The inside story of how U.S. terrorist hunters are going after al Qaeda
Bits and pieces. Each day, the CTC took in some 2,500 cables from CIA stations overseas; each week, some 17,000 new bits of intelligence arrived. And that didn't count the huge hauls from Afghanistan. One veteran case officer said the amounts were measured "literally in terabytes"--a terabyte is roughly equal to a thousand bound editions of the Encyclopedia Britannica. The CTC had become the world's single largest collector and coordinator for intelligence on terrorism. So large is the volume of material collected, sources tell U.S. News, that even today, substantial amounts remain unexamined.
By March 2002, the intelligence windfall revealed how little U.S. intelligence had understood about al Qaeda. "There were tremendous gaps in our understanding of al Qaeda's structure, its chain of command, its operational network," says Roger Cressey, director for transnational threats at the National Security Council at the time of 9/11. "Think of it as a 1,000-piece jigsaw in which we had maybe 200 pieces. After 9/11, the pieces came fast and furious."
America's best analysts were troubled as they surveyed the new intelligence. "It was even worse than we thought," says Black, who was struck by Afghan reports of dead al Qaeda fighters with blond hair and blue eyes--Chechens--as well as Uzbeks, Indonesians, and Chinese. "They had internationalized themselves to a far greater degree," he says, "and it was all networked really well."
The body kills, the seized computers and correspondence, combined with prisoner interrogations and other intelligence, offered a fairly complete portrait of bin Laden's secretive organization. Analysts began to grasp how al Qaeda actually operated, from its finances to its key personnel. Before 9/11, U.S. intelligence had files on only a few hundred al Qaeda-trained Islamists. But by March, the number had ballooned to 3,000 and was growing daily.
As their knowledge increased, analysts learned to differentiate among the varied bands of jihadists. As one counterterrorism veteran explained, there are, in effect, two al Qaedas: One is al Qaeda the ideology, which fuels a sprawling network of radical Islamists who draw inspiration from bin Laden but are not his direct disciples. Within that network are what analysts have called al Qaeda's franchises--allied radical groups from Uzbekistan to Indonesia who share bin Laden's dream of a pan-Islamist world. But there is also al Qaeda the organization--a finite, disciplined, Mafia-like grouping with its own rules, finances, and "made" members. Although tens of thousands went through its training camps, very few in fact joined the group. "Al Qaeda is an elite organization that takes very few members," explains Rohan Gunaratna, author of Inside al Qaeda. U.S. intelligence soon concluded that only some 180 followers had sworn bayat, or allegiance, to bin Laden.
The group was also more hierarchical than the CIA had believed. Bin Laden, once thought to be a figurehead, turned out to be a hands-on leader who approved al Qaeda's most ambitious attacks, including 9/11. Descriptions of the group's inner workings, with its religious dogma and blind obedience, appeared almost cultlike, with bin Laden cast as guru. As one top official put it, bin Laden seemed "more Koresh than Napoleon"--a reference to Branch Davidian cultist David Koresh, who perished with his followers in a fiery death in Waco, Texas.