Authors: Matthew M. Aid
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A Note on the Author
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By the Same Author
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To my family:
Harry, Rita, and Jonathan.
This book would not have been possible without them.
I'm so cocky I could swagger,
Things I know would make you stagger,
I'm ten percent cloak and ninety percent dagger.
Boo Boo Baby I'm a spy.
âANONYMOUS OFFICE OF STRATEGIC SERVICES (OSS) OFFICER
The one permanent emotion of the inferior man is fearâfear of the unknown, the complex, the inexplicable.
âH. L. MENCKEN
After more than eight years spent looking for Osama bin Laden, the CIA finally got their first break in the hunt for the al Qaeda leader in August 2010, when Pakistani agents working for the CIA followed an al Qaeda courier from an Internet cafÃ© in the city of Peshawar to an isolated compound just north of the city of Abbottabad, thirty-one miles northeast of the Pakistani capital of Islamabad.
Abbottabad has been a military garrison town since it was established by the British Army in 1853. After Pakistan obtained its independence from Great Britain in 1947, the Pakistani military took over the bases that had formerly been occupied by the British forces. Abbottabad is now the home of the regimental depots and training centers for two Pakistani Army regimentsâthe Baloch Regiment and the Frontier Force Regimentâwith between two thousand and three thousand troops in residence at these bases at any one time. Just north of the city in the town of Kakul is the Pakistani Military Academy. The mysterious walled-in compound was located on a dirt road less than a mile from the front gate of the Pakistani Military Academy.
The CIA agents had no inkling at the time that Osama bin Laden and his family were hiding in the compound, but the extreme security measures in and around the complex suggested that someone important was hiding there.
As described in greater detail in chapter 4, the CIA had been searching for bin Laden ever since the Saudi terrorist leader and up to a thousand of his followers had fled across the border to Pakistan in December 2001 after the Battle of Tora Bora. When bin Laden's trail quickly went cold, the CIA changed its approach and tried to identify the couriers that bin Laden was using to carry his messages to his followers and sympathizers, reportedly including tapping the phones of the Islamabad bureau of the Arab news agency Al Jazeera to try to identify who was providing them with videotapes of bin Laden's speeches. In addition, a number of Pakistani journalists who were known to have had or suspected of having occasional contact with al Qaeda were placed under surveillance by the CIA in the hope that bin Laden or one of his lieutenants would contact them and lead the agency to their hideouts. None of these surveillance operations yielded any leads.
In 2003, a number of al Qaeda detainees, including al Qaeda's operations chief, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, identified the person they thought was most likely Osama bin Laden's principal courier: a veteran al Qaeda operative who went by the nom de guerre of Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. In 2004, another al Qaeda leader who had been captured in Iraq, Hassan Ghul, confirmed the identification. Years later, the CIA finally learned that al-Kuwaiti's real name was Sheikh Abu Ahmed, and he was a Pakistani national who had been born in Kuwait.
Over the next six years, agents of the CIA's Islamabad station mounted a dragnet looking for al-Kuwaiti inside Pakistan, even circulating a composite photograph of the man to Pakistani intelligence and security forces. But the search produced no results.
It was not until early 2010 that an intercepted cell phone call led a team of Pakistani agents working for the CIA to al-Kuwaiti. The agents found him in the northern Pakistani city of Peshawar delivering, according to an intelligence source, a packet of materials to a Pakistani journalist known to be sympathetic to al Qaeda. The CIA's Islamabad station hastily put together a surveillance team of Pakistani operatives to follow al-Kuwaiti, with orders that he was not to be captured, and that the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, was not to be told of the discovery. The surveillance team was ordered to closely monitor his movements in the hope that he would lead them to bin Laden. He did. Right to the isolated compound outside the city of Abbottabad.
One of the secrets coming out of the entire bin Laden affair is that over the past several years, the CIA has secretly recruited and trained a small but very capable cadre of Pakistani operatives, many of whom were formerly police officers. These agents do much of the fieldwork inside Pakistan that the CIA officers in the agency's Islamabad station cannot do because they are under surveillance around the clock by operatives of the ISI. These Pakistani agents run agent networks, conduct physical and electronic surveillance, install wiretaps, operate cell phone intercept equipment, and much more. According to an intelligence source, they were to end up doing much of the work that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden.
A team of these agents rented a house just down the road from the compound, which they converted into a sophisticated clandestine observation post, complete with infrared cameras capable of taking pictures at night, sophisticated video equipment, powerful telescopes connected to the latest generation of digital cameras, and cell phone intercept receivers. And they did all of this without alerting any of the neighbors as to what they were doing inside the house.
The CIA was unable to determine who was hiding inside the compound other than al-Kuwaiti and his brother, another longtime al Qaeda operative, and their families, but all the signs indicated that there was someone else living on the top floor of the residence inside the compound. The question was, who was he? By mid-February 2011, intelligence from a variety of sources convinced Obama administration officials that some senior al Qaeda leader was holed up inside the mansion at Abbottabad, but no one was sure who it was. The betting was that it was bin Laden.
So on Friday morning, April 29, 2011, Barack Obama gave the go order that launched a commando operation with personnel from SEAL Team Six to attack the Abbottabad compound; then the president left for a long-planned trip to Florida. The level of distrust of the Pakistani government was such that the decision was made in Washington not to tell the Pakistani government or the ISI anything about the operation in order to ensure that it would not be compromised by Pakistani officials sympathetic to al Qaeda.
Halfway around the world at Forward Operating Base Fenty, located on the eastern outskirts of the city of Jalalabad in southeastern Afghanistan, five helicopters set off on the beginning leg of the dangerous 150-mile flight across Pakistan to Abbottabad. Three of the helicopters were huge CH-47 Chinooks; each large enough to carry a Humvee jeep; they now carried a team of twenty-five SEAL commandos who would act as a reserve force during the operation. Two smaller UH-60M Black Hawk helicopters, fitted with the latest stealth and noise suppression technology, carried the attack team of twenty-three SEALs who would conduct the actual assault on the compound.
Even before Obama gave the go order, the U.S. intelligence community had secretly begun deploying an array of collection platforms to monitor the compound and the surrounding area. A top secret stealth unmanned drone based in Afghanistan flew over Pakistan and took up station high over Abbottabad, relaying an uninterrupted stream of video imagery via satellite to the CIA operations center at Langley, Virginia, about everything going on in and around the compound. NSA SIGINT (signals intelligence) operators based at Fort Gordon, Georgia, were able to confirm that the flight of the drone had not been detected by Pakistani radar operators.
The CIA surveillance team based just a few hundred yards from the compound in their clandestine observation point watched the building with infrared cameras and sophisticated cell phone intercept gear, while other teams watched the front gates of the various Pakistani military bases and police stations in Abbottabad and Kakul to ensure that the Pakistanis would not interfere with the operation. SIGINT platforms based across the border in Afghanistan monitored Pakistani military, air defense, and police radio traffic to determine whether Pakistani forces posed any threat to the helicopter-borne commando force.
At 11:00 P.M., Pakistani radars detected the five helicopters taking off from Jalalabad airfield and heading in the direction of the Pakistani border. Then, according to Pakistani military sources, the helicopters disappeared off the Pakistani radar screens. How the U.S. military was able to hide the flight of five helicopters across Pakistani territory to Abbottabad, then back to Afghanistan, remains one of the great mysteries of the mission. In fact, the version of the events of that spring weekend released by the government and corroborated by various media accounts has been criticized for possible inaccuracies and elisions. In all likelihood, we will never know with full certainty what happened from April 29 to May 1, other than the basic reality of Osama bin Laden's death.
Just before 1:00 A.M. on Sunday morning, May 1, 2011, the two Black Hawks landed the twenty-three-man SEAL team just outside the eighteen-foot-high walls of the compound. One of the Black Hawks suffered a catastrophic mechanical malfunction and had to be blown up after the operation was completed. It took fifteen minutes to storm the house inside the compound. Bin Laden was killed on the top floor. The commandos then spent the next twenty minutes going through the house seizing computers, documents, and anything else that might be of intelligence value before loading bin Laden's body and the captured material into the helicopters and starting the flight back to Afghanistan. The commandos spent thirty-eight minutes on the ground in Abbottabad; not one of them got so much as a scratch to show for the ordeal.
The operation was immediately hailed as a resounding success for the U.S. military and intelligence community. The Navy SEALs seized a huge cache of documents, such as bin Laden's handwritten daily dairy, which was found to be filled with details of planned or ongoing operations. Also seized were five computers, ten computer hard drives, and more than a hundred flash drives. All told, intelligence sources estimated the take at more than 2.7 terabytes of data, with 1 terabyte being the equivalent of 2,000 hours of audio or 220 million pages of text. At the time that this manuscript goes to press, the analysts are picking their way through this material looking for leads to current al Qaeda operations or those still in the planning stage.
The victory may be a short-lived one. Some intelligence analysts in Washington believe that bin Laden's death signals the end of what is left of al Qaeda in Pakistan. Others are not so sure. On June 15, 2011, al Qaeda announced that its new leader was bin Laden's longtime deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Born in Egypt, Zawahiri has been a member of al Qaeda for over twenty years, serving as the organization's ideologue and strategist. Analysts have noted that Zawahiri does not have bin Laden's name recognition or force of personality, and his prickly nature and propensity for making decisions on a whim have sometimes gotten him into trouble with his fellow al Qaeda commanders. But a veteran CIA counterterrorism analyst stated in a 2011 interview that, despite all his faults, Zawahiri commands enormous respect within the organization because of his managerial talent, his uncompromising attitude, and his determination to continue the fight against the West.
But it probably does not really matter who is the new leader of al Qaeda. If history is any guide, bin Laden's death probably will not change much. The war on terrorism will start all over again tomorrow, and will continue unabated for the foreseeable future.
Despite the present-day recognition of its vital importance in protecting the security of the United States, historically spying has been viewed in America as one of the most odious and disreputable of professions. In 1984, Michael J. Barrett, then the assistant general counsel of the CIA, wrote that “espionage is the world's second oldest profession and just as honorable as the first.”
Spying has been around since the beginning of time, and will almost certainly continue to be practiced well past most other human endeavors because as long as nations want to know “what the other guy is doing,” there will be a need for spies. Spying is not just limited to nation-states. Corporations do it under the guise of “competitive intelligence.” Fishermen in New England secretly monitor their competitors to see which fishing grounds are producing the best catches. Narcotics traffickers in Mexico and Colombia have for decades infiltrated government agencies, the military, and police in order to counter narcotics interdiction efforts. Arguably the most accomplished spies in the world are journalists, who, just like their clandestine counterparts, collect information obtained from open and secret sources and publish their findings in their newspapers or broadcast them on the nightly news. During the American Civil War, General William Tecumseh Sherman famously said, “I hate newspapermen. They come into camp and pick up their camp rumors and print them as facts. I regard them as spies, which, in truth, they are. If I killed them all there would be news from Hell before breakfast.”
Some historians and commentators have compared spying to combat, suggesting that the endeavors of the average spy are somehow comparable to the struggles of a soldier on the battlefield. The analogy may be apt. But unlike in a typical war, which usually has a clearly defined beginning and end, and a recognized victor, in the intelligence business you can never declare victory and go home, because even after the soldiers have all gone home, the spies remain at their posts. Years ago, a now retired senior American intelligence official told me, “War is hell. Spying is much, much worse. Wars you can win. But in espionage, there are no winners because it never ends.”
Which is where we find ourselves today. A decade after 9/11, the U.S. military is still engaged in two full-time warsâAfghanistan and the war on terrorismâand a host of smaller conflicts, such as our continuing involvement in the Libyan civil war. Parallel to the American military's efforts, the U.S. intelligence community has been engaged in a twilight struggle across the globe finding America's enemies, determining their plans and capabilities, and, in some cases, killing them by whatever means are available.
The principal purpose of this book is to provide the reader with a snapshot of what the U.S. intelligence community has been doing at home and abroad since Barack Obama entered the White House on January 20, 2009. What the chapters that follow show is that over the past three years America's 210,000-plus spies have been busier than ever. Take for example the following intelligence items from leaked State Department cables sent to Washington since Obama was inaugurated: