The inside story of how U.S. terrorist hunters are going after al Qaeda
If the global war on terror has a nerve center, it is the CIA's Counterterrorism Center. At first glance, the CTC looks unremarkable, packed with the cubicles, gray desks, and desktop PCs that make up just about any government office in Washington. A hint that its work might be somewhat out of the ordinary is offered by signposts that mark the corridors. One well-trodden intersection lies at the crossroads of Bin Laden Lane and Saddam Street.
The 9/11 attacks severely shook the CTC--staffed, at the time, by some 600 case officers, analysts, and support personnel. "There was real shock," remembers one official. "Our sole job was to stop things like this." Cofer Black had taken the top CTC job two years before 9/11. A near-legendary figure around the CIA, he had spent 26 years in the agency's covert operations division. But as he stared at the expressions on his staff's faces, he was struck by a look he'd seen only overseas. They reminded him of peering into the eyes of Israeli intelligence officials--how haunted and driven they were. "You appreciate the gravity of your situation when your own people are in the kill box," he says. Black knew al Qaeda well. He had chased Osama bin Laden ever since the Saudi exile tried to kill him in Sudan a decade earlier. Black had returned the favor, drafting CIA plans to assassinate bin Laden long before 9/11--plans that, on the order of higher-ups, sat on the shelf.
All that changed after 9/11. Within days, Black's team came up with its answer to al Qaeda. They called it the Worldwide Attack Matrix. It was an operational war plan, a no-holds-barred leap back to the agency's heyday of covert action. As detailed in Bob Woodward's book Bush at War, the Matrix called for a worldwide campaign to root out its cells in 80 countries. Intelligence officials confirmed to U.S. News the dramatic scope of the Matrix and related proposals. The new plans authorized the use of deadly force, break-ins, and psychological warfare. They allowed the CIA to pour millions of dollars into friendly Arab intelligence services and permitted the once gun-shy agency to work with any government--no matter how unsavory--as long as it got results. On September 17, six days after the attack, President Bush signed an executive order approving virtually everything the CIA had asked for.
Job 1 was destroying the terrorists' Afghan sanctuary. "Nothing emboldened al Qaeda more than us not going after them," says Michael Rolince, who ran the FBI's international terrorism section during 9/11. "I sat through hundreds of meetings at which DOD [the Department of Defense] just listened. The people who fought wars had no role in the war on terror." That was about to change.
"Like the Nazis." The war in Afghanistan caught al Qaeda's leaders off guard. Bin Laden's top people were convinced the United States would respond to 9/11 with merely a volley of cruise missiles, interrogations later showed. By late 2001, the U.S.-led assault had taken out al Qaeda's camps and headquarters, killed hundreds of its followers, and driven the Taliban from power. So rapid was the advance that bin Laden's operatives left behind a motherlode of intelligence--address books, videos, computers, and more. Nearly 100 places yielded valuable intelligence, from caves to training centers. Among the key finds: rosters of trainees at al Qaeda facilities, which gave the CIA a handle on the tens of thousands of jihadists who had passed through some 50 camps across Afghanistan." They were like the Nazis," says an FBI terror expert. "They were meticulous record keepers."