Counterterrorist Center

Counterterrorist Center

The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency's Counterterrorist Center was established in 1986.

Foundation and early years

In the face of international terrorist attacks, mainly by leftist Palestinians. The Reagan administration wanted to take the offensive ... CIA chief Casey and Duane R. "Dewey" Clarridge. As head of the CIA's Latin American division, Clarridge had conducted black operations in Latin America, including the 1984 mining of Nicaraguan harbors. (In 1992 President George H. W. Bush pardoned Clarridge before his trial could finish.) Take the offensive. Pre-emptive covert action. "Two super-secret 'action teams'", one composed of foreign nationals the other of Americans.... "Clarridge wanted to kill the terrorists outright...." In January 1986 Clarridge began work on...

The Counterterrorist Center was established in February 1986, under the CIA's Directorate of Operations, with Clarridge as its first director. It was an "interdisciplinary" body. Many of its personnel and most its chiefs were drawn from the CIA's Directorate of Operations, but others came from the Directorates of Intelligence and Science and Technology. Observing that terrorism knew no geographical boundaries, the CTC was designed to cut across the traditional region-based bodies of the CIA.

Discredited by the Iran-Contra scandal of 1986, the aims gave way to a more analytical role.

This didn't prevent another contemplated project in 1986-7, the "Eagle" drone aircraft. It could have been used to spy out hostage-takers in Lebanon.

Another use of the drones might be sabotage operations in Libya. Clarridge wanted to load one drone with two hundred pounds of C-4 plastic explosives and one hundred pounds of ball-bearings. His plan was to fly it onto Tripoli's air field at night, blow it up, and destroy "a whole bunch" of commercial airliners sitting unoccupied on the ground. He also tried to load small rockets onto the drones that could be used to fire at predesignated targets....

This idea was unrealistic in terms of the technical abilities of the time. But it is interesting to compare it with the Predator drone inaugurated in 2000 (see below). [Steve Coll, "Ghost Wars" (2005 edn), pp.137-46, 527-8; "9/11 Commission Report", [ chapter 3] , pp.75, 92 ( [ HTML version] ). The "explosive drones" are from Coll's interview with Clarridge, Dec. 28, 2001: "Ghost Wars", p.685, note 3.]

Early members of the CTC included Vincent Cannistraro, Chief of Operations and Analysis, 1988-91; Robert Baer, from the Directorate of Operations; and Stanley Bedlington, a "senior analyst" *-1994. [Coll, "Ghost Wars" (2005 edn), pp.140-6. (Coll misspells Bedlington's name "Bedington".)]

The 1990s

In the early 1990s, the CTC had no more than a hundred personnel, divided into about a dozen branches. Besides branches specializing in Lebanon's Hezbollah, and secular groups like the Japanese Red Army, another concentrated on Sunni Islamist radicalism. At this time the latter concentrated on Algeria. [Coll, "Ghost Wars" (2005 edn), pp.252-3.]

In January 1996 the CTC opened the Bin Laden Issue Station to track Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, with Michael Scheuer, formerly in charge of the CTC's Islamic Extremist Branch, as its first head. The reasons were similar to those for the establishment of the CTC itself. The new Station (unlike the traditional country-based ones) was not geographically limited. And it drew its personnel from across the U.S. intelligence community.

Jeff (Geoff) O'Connell was Director of the CTC 1997-1999.

Cofer Black became Director in June 1999, as part of a reshuffle by CIA chief George Tenet, who was embarking on a grand "Plan" to deal with al-Qaeda (see below). At the same time Tenet made "Richard" ("Rich B"), one of his own "top-flight executives", head of the (unnamed) section in charge of the Bin Laden Station. ("Richard" is otherwise described as the head of the Bin Laden unit.)

Paul Pillar became chief of analysis in 1993. By 1997 he was the Center's deputy director. But in summer 1999 he suffered a clash of styles with the new director, Black. Soon after, Pillar left the CTC. [Coll, "Ghost Wars" (2005 edn), pp. 257, 375, 451, 457.] He was replaced as deputy director by Ben Bonk. Henry "Hank" Crumpton was head of operations in the late 1990s. [Tenet, "At The Center Of The Storm", pp.*; cf. Coll, "Ghost Wars" (2005 edn), p.523.] (He came back after 9/11 as chief of a new Special Operations section — see below.)

In the late 1990s the CIA began to set up Counterterrorist Intelligence Centers, as collaboration with the intelligence services of individual countries, and based in those countries, to deal with Islamist militants. The CTICs spread widely after September 11, 2001 attacks, existing in more than two dozen countries by 2005. "Officers from the host nations serving in the CTICs are vetted by the CIA, and usually supervised by the CIA's chief of station [in a particular country] and augmented by officers sent from the Counterterrorist Center at Langley."

"The Plan", 1999-2001

In December 1998 CIA chief George Tenet "declared war" on Osama bin Laden. [Coll, "Ghost Wars", pp.436-7, and p.646 note 42; "9/11 Commission Report", [ chapter 11] , p.357 ( [ HTML version] ).] Early in 1999 Tenet "ordered the CTC to begin a 'baseline' review of the CIA's operational strategy against bin Laden". In the spring he "demanded 'a new, comprehensive plan of attack' against bin Laden and his allies".

The CTC produced a "comprehensive plan of attack" against bin Laden and "previewed the new strategy to senior CIA management by the end of July 1999. By mid-September, it had been briefed to CIA operational level personnel, and to [the National Security Agency, the] NSA, the FBI, and other partners." The strategy "was called simply, 'the Plan'." ...

The new CTC director, Cofer Black, and his bin Laden unit

wanted to "project" into Afghanistan, to "penetrate" bin Laden's sanctuaries. They described their plan as military officers might. They sought to surround Afghanistan with secure covert bases for CIA operations — as many bases as they could arrange. Then they would mount operations from each of the platforms, trying to move inside Afghanistan and as close to bin Laden as they could to recruit agents and to attempt capture operations.... Black wanted recruitments, and he wanted to develop commando or paramilitary strike teams made up of officers and men who could "blend" into the region's Muslim populations.

Once Cofer Black had finalized his operational plan.... [Charles] Allen [the associate deputy director of central intelligence for collection] created a dedicated al-Qa'ida cell with officers from across the intelligence community. This cell met daily, brought focus to penetrating the Afghan sanctuary, and ensured that collection initiatives were synchronized with operational plans. Allen met with [Tenet] on a weekly basis to review initiatives under way. His efforts were enabling operations and pursuing longer-range, innovative initiatives around the world against al-Qa'ida.

It is not clear how this "Qaeda cell", which duplicated the functions of the Bin Laden unit, related to or overlapped the unit.

The CIA increasingly concentrated its diminished resources on counterterrorism, so that resources for this activity increased sharply, in contrast to the general trend. At least some of the Plan's more modest aspirations were translated into action. Intelligence collection efforts on bin Laden and al-Qaeda increased significantly from 1999. "By 9/11", said Tenet, "a map would show that these collection programs and human [reporting] networks were in place in such numbers as to nearly cover Afghanistan." [Coll, "Ghost Wars", pp.457, 466-72, 485, and p.654 note 7; [ Tenet statement to the Joint Inquiry on 9/11, Oct. 17, 2002] ; "9/11 Commission Report", [ chapter 4] , pp.142-3 ( [ HTML version] ); Tenet, "At the Center of the Storm", pp.119, 120.]

The core 9/11 hijackers emerge

Beginning in September 1999 the CTC picked up multiple signs that bin Laden had set in motion major terrorist attacks for the turn of the year. The CIA set in motion the "largest collection and disruption activity in the history of mankind" (as Cofer Black later put it). They focused on known Qaeda terrorists, and on senior personnel both inside and outside Afghanistan. [Coll, "Ghost Wars", pp.495-6; "911 Commission Report", [ chapter 6] , pp.174-80 ( [ HTML version] ).]

Amid this activity, in November-December 1999 Mohamed Atta, Marwan al-Shehhi, Ziad Jarrah and Nawaf al-Hazmi visited Afghanistan, where they were selected by al-Qaeda for the "planes operation" that was to become known as 9/11. ["9/11 Commission Report", [ chapter 5] , pp.155-8, 168 ( [ HTML version] ). Data derived from subsequent intelligence interrogations of captives.] The intelligence community began to pick up signs in late 1999. The National Security Agency (NSA) picked up traces of an "operational cadre" consisting of al-Hazmi, his younger brother Salem, and Khalid al-Mihdhar, who were planning to go to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in January 2000. A CTC officer sought permission to surveil the men. ["9/11 Commission Report", [ chapter 6] , p.181 ( [ HTML version] ); Coll, "Ghost Wars", pp.487-88.] At about this time the SOCOM-DIA data mining operation Able Danger also identified a potential Qaeda unit, consisting of the future leading 9/11 hijackers Atta, al-Shehhi, al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi. It termed them the "Brooklyn cell". [Altogether, said Able Danger liaison Anthony Shaffer, the operation found "five cells, [including] one... in the United States", including (as subsequently judged) "two of the three cells which conducted 9/11, to include Atta". Congressman Curt Weldon confirmed that one of these was the "Brooklyn cell". [ Shaffer interview on Able Danger] , "Government Security News", Aug. 2005; Bill Gertz "et al", " [ Inside the Ring] ", "Washington Times", Sept. 30, 2005. " [ Press Conference of Rep Curt Weldon: 9/11 Commission and Operation "Able Danger"] " (Sept. 17, 2005; transcript on Global Research website) is another important source for Able Danger. (Weldon was vice chairman of the House Armed Services and Homeland Security committees.)]

The CIA erratically tracked al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar as they traveled to and attended the al-Qaeda summit in Kuala Lumpur in early January 2000. ... ["9/11 Commission Report", [ chapter 6] , pp.181-2 ( [ HTML version] ); ibid, [ chapter 11] , pp.383-4 ( [ HTML version] ).]

The Predator drone, 2000-2001

By the late spring of 2000, Richard Clarke and his White House counter-terrorism group had grown frustrated by the quality of intelligence reporting on Osama bin Laden's whereabouts.... Clarke and his aides brainstormed for new ideas.... Several years later, a number of people involved in these highly classified discussions claimed the credit for the idea of sending Predator reconnaissance drones into Afghanistan.... [I] t seems clear, in a general sense, that Clarke, [Vice Admiral Scott] Fry [head of operations at the Joint Chiefs of Staff] , [CIA intelligence chief Charles] Allen, [Cofer] Black, and officers in the CIA's bin Laden unit jointly conspired... to launch the Predator experiment. [Coll, "Ghost Wars" (Penguin, 2005 edn), pp. 526, 527.]

In autumn 2000, a series of flights over Afghanistan by Predator drones, under the joint control of the USAF and the CTC, produced probable sightings of bin Laden. CTC Director Black became a "vocal advocate" of arming Predators with missiles to try to assassinate bin Laden. But there were legal and technical issues: under the new Bush administration in 2001, Black and the CTC's bin Laden unit continued to lobby for Predators armed with adapted Hellfire anti-tank missiles. Black urged CIA chief Tenet to promote the matter at the long-awaited Cabinet-level Principals Committee meeting on terrorism of September 4, 2001. The CIA chief did so. The CIA was authorized to "deploy the system with weapons-capable aircraft". [See "Bin Laden Issue Station".]

The strategic assessments branch, 2001

In late 2000 Tenet "recognized the deficiency of strategic analysis against al-Qaeda". He appointed a senior manager within the CTC, who in March 2001 briefed him on "creating a strategic assessment capability" "to digest vast quantities of information and develop targeting strategies".

A Strategic Analyst On 9/11

"On the morning of September 11th, 2001, [John] Fulton and his team at the CIA were running a pre-planned simulation to explore the emergency response issues that would be created if a plane were to strike a building." So said an advance-publicity pamphlet for a security conference held in 2002.

More ....

The CTC set up the "new Strategic Assessments Branch during July 2001".

The decision to add about ten analysts to this effort was seen as a major bureaucratic victory, but the CTC labored to find them. The new chief of this branch reported for duty on September 10, 2001. [See "Strategic Assessments Branch".]

9/11 and after

After the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, some CTC staff were exempted from an order to evacuate the CIA headquarters building at Langley. They included the shift of the Global Response Center on the exposed sixth floor, which Black argued had "a key function in a crisis like this". Tenet finally agreed with Black that their lives would have to be put at risk. [Tenet, "At The Center Of The Storm", pp.164-65. The conversation is a virtual replica of that given in Bob Woodward, "Bush At War" (2002/3) ( [ Publisher's extract from chapter 1] ).]

The CTC obtained passenger lists from "the planes that had been turned into weapons that morning". " [A] CTC analyst raced over to the printing plant" (where most staff had been evacuated) and pointed out the names Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, who they had "been looking for the last few weeks". This was the first "absolute proof" that the attacks were a Qaeda plot. [Tenet, "At The Center Of The Storm", p.167.] (The CTC had first come across the names in connection with potential terrorist activity in the winter of 1999-2000. [see above] .)

The CIA's planning efforts had put them in a better position to respond after the attacks. As Tenet put it,

How could [an intelligence] community without a strategic plan tell the president of the United States just four days after 9/11 how to attack the Afghan sanctuary and operate against al-Qa'ida in ninety-two countries around the world? [Tenet, "At The Center Of The Storm", pp.121-22.]

This was at a "war council" (a restricted group of the National Security Council) chaired by President Bush at Camp David on the weekend of September 15-16. CTC chief Black was also present.

Tenet described a plan for collecting intelligence and mounting covert operations. He proposed inserting CIA teams into Afghanistan to work with Afghan warlords who would join the fight against al-Qaeda. These CIA teams would act jointly with the military's Special Operations units. President Bush later praised this proposal, saying it had been a turning point in his thinking. ["9/11 Commission Report", [ chapter 10] , p.332 ( [ HTML version] )]

The CIA geared up to take the lead in the attack on al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. The NALT team, led by Gary Schroen, entered the country once more on September 26. A new branch was added to the CTC — CTC Special Operations, or CTC/SO. Hank Crumpton was recalled to head it. Black told him, "Your mission is to find al-Qa'ida, engage it, and destroy it".

Execution of this mission was nowhere more evident than at Qala-i-Jangi, a 19th-century fortress on the outskirts of the northern Afghan town of Mazar-i-Sharif. On November 9 Crumpton correctly predicted the imminent fall of Mazar to America's Northern Alliance allies.... [Tenet, "At The Center Of The Storm", pp.209, 211, 217, 221-3. Cf. Franklin Freeman, " [ Afghan Massacres...] ", "Liberty Strikes Back".]

ee also

* National Counterterrorism Center


* Steve Coll, (Penguin Press, 2004; revised edition 2005)
* " [ 9/11 Commission Report] : Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States", July 2004
* George Tenet, "At The Center Of The Storm: My Years at the CIA" (Harper Press, 2007)


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