upper Manhattan, Nafis approached his rendezvous. He didn’t know his contact but was told the man worked for Al-Qaeda.

The two met, and Nafis began discussing his plans. He told his contact he had recruited two co-conspirators and wanted to carry out a terrorist attack against America. Nafis explained that he wasn’t interested in a small gesture. He wanted to do something big. “Something very big. Very, very, very, very big that will shake the whole country.”

Three months later, in mid-October 2012, Nafis and an accomplice drove a Chevy Astro van to a warehouse on eastern Long Island. Nafis planned to discharge a 1,000-pound bomb later that day outside the U.S. Federal Reserve building in New York. Several days earlier, Nafis had stashed a cache of ammonium-nitrate-like material inside the warehouse. Now Nafis began rigging his device. Working methodically, he opened nearly twenty 50-pound bags and dumped their contents into plastic garbage bins. With the bins stowed in the back of the van, he assembled a detonator, rigging it with a cell-phone trigger. Before he closed the van’s doors, he threw the empty fertilizer bags into the back, telling his accomplice he hoped any trace residue would add to the explosion.

The two men then drove into New York’s financial district in lower Manhattan. They parked the van on Liberty Street next to the Federal Reserve, then walked four blocks to the Millennium Hilton. From a private room, Nafis used a second cell phone to call his bomb. Inside the van, the detonator’s cellphone trigger flashed with the incoming call. But the bomb didn’t explode. Nafis dialed the number a second and third time. Still, nothing happened.

As court documents reveal, Nafis’ accomplice was an FBI informant. His Central Park contact wasn’t a member of Al-Qaeda, but an undercover FBI agent. At the hotel, Nafis was arrested by agents working as part of an interagency Joint Terrorism Task Force of the FBI and more than 50 federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies. He later confessed and was sentenced to 30 years in prison. The man who wielded the net — the operation leader who oversaw months of complex intelligence, surveillance, and undercover work by dozens of agents, analysts, technicians, and officers — was FBI agent Harold Shaw.

Fast-forward to present-day greater Boston. It’s a Monday afternoon in mid-March. Harold “Hank” Shaw ’88 is standing in his corner office of the FBI’s new eight-story Boston Division headquarters in Chelsea, Mass. The building is so new that the requisite photos of President Trump and then-FBI Director James Comey were only put up the previous week. The decorations came just in time for a two-day visit by Comey, in town in part to press the flesh with agency staffers and attend a ribboncutting for the new HQ. The event, which drew dignitaries from Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker to Cardinal Seán Patrick O’Malley, capped a flurry of activity for Shaw and his staff.

Only today, a real blizzard is heading their way, ready to dump over a foot of snow on parts of New England and grind the city to a temporary halt. But for the time being, the day is bright, and the room’s government-issue blinds are closed against the glare, shutting out the view of Tobin Bridge, the Mystic River, and the Boston city skyline. For the next two hours — an eternity, a blink — the Norwich alum takes questions about his career and the challenges he faces today as special agent in charge of the Boston Division.

Shaw took the post in 2015. Before then, he worked mostly on counterterrorism in New York and spent time in Washington, D.C., as one of the bureau’s first liaisons to the CIA. Investigations into the USS Cole bombing in Yemen and the 9/11 terror attacks took him overseas. He also managed investigative efforts into the 2012 attack on the U.S. Mission in Benghazi, Libya. Today as the FBI’s Boston Division chief, Shaw leads 600 field agents, intelligence analysts, technicians, and professional support staff in 10 satellite offices spread across four states — Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Maine.

Topping his concerns are the national-security threats of espionage and international and domestic terrorism. In the wake of 9/11, the FBI has focused on using every available resource to prevent domestic terror attacks, cultivating its ability to gather and share intelligence with a wide range of partner agencies.

Shaw cites partnerships and relationships often enough that he can sound at times like a marriage counselor. The FBI’s Boston Division lends its muscle to task forces focused on counterterrorism, counterespionage, violent crimes, gangs, crimes against children, and chicanery by large financial institutions, just to name a few. There’s “virtually nothing” the bureau does today that isn’t part of a task-force environment, Shaw says. “Nobody’s going to have all the money that they’re going to need, all the people that they’re going to need,” he says. “We need to work together.”

The Boston Division also plays a never-ending game of whack-a-mole with a non-exhaustive list of local and transnational gangs, drug traffickers, cyber hackers, spies, transnational crime syndicates, white-collar criminals, embezzlers, swindlers, child pornographers, murderers, kidnappers, human traffickers, bank robbers, and art thieves. “Our portfolio is rather large. The threats are complex,” he says, seated at his desk. “In some instances, if we’re not doing it, nobody’s looking at it.”

As special agent in charge, Shaw reaches out far beyond law-enforcement partners to build relationships. He’s as likely to appear at MIT, Harvard Law, and Harvard Business School as he is to speak at a breakfast of the local Chelsea Chamber of Commerce. While he regularly attends the monthly gathering of the New England major metro-area police chiefs, he also meets with multicultural boards and leaders of minority communities to hear their concerns. “It’s always a struggle to make sure that we’re touching everyone that we need to touch,” Shaw says, adding that he’s always asking the question, “Who do I need to meet with as a leader of this office?”

In some ways, Shaw’s quest to meet and connect with as many players as possible is an act of preparing for the worst. During a crisis, you need friends and you need partners, says John “Jay” Fallon, a former 20-year FBI agent, who now leads the New England High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a major federal interagency drug enforcement program. (Shaw sits on its executive board.) Those relationships, Fallon adds, need to be established “long before the crisis begins.” “Everyone knows…you can’t go it alone,” Shaw says.

The FBI, like the military, promotes from within. Shaw was chosen from the bureau’s 15,000 employees to lead one of its 56 field divisions. That suggests Shaw is likely not only a skilled investigator and manager of people and resources, but “more than adept” at relating to journalists, politicians, law-enforcement partners, and federal prosecutors, says Anne Buttimer, a former FBI agent and prosecutor who now teaches criminal justice at Norwich University. “Without knowing him at all, I would know that he would have to have outstanding leadership skills.” People who know and work with Shaw agree. Fallon describes Special Agent in Charge Shaw as hardworking, dedicated, smart, tenacious, and detail oriented.

The eldest of five siblings, Shaw grew up in a blue-collar neighborhood in Weymouth, Mass., just outside Boston. The Shaw household revolved around sports, hard work, and academics. In high school, Shaw played hockey for Boston College High and continued at Norwich University in Northfield, Vt., earning a starting slot on the varsity team as a freshman. Former captain Don O’Neill, a friend and teammate, describes Shaw then as straightforward, helpful, and hardworking. Thomas Benson, another friend and fellow captain, says, “He was really just very, I don’t want to say straight-laced, but very strict. He had a goal in mind, and he stuck to the plan.”

Throughout his career, Shaw has had a knack for being in the right place at the right time. He commissioned into the Army after Norwich, serving nine years as an officer in the first Gulf War and at posts in the U.S. and overseas. Leading soldiers and being led shaped him. Shaw says he was fortunate to serve under two seasoned leaders — Colonel Martin Dempsey, who would later become Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and Lieutenant Colonel Robert Cone, another future general. “[Cone] was one of those guys that without yelling, without theatrics, folks would run through walls for,” Shaw says. “I always found it interesting. What set him apart? What made him so talented in terms of being able to motivate, inspire, and be able to get the mission accomplished?” Shaw reflects that the mild-spoken Cone was hugely capable in everything he did. “Tactically and technically proficient, physically fit — you name it. He would be one of those guys that would always be able to win everything,” Shaw says. “He was just naturally gifted.” Shaw had a ringside seat, observing how both colonels addressed and handled people and developed and applied vision.

Near the end of his Army service, Shaw heard from an old friend from basic and advanced officers school who had played football at Oklahoma State. “He had just gotten into the FBI and was really high on it,” Shaw recalls. The friend put Shaw in touch with a recruiter, and “it all seemed to work out.” Newly married, Shaw entered the FBI Academy at Quantico, Va., and emerged 16 weeks later as a 31-year-old field agent, gold shield and Glock .40 S&W in hand. That story — of good things coming from friendships, contacts, and networks — is a familiar refrain for Shaw.

As a rookie agent, Shaw was posted to the New York office. The year was 1999. It was still a time when six agents would share a single computer and they would dictate notes and case reports to the steno pool. Shaw was paired with a talented training agent and worked on organized crime wiretaps, drug and gang arrests, and high-profile counterterrorism surveillances. A year later, he was assigned to USS Cole investigation. In 2000, Al Qaeda terrorists rammed a bomb-laden speedboat into the U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer in Aden, Yemen, killing 17 service members and injuring 39. “A lot of the work that I did in support of the investigation wasn’t necessarily glamorous,” Shaw says. The FBI leveraged his ability to coordinate and prepare manifests, move people in and out of theater, and lend investigative support wherever necessary.

The following year, Shaw was sent to Yemen a second time, spending five weeks there supporting the investigation in the late summer. The day after returning home, he put in an early morning run and went into the New York office to catch up on paperwork. It was Tuesday, September 11, 2001. Shortly after 8:46 a.m., he heard a loud explosion. The first hijacked plane had just flown into the north tower of the World Trade Center. Shaw was five blocks away. The phone in his squad area rang. On the other end, an assistant special agent in charge asked Shaw and four colleagues to go to the scene and report what they saw. They grabbed their radios and ran into the chaos.

Shaw and his wife of 19 years have four school-aged children. The night before we met at his office in Chelsea, a Sunday, Shaw was standing on the sidelines at one of his daughter’s soccer tournaments in Epping, N.H., in air hovering at 21 degrees Fahrenheit. His Saturdays can turn into 12-hour marathons of kids’ athletic events. Shaw prefers to keep his work and private lives separate. But the job inevitably intrudes.

During his first months as Boston Division chief, Shaw got a call at home one Sunday morning. It was the Worcester field office, calling to relay news of a break-in at a local National Guard armory. A thief or thieves had stolen six M-4 assault rifles and 10 SIG Sauer 9mm pistols. Forty-eight hours earlier in Paris, terrorists had executed a series of attacks, bombing a soccer stadium in the northern suburb of Saint-Denis and opening fire inside a nightclub, killing 130. There was a possibility, however remote, that the Worcester armory theft was a precursor to a similar attack. “Everyone was walking on eggshells right off the bat, from the governor on down,” Shaw recalls. He drove immediately to the Massachusetts State House to update partner agencies and was soon whisked into a news conference with Governor Baker and the heads of the Massachusetts State Police and the Massachusetts Port Authority.

The FBI worked the case, beginning with the simple question, “What do we know?” Agents secured the scene, pulled security camera footage, and began establishing and compiling the facts. The crime was soon linked to a 34-yearold Army Reservist. Four days after the break-in, James Morales was arrested by Nassau County police officers on Long Island. The rifles were also accounted for. The case highlights “the beauty of what the FBI can bring to the table,” Shaw says. “A ton of work that was done through a number of different agencies.”

A week and a half after I met Shaw at his office in Chelsea, the FBI Boston Division released a story and photo announcing the recovery of two stolen Super Bowl jerseys worn by New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. A wide-ranging investigation with help from multiple partner agencies had traced the jerseys to Mexico and the property of media executive Martin Mauricio Ortega, where Mexican authorities recovered the jerseys. In the photo accompanying the announcement, Shaw smiles for the camera, holding one of the two #12 jerseys on display. Beside him stand billionaire team owner Robert Kraft and a towering Massachusetts State Police Colonel Richard D. McKeon. It’s the kind of feel-good, “G-man solves the case” story former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover would have loved. But in its small way, it also tells another kind of story — a story about teamwork.

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