ALUMNI | As an FBI operative, Ray Holcomb, AS ‘71, has been “knuckle to knuckle” with fanatical jihadists, Taliban members, young American radicals and shrewd terrorism facilitators.
His 23-year career started with the fight against drug dealers and corrupt officials in the American South and ended with the war against fanatics across the globe. He helped capture the terrorists behind the 1993 assault on the World Trade Center, investigated the bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998 and pursued the killers of the American sailors who died in the attack on the USS Cole in 2000.
Holcomb has spent nights in Afghan shacks with dirt floors, engaged in the high-speed pursuit of criminals and shared office space with two of the most notorious spies in FBI history, Robert Hanssen and Earl Pitts.
Now retired from the bureau, he recounts these and many other harrowing experiences in his recently released book, Endless Enemies: Inside FBI Counterterrorism (Potomac Books).
It was Holcomb’s childhood dream to be an FBI agent, he says: “I watched Efrem Zimbalist Jr. on TV, and I knew that I wanted to be just like him.”
That dream was reinforced when Holcomb was working on a New Jersey mosquito control crew during a summer break from UD.
“I was in a diner one day with the rest of the guys when a very fit guy sporting a crew cut and wearing a tropical-weight suit came in,” he says. “All of a sudden, there was a crash in the kitchen, and he literally leaped over the counter and ran out the back door. It turned out that he and three other agents were pursuing a fugitive. I knew that was what I wanted to do some day.”
Holcomb earned a law degree after finishing his undergraduate studies in history at UD and practiced law for nine years. Then, one year shy of his 35th birthday—the cutoff point for joining the bureau—he got the call he had been waiting for. After that, he says, there was never a day in his life that he didn’t look forward to going to work.
But the FBI that Holcomb joined in the 1980s was far different from the one he left almost a generation later. On his first assignment in Athens, Ga., he writes, he “experienced the culture shock of the Ku Klux Klan on parade, poverty and incest, moonshiners turned drug dealers, voting fraud and police corruption.”
Later, he moved to the bureau’s New York City office, where he conducted counterintelligence against the Soviet Union during the Cold War, arrested organized crime figures and worked as a counter-narcotics agent. During this same period, he spent 14 years with the New York division’s special weapons and tactics (SWAT) team, eventually becoming the first full-time SWAT team leader and coordinator.
Holcomb was working in Yemen on that gorgeous September morning when airplanes were transformed into weapons of mass destruction in the U.S. In fact, it was the weather that alerted him to the significance of the fiery crashes. “I knew it was much too clear for any aircraft to accidentally strike those towers,” he says. Two months later, he returned to a drastically altered Manhattan with his own perspective equally changed.
In 2002, he joined the federal trial team preparing for the prosecution of terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui. Later that year, he created an elite counterterrorism unit known as the Fly Team—a kind of “super squad for terror.” This assignment took him to locations ranging from Cuba, Indonesia and West Africa to Afghanistan, Turkey, Yemen—and some places he can’t mention.
But one thing Holcomb can talk about is his admiration for the agility of the FBI at reinventing itself in a time of momentous change.
He sums it up in the book: “I was with the bureau for almost 23 years. During that period, I witnessed a metamorphosis from the J. Edgar Hoover days of six-shooter-toting, fedora-wearing G-men hell-bent on catching bank robbers and top-10 most-wanted fugitives to an organization committed to stopping terrorist attacks of a scope and nature unlike anything America had ever seen.”
Holcomb retired in 2006 when he reached the bureau’s mandatory retirement age of 57 and now works as a terrorism consultant assisting the federal government, as well as states and the private sector, in analyzing counterterrorism preparedness.
The book arose out of what he says was his restlessness at finding himself ill prepared to turn in his badge and his need to explain his career to his children, who often woke to find their father gone for days, weeks and even months. He also knew that he had a lot of interesting stories to share—cooking and eating spaghetti with a high-level Mafia snitch, sharing shots of moonshine saved as “evidence” with sheriffs in small Southern towns and being locked down in Yemen after 9/11, living on a diet of flatbread, canned tuna and peanut butter.
He says the writing was cathartic, and he gradually came to see that there might be a market for his story. He collaborated with friend and fellow attorney Lillian Weiss, and the two put together a book that not only tells tales of terrorism but also paints pictures of people and places across the U.S. that most Americans have never seen.
In a chapter titled “Men in White Sheets,” for example, they write of Holcomb seeing firsthand the “underbelly of the Peach State…marketed to the rest of the country as warm and friendly, the land of civility and Southern courtesy.”
Despite his illustrious career, Holcomb remains humble. With his unerring ability to show up at the center of an incredible number of headline-making events, his wife jokingly calls him the Forrest Gump of the FBI.
While working for the FBI was exciting and fulfilling, he says, he also recalls with great fondness “the other greatest period of my life”—playing football at UD for coach Tubby Raymond. In fact, he says, the FBI filled a gap that opened up in his life when his four-year college football career was over.
“I missed the camaraderie and the teamwork,” he says. “I had an almost weekly dream after my last season. I could hear the game starting, but I couldn’t find my helmet. I would wake up in a sweat. Starting with my first night at the FBI Academy, that dream never returned.”
Article by Diane Kukich, AS ’73, ’84M