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The Counterterrorist Myth

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  • Anne
    http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/2001/07/gerecht.htm The Atlantic Monthly | July/August 2001 NOTES & DISPATCHES: PESHAWAR A former CIA operative explains why
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 18, 2001

      The Atlantic Monthly | July/August 2001


      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

      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

      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.
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