The Counterterrorist Myth

A former CIA operative explains why the terrorist Usama bin Ladin has little to fear from American intelligence

The United States has spent billions of dollars on counterterrorism since the U.S. embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya, in August of 1998. Tens of millions have been spent on covert operations specifically targeting Usama bin Ladin and his terrorist organization, al-Qa'ida. Senior U.S. officials boldly claim—even after the suicide attack last October on the USS Cole, in the port of Aden—that the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are clandestinely "picking apart" bin Ladin's organization "limb by limb." But having worked for the CIA for nearly nine years on Middle Eastern matters (I left the Directorate of Operations because of frustration with the Agency's many problems), I would argue that America's counterterrorism program in the Middle East and its environs is a myth.

Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan's Northwest Frontier, is on the cultural periphery of the Middle East. It is just down the Grand Trunk Road from the legendary Khyber Pass, the gateway to Afghanistan. Peshawar is where bin Ladin cut his teeth in the Islamic jihad, when, in the mid-1980s, he became the financier and logistics man for the Maktab al-Khidamat, The Office of Services, an overt organization trying to recruit and aid Muslim, chiefly Arab, volunteers for the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. The friendships and associations made in The Office of Services gave birth to the clandestine al-Qa'ida, The Base, whose explicit aim is to wage a jihad against the West, especially the United States.

According to Afghan contacts and Pakistani officials, bin Ladin's men regularly move through Peshawar and use it as a hub for phone, fax, and modem communication with the outside world. Members of the embassy-bombing teams in Africa probably planned to flee back to Pakistan. Once there they would likely have made their way into bin Ladin's open arms through al-Qa'ida's numerous friends in Peshawar. Every tribe and region of Afghanistan is represented in this city, which is dominated by the Pathans, the pre-eminent tribe in the Northwest Frontier and southern Afghanistan. Peshawar is also a power base of the Taliban, Afghanistan's fundamentalist rulers. Knowing the city's ins and outs would be indispensable to any U.S. effort to capture or kill bin Ladin and his closest associates. Intelligence collection on al-Qa'ida can't be of much real value unless the agent network covers Peshawar.

During a recent visit, at sunset, when the city's cloistered alleys go black except for an occasional flashing neon sign, I would walk through Afghan neighborhoods. Even in the darkness I had a case officer's worst sensation—eyes following me everywhere. To escape the crowds I would pop into carpet, copper, and jewelry shops and every cybercafé I could find. These were poorly lit one- or two-room walk-ups where young men surfed Western porn. No matter where I went, the feeling never left me. I couldn't see how the CIA as it is today had any chance of running a successful counterterrorist operation against bin Ladin in Peshawar, the Dodge City of Central Asia.

Westerners cannot visit the cinder-block, mud-brick side of the Muslim world—whence bin Ladin's foot soldiers mostly come—without announcing who they are. No case officer stationed in Pakistan can penetrate either the Afghan communities in Peshawar or the Northwest Frontier's numerous religious schools, which feed manpower and ideas to bin Ladin and the Taliban, and seriously expect to gather useful information about radical Islamic terrorism—let alone recruit foreign agents.

Even a Muslim CIA officer with native-language abilities (and the Agency, according to several active-duty case officers, has very few operatives from Middle Eastern backgrounds) could do little more in this environment than a blond, blue-eyed all-American. Case officers cannot long escape the embassies and consulates in which they serve. A U.S. official overseas, photographed and registered with the local intelligence and security services, can't travel much, particularly in a police-rich country like Pakistan, without the "host" services' knowing about it. An officer who tries to go native, pretending to be a true-believing radical Muslim searching for brothers in the cause, will make a fool of himself quickly.

In Pakistan, where the government's Inter-Services Intelligence Agency and the ruling army are competent and tough, the CIA can do little if these institutions are against it. And they are against it. Where the Taliban and Usama bin Ladin are concerned, Pakistan and the United States aren't allies. Relations between the two countries have been poor for years, owing to American opposition to Pakistan's successful nuclear-weapons program and, more recently, Islamabad's backing of Muslim Kashmiri separatists. Bin Ladin's presence in Afghanistan as a "guest" of the Pakistani-backed Taliban has injected even more distrust and suspicion into the relationship.

In other words, American intelligence has not gained and will not gain Pakistan's assistance in its pursuit of bin Ladin. The only effective way to run offensive counterterrorist operations against Islamic radicals in more or less hostile territory is with "non-official-cover" officers—operatives who are in no way openly attached to the U.S. government. Imagine James Bond minus the gadgets, the women, the Walther PPK, and the Aston Martin. But as of late 1999 no program to insert NOCs into an Islamic fundamentalist organization abroad had been implemented, according to one such officer who has served in the Middle East. "NOCs haven't really changed at all since the Cold War," he told me recently. "We're still a group of fake businessmen who live in big houses overseas. We don't go to mosques and pray."

A former senior Near East Division operative says, "The CIA probably doesn't have a single truly qualified Arabic-speaking officer of Middle Eastern background who can play a believable Muslim fundamentalist who would volunteer to spend years of his life with shitty food and no women in the mountains of Afghanistan. For Christ's sake, most case officers live in the suburbs of Virginia. We don't do that kind of thing." A younger case officer boils the problem down even further: "Operations that include diarrhea as a way of life don't happen."

Behind-the-lines counterterrorism operations are just too dangerous for CIA officers to participate in directly. When I was in the Directorate of Operations, the Agency would deploy a small army of officers for a meeting with a possibly dangerous foreigner if he couldn't be met in the safety of a U.S. embassy or consulate. Officers still in the clandestine service say that the Agency's risk-averse, bureaucratic nature—which mirrors, of course, the growing physical risk-aversion of American society—has only gotten worse.

A few miles from Peshawar's central bazaar, near the old Cantonment, where redcoats once drilled and where the U.S. consulate can be found, is the American Club, a traditional hangout for international-aid workers, diplomats, journalists, and spooks. Worn-out Western travelers often stop here on the way from Afghanistan to decompress; one can buy a drink, watch videos, order a steak. Security warnings from the American embassy are posted on the club's hallway bulletin board.

The bulletins I saw last December advised U.S. officials and their families to stay away from crowds, mosques, and anyplace else devout Pakistanis and Afghans might gather. The U.S. embassy in Islamabad, a fortress surrounded by roadblocks, Pakistani soldiers, and walls topped with security cameras and razor wire, strongly recommended a low profile—essentially life within the Westernized, high-walled Cantonment area or other spots where diplomats are unlikely to bump into fundamentalists.

Such warnings accurately reflect the mentality inside both the Department of State and the CIA. Individual officers may venture out, but their curiosity isn't encouraged or rewarded. Unless one of bin Ladin's foot soldiers walks through the door of a U.S. consulate or embassy, the odds that a CIA counterterrorist officer will ever see one are extremely poor.

The Directorate of Operations' history of success has done little to prepare the CIA for its confrontation with radical Islamic terrorism. Perhaps the DO's most memorable victory was against militant Palestinian groups in the 1970s and 1980s. The CIA could find common ground with Palestinian militants, who often drink, womanize, and spend time in nice hotels in pleasant, comfortable countries. Still, its "penetrations" of the PLO—delightfully and kindly rendered in David Ignatius's novel Agents of Innocence (1987)—were essentially emissaries from Yasir Arafat to the U.S. government.

Difficulties with fundamentalism and mud-brick neighborhoods aside, the CIA has stubbornly refused to develop cadres of operatives specializing in one or two countries. Throughout the Soviet-Afghan war (1979-1989) the DO never developed a team of Afghan experts. The first case officer in Afghanistan to have some proficiency in an Afghan language didn't arrive until 1987, just a year and a half before the war's end. Robert Baer, one of the most talented Middle East case officers of the past twenty years (and the only operative in the 1980s to collect consistently first-rate intelligence on the Lebanese Hizbollah and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad), suggested to headquarters in the early 1990s that the CIA might want to collect intelligence on Afghanistan from the neighboring Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union.

Headquarters' reply: Too dangerous, and why bother? The Cold War there was over with the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. Afghanistan was too far away, internecine warfare was seen as endemic, and radical Islam was an abstract idea. Afghanistan has since become the brain center and training ground for Islamic terrorism against the United States, yet the CIA's clandestine service still usually keeps officers on the Afghan account no more than two or three years.

Until October of 1999 no CIA official visited Ahmad Shah Mas'ud in Afghanistan. Mas'ud is the ruler of northeastern Afghanistan and the leader of the only force still fighting the Taliban. He was the most accomplished commander of the anti-Soviet mujahideen guerrillas; his army now daily confronts Arab military units that are under the banner of bin Ladin, yet no CIA case officer has yet debriefed Mas'ud's soldiers on the front lines or the Pakistani, Afghan, Chinese-Turkoman, and Arab holy warriors they've captured.

The CIA's Counterterrorism Center, which now has hundreds of employees from numerous government agencies, was the creation of Duane "Dewey" Clarridge, an extraordinarily energetic bureaucrat-spook. In less than a year in the mid-1980s Clarridge converted a three-man operation confined to one room with one TV set broadcasting CNN into a staff that rivaled the clandestine service's Near East Division for primacy in counterterrorist operations. Yet the Counterterrorism Center didn't alter the CIA's methods overseas at all. "We didn't really think about the details of operations—how we would penetrate this or that group," a former senior counterterrorist official says. "Victory for us meant that we stopped [Thomas] Twetten [the chief of the clandestine service's Near East Division] from walking all over us." In my years inside the CIA, I never once heard case officers overseas or back at headquarters discuss the ABCs of a recruitment operation against any Middle Eastern target that took a case officer far off the diplomatic and business-conference circuits. Long-term seeding operations simply didn't occur.

George Tenet, who became the director of the CIA in 1997, has repeatedly described America's counterterrorist program as "robust" and in most cases successful at keeping bin Ladin's terrorists "off-balance" and anxious about their own security. The Clinton Administration's senior director for counterterrorism on the National Security Council, Richard Clarke, who has continued as the counterterrorist czar in the Bush Administration, is sure that bin Ladin and his men stay awake at night "around the campfire" in Afghanistan, "worried stiff about who we're going to get next."

If we are going to defeat Usama bin Ladin, we need to openly side with Ahmad Shah Mas'ud, who still has a decent chance of fracturing the tribal coalition behind Taliban power. That, more effectively than any clandestine counterterrorist program in the Middle East, might eventually force al-Qa'ida's leader to flee Afghanistan, where U.S. and allied intelligence and military forces cannot reach him.

Until then, I don't think Usama bin Ladin and his allies will be losing much sleep around the campfire.