CIA transnational anti-terrorism activities

CIA transnational anti-terrorism activities

This article deals with activities of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) related to terrorism. Especially after the CIA lost its coordinating role over the entire Intelligence Community (IC), it is impossible to understand US counterterrorism by looking at the CIA alone. Coordinating structures have been created by each president to fit his administrative style and the perceived level of threat.

The US has a different counterterrorist structure than other close allies, such as Australia, Canada, France, and the United Kingdom. Each has a structure that fits its particular legal system and culture; there is no ideal solution. A continuing issue is whether there needs to be a domestic intelligence service separate from the FBI, which has had difficulty in breaking away from its law enforcement roots and cooperating with other intelligence servicescitation
title = Inspector General’s List of the Most Serious Management Challenges and Responses: Top Management Challenges
date = November 5, 2003
author = Fine, Glenn A., Inspector General of the US Department of Justice
url =
] .

The National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC)citation
url =
title = National Counterterrorism Center
] is no longer in the CIA proper, but is in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). NCTC, however, contains personnel from the CIA, Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) of the Department of Justice, and other members of the IC. A counterterrorism center did exist in the CIA before the NCTC was established.

Given the restrictions of the National Security Act of 1947, which created the CIA but strictly forbade it from having any domestic police authority, the role of the CIA still has multiple dimensions. The National Clandestine Service (NCS) of the CIA can infiltrate or otherwise gain human intelligence (HUMINT) from terrorist organizations, their supporters, or from friendly foreign intelligence services (FIS). The NCS has a covert operations capability that, possibly in combination with military units from the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), may take direct action against terrorist groups outside the United States. Above all, the key CIA counterterror partner is the FBI, which has the domestic operational responsibility for counterterrorism, both domestic intelligence collection and domestic police work. In the highly decentralized police system of the United States, the FBI also provides liaison and operates cooperatively with state and local police agencies, as well as with relevant Federal units. For example, the United States Coast Guard has an important role in preventing terrorist infiltration by sea. Military units have a specialized Counterintelligence Force Protection Source Operations capability to protect their personnel and operations.

Intelligence Community view of terrorism

Contrary to popular belief, the US intelligence community was dealing with aspects of terrorism long before the September 11, 2001 attacks. Those aspects included the support of guerillas against the Soviets, in Southeast Asia, and other places where the guerillas' methods may have included terror. In Asia, Latin America, and Africa, the US worked with government to suppress terror. While government research suggests personality traits that may be common to a substantial number of terrorists, terror has few other constants. It certainly is not restricted to Muslims. It has taken place on every continent except Antarctica.

In all these cases, intelligence support clearly was necessary. In some of them, clandestine intelligence collection and covert action, by CIA personnel or those they sponsored, dealt with both sides of the terrorist and counterterrorist roles.

Many studies of the analysis of, and countermeasures to, terrorism remain classified. Unclassified CIA documents on terrorism go back at least into the late 1970s. At that time, Western Europe often had opposing terrorist groups in the same conflict, such as nationalists and separatists in Northern Ireland, Spanish nationalists and Basque separatists, Turkey, citation
url =
title = International Terrorism in 1979
author = National Foreign Assessment Center
publisher = Central Intelligence Agency
comment = Reprint from National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism
date = April 1980
id = PA 80-10072U
] Transnational terrorism was still unusual, with the report noting that the Basque ETA group was active in France as well as Spain.

There are relevant observations from government reports by researchers who have various levels of access into the IC, including the Federal Research Division (FRD) and Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress. A 1999 FRD study examined some changes from terrorists of the past, especially the emergence of terrorist acts carried out by individuals and members of small, "ad hoc" groups largely unknown to security organizations.citation
title = The Sociology and Psychology of Terrorism: who becomes a terrorist and why?
date = September 1999
url =
first = Rex A. | last = Hudson
publisher = Federal Research Division, Library of Congress
] Tactics, as well as sources, had changed, with the greater use of suicide attacks and attacks by women and children.

A very significant concern was the possible use, by terrorists, of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).


uicide attacks

Weapons of mass destruction

Terrorists have already made attacks using WMD. This is not a hypothetical fear, but it also must be assessed in terms of possible damage. A 1996 CIA presentation reviewed the history to date. citation
title = Continuing Threat from Weapons of Mass Destruction: Statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee
first = Gordon C. | last = Oehler
publisher = CIA Nonproliferation Center
date = March 27, 1996
url =

Researchers for a 1999 General Accounting Office study had classified access.citation
url =
title = Combating Terrorism: Need for Comprehensive Threat and Risk Assessments of Chemical and Biological Attacks
date = September 1999
id = GAO/NSIAD-99-163
author = General Accounting Office

Terrorists by ideology and region

Terrorism is not a recent phenomenon. The Zealots of the first century assassinated both Romans, and Jews who did not want to revolt against the Romans. In the modern world, there are several categories of terrorists, including guerillas who use terror as one of their weapons, groups that principally use terror alone, and individuals. Terrorists may be motivated by a political ideology of extremism, nationalism, religion, or combinations of all.
*Marxist :*Japanese Red Army :*Italian Red Brigades :*Baader-Meihof GangKlaus Jünschke, a mental patient, was one of the most ardent members of the Socialist Patients’ Collective (SPK). :*Red Army Faction
*Assorted Nationalist:*Irish Republican groups :*Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam :*Basque Fatherland and Freedom (Euzkadi Ta Askatasuna—ETA)
*Religions Cults :*Aum Shinrikyo

Collection approach


One of the most challenges in dealing with relatively small terrorist groups is that the members are usually known one another, or at least there is a chain of individuals that can vouch for a recruit. These social bonds have led to the refinement of the clandestine cell system in such groups. The combination of familiarity and compartmentalization make it extremely difficult to introduce human agents to the groups; it is more likely that human intelligence can be gained by subverting someone who is already a member, or perhaps is indirectly associated (e.g., a banker or arms dealer).

Efforts to use HUMINT operations with non-official cover, especially in the areas outside the groups' staging areas, have been disappointing.citation
title = CIA's ambitious post-9/11 spy plan crumbles
url =,1,7973809.story?ctrack=1&cset=true
first = Greg | last = Miller
journal = Los Angeles Times
date = 17 February 2008
] Stepped-up efforts to use non-official cover, especially in Europe, began by creating covers in investment banks and consulting firms. Only several years later was it realized that terrorists would have little to do with such organizations. Another realization is even with excellent cover, the HUMINT successes would be unlikely to recruit people deep inside the terrorist cells.

Where HUMINT had more potential, and where the cover organizations needed to change to help find appropriate targets, was on the fringes of the terrorist organizations, either groups from which the group would need goods or services, or from people with awareness of the groups but not supporting them. Even if a group such as al-Qaeda had its own ships, there are reports that 15 cargo ships are linked to al-Qaeda. [cite web
url =
date = 2003-08-20
publisher = Center for Defense Information
title =Al Qaeda's 'Navy' - How Much of a Threat?
author = Robinson, Colin
] the activities of those ships, at ports, might draw the attention of security officials, or even low-level dockworkers or craftsmen. .cite web
url =
title = Port and Maritime Security: Background and Issues for Congress
date = 2005-05-27
publisher = Congressional Research Service
author = Frittelli, John F.

Another potential target could be moderate Muslims that do not want to take up an overt role against jihadists, but could supply information. The cover for approaching such persons could be any of a wide range of businesses and institutions.

Foreign specialists in explosives, WMD, and other warfare methods might come to CIA notice in trheir countries of origin. By tracking their movements, the specialists-for-hire might lead to trusted persons within the groups. Once a member is identified, other intelligence collection methods could be directed at his communications, surveillance of his home and place of work, etc.

There has been significant controversy, without there being classified Congressional views, of black sites for interrogating suspects, as well as the Guantanamo base. A separate role is played by regional Counterterrorist Intelligence Centers.


While some information was gained, early in campaigns against terror groups, from SIGINT (communications intelligence), groups have realized that threat and will often give up the speed of electronic communications for the security of messengers, who may carry encrypted messages they do not know how to read, or perhaps have memorized messages.

The actual interception of messages probably is not done by the CIA, but by NSA or possibly Service Cryptologic Elements (SCE): tactical SIGINT detachments attached to military tactical units. Important communications intercepts have been achieved, with the results clearly available to CIA. There are cases, however, where a joint CIA-NSA organization places clandestine intercept equipment. Citation
last = Central Intelligence Agency
title = Organization chart, mission and functions of the Office of Special Projects
date = July 21, 1988
url =
accessdate = 2007-10-07
] The National Security Archive commented, "In 1987, Deputy Director for Science and Technology Evan Hineman established... a new Office for Special Projects. concerned not with satellites, but with emplaced sensors – sensors that could be placed in a fixed location to collect signals intelligence or measurement and signature intelligence (MASINT) about a specific target. Such sensors had been used to monitor Chinese missile tests, Soviet laser activity, military movements, and foreign nuclear programs. The office was established to bring together scientists from the DS&T’s Office of SIGINT Operations, who designed such systems, with operators from the Directorate of Operations, who were responsible for transporting the devices to their clandestine locations and installing them.

While communications intercepts are usually highly classified, they have come up in US Congressional testimony on terrorism. For example, an FBI official testified with regard to the 1998 United States embassy bombings Kenya, and Tanzania, which took place so closely in time that the terrorist teams can reasonably be assumed to have coordinated their operations in near real-time. citation
publisher = Testimony of J. T. Caruso, Acting Assistant Director, CounterTerrorism Division, FBI Before the Subcommittee on International Operations and Terrorism, Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate
first = J.T. | last = Caruso
date = December 18, 2001
title = "Al-Qaeda International"
url =

There was independent proof of the involvement of Bin Laden, Al-Qaeda and EIJ Egyptian Islamic Jihad in the bombings. First, the would-be suicide bomber, al-Owhali, ran away from the bomb truck at the last minute and survived. However, he had no money or passport or plan by which to escape Kenya. Days later, he called a telephone number in Yemen and thus arranged to have money transferred to him in Kenya. That same telephone number in Yemen was contacted by Usama Bin Laden's satellite phone on the same days that al-Owhali was arranging to get money.
They have also been revealed in legal proceedings against terrorists, such as United States vs. Osama bin Laden et al, indictment, Nov. 4, 1998, and updates. citation
title = Osama bin Laden satellite phone calls Yemen
url =
first = John | last = Lumpkin
journal =
date = 11 January 2006


The sort of imagery intelligence ((IMINT), often from satellites, used against nation-states is of limited use in tracking the movement of groups of small size and little physical infrastructure. More success has come from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), which are hard to see and hear, to do such things as follow cars, or loiter above a building, photographic traffic in and out, often with low-light or infrared sensors that work in apparent darkness.

The CIA experimented with a small remote-controlled reconnaissance aircraft, the MQ-1 Predator, to try to spot Bin Laden in Afghanistan. A series of flights in autumn 2000, overseen by CTC officials and flown by USAF drone pilots from a control room at the CIA's Langley headquarters, produced probable sightings of the Qaeda leader.citation
url =
chapter = chapter 6, "Afghan Eyes"
title = National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States
pages = pp.189-90


Financial intelligence -- "following the money" -- often can trace the organization behind a particular attack. Once that organization is identified, value [the term "value" includes cash and negotiable documents, but also materials such as gems, opium and drugs, and precious metals] transfers from it can point to other operational cells. The United States Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) has the power to "freeze" the accounts of organizations suspected of funding terrorist activities.

Terrorist groups use three types of financing, which are increasingly difficult to track by U.S. intelligence including CIA::#Charities, which use conventional financial institutions and value transfer,:#Informal value transfer systems such as "hawala" and "hindi":#"Commodities- or trade-based money laundering includes the smuggling of bulk cash and the evasion of federal reporting requirements used to track money laundering with commodities such as diamonds, precious metals, gold, and tobacco."citation
url =
title = Countering Terrorist Financing: We Need a Long-Term Prioritizing Strategy
first = Sina | last = Lehmkuhler
date = April 2003
journal = Journal of Homeland Security
publisher = Homeland Security Institute, a U.S. Federal Contract Research Cener
] CIA is most likely to gain awareness of commodities and trade transfers outside the United States.

According to the Center for Defense Information, intelligence agencies help OFAC build its "freeze list" by sending it lists of individuals and organizations believed to be associated with terror. citation
author = CDI Terrorism Project
publisher = Center for Defense Information
url =
title = The Financial War Against Terrorism
date = 5 March 2002
] Not all such suspects go onto the freeze list, since the intelligence community can use financial transactions as a means of tracking them.

One of the challenges of anti-terrorist FININT is that surveillance of transactions only works when the value transfers go through conventional, regulated banks and other financial institutions. Many cultures use informal value transfer systems, such as the "hawala" widely used in the Middle East and Asia, where value is transferred through a network of brokers, who operate with funds often not in banks, with the value transfer orders through personal communications among brokers. The brokers know one another and operate on a paperless honor system.

A study from the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis [India] describes "narco-terrorism" as "the nexus between narcotics and terrorism...It is recognised as one of the oldest and most dependable sources of terrorist financing, primarily because of the magnitudes of finance involved in both the activities." citation
title = Terrorist Financing and Support Structures in Jammu and Kashmir
first = N.S. | last = Jamwal
journal = Strategic Analysis: A Monthly Journal of the IDSA (Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis [India] )
date Jan-Mar 2002
volume = XXVI
issue = 1
url =
] The study indicates that informal value transfer systems, known "... [in] India it is known as "hawala", in Pakistan as "hundi", in China "fei qian" (flying money), in Philippines as black market peso exchange" are important means of transferring funds to terrorist organizations.

Some "hawala" brokers have placed some of their reserve funds in banks, where they have been frozen by OFAC. On Nov. 7, 2001, the Treasury Department made raids and freezes to shut down two "hawala" networks, Al Barakaat and Al Taqwa, both believed to be funneling millions of dollars from the United States to abroad to support terrorist activities. In addition to the placement of 62 people and groups associated with the two organizations on the asset freeze list, FBI and U.S. Customs agents raided the two networks' offices in six U.S cities.

According to CDI,

The founder of Al Barakaat, Shaykh Ahmed Nur Jimale, is believed to be an associate of bin Laden who invested in and is still an owner of the organization. Al Barakaat is a financial, telecommunications and construction group headquartered in Dubai and operating largely out of Somalia. It was founded in 1989 and operates in 40 countries around the world. ... The Treasury Department said the raids on Nov. 7 resulted in the blocking of approximately $971,000 in Al Barakaat assets.

"Hawala" plays an important role in the Afghan drug economy, and in drug trade worldwide.

Analytic approach

The National Security Archive makes the point that the US government and intelligence community did not suddenly come upon terrorism on September 11, 2001.citation
work = National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 55
first1 = Jeffrey | last1 =Richelson
first2 = Michael L. | last2=Evans
date = September 21, 2001
title = The September 11th Sourcebooks: Volume I, Terrorism and US Policy
] Understanding the IC and political perceptions of the past help predict the future, identify weaknesses, and develop strategies. the beginning of the Reagan administration, Secretary of State Alexander Haig announced that opposition to terrorism would replace the Carter administration’s focus on advancing human rights throughout the world. Although opposition to terrorism never really became the primary focus of the Reagan administration or successor administrations, each of these paid significant attention to the issue and produced many important documents that shed light on the policy choices faced today. Terrorism has been the subject of numerous presidential and Defense Department directives as well as executive orders. Terrorist groups and terrorist acts have been the focus of reports by both executive branch agencies (for example, the State Department, CIA, and FBI) as well as Congressional bodies – including the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the Congressional Research Service. The General Accounting Office has also produced several dozen reports evaluating the U.S. government’s ability to prevent or mitigate terrorist strikes...
CIA's Directorate of Intelligence produces analytic products that can help identify terrorist groups, their structure, and plans. These may benefit from signals intelligence from the National Security Agency (NSA), from imagery intelligence from the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), from the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) of the Department of the Treasury, and from other specialized agencies.

Regular research

The Department of State, with CIA assistance, prepares an annual volume called "Patterns in Terrorism". FBI reporting is more irregular, but does do problem descriptions as well as specific reports. citation
work = National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 55
author = Federal Bureau of Investigation
date = 1999
chapter = Terrorism in the United States 1998
title = The September 11th Sourcebooks: Volume I, Terrorism and US Policy

While the Congressional Research Service technically is prohibited from making its reports automatically available to the public, several legislative efforts are underway to change this, and, in practice, its reports are often Internet-accessible within a few days of issue, typically on the Federation of American Scientists website.

Virtual station and cross-functional team research

While the initial implementation, Bin Laden Issue Station, did not work well, there has been an Intelligence Community effort to avoid the problems of stovepiping, especially where it involves lack of communication between analysts and operators. There is a continuing controversy on how to be sure Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) information gets to the analysts; the FBI culture has been extremely decentralized, so "dots to be connected" in two field offices were not shared, although they "might" have been a warning of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

The overall problems of stovepiping and encouraging cross-functional teams, in the context of terrorism, has been addressed, among other groups, by the House Intelligence Committee.citation
title = Counterterrorism Intelligence Capabilities and Performance Prior to 9-11: A Report to the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the Minority Leader
date = July 2002
author = Subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security, House Select Committee on Intelligence
url =
] One of their chief recommendations was:

FBI's main problem going forward is to overcome its information sharing failures. "Ensuring adequate information sharing" should be communicated throughout the Bureau as the Director's top priority, and a clear strategy incorporating the personnel dimension, the technical dimension, and the legal dimension of the information-sharing problem should be developed and communicated immediately.
Their recommendations for the CIA included:
CIA leadership must ensure that HUMINT collection remains a central core competency of the agency, and should develop additional operational tools, in conjunction with other appropriate agencies (FBI, etc,), penetrate terrorist cells, disrupt terrorist operations and capture and render terrorists to law enforcement as appropriate. More core collectors need to be put on the streets.
ClA should ensure that a management structure is in place to steward the multiyear investments needed to build new platforms to collect on terrorist targets. CIA must also ensure sufficient numbers of unilateral CT slots in field stations and bases.
CIA should lead an effort to improve watchlisting to ensure that all relevant agencies, including FBI, Homeland Security, and others, have access to a common database of up-to-date terrorist person-related data collected by US government agencies and other appropriate sources. The creation of a terrorism watchlisting unit at CIA may be a useful first step.
Require all new case officers and analysts to achieve a "level 3" language proficiency prior to initial deployment, and devise a mechanism for ensuring language skill maintenance is incentivized and directly tied to performance evaluation.
CIA should take immediate and sustained steps to dramatically improve all aspects of its CT training program. Establish structures in CTC (Counterterrorism Center) in such a manner that ensures a normal career path for these officers. Incorporate counterterrorism-related skill development in all appropriate training for case officers and analysts.
Internal policies, such as CTC's 'no threshold' threat reporting policy, should be reviewed and modified to ensure that consumers are getting the most reliable reporting and that sufficient analysis is applied to that product in advance of its wholesale dissemination, wherever possible.
The 1995 guidelines must be rescinded immediately, and replaced with new guidelines that balance concerns about human rights behavior and law breaking with the need for flexibility to take advantage of opportunities to gather information on terrorist activities, as required by law.

Under Porter Goss, for a variety of reasons including innovation, CIA has proposed moving its National Resources Division concerned with issues in the US, to Denver, letting it work more freely than under Headquarters bureaucracy. citation
title = CIA Plans to Shift Work to Denver, Domestic Division Would Be Moved
first = Dana | last = Priest
journal = Washington Post
date = May 6, 2005
page = A21
url =
] Some officers believe this is a bad idea and would hurt information sharing, the critical problem with the FBI. With due regard to the prohibition on the CIA having any domestic law enforcement powers,

... FBI is having significant problems developing its own domestic intelligence branch and the CIA is generally viewed across the intelligence community as more experienced and skilled at handling foreign informants who eventually return abroad, where the CIA has the lead in intelligence gathering and operations.

Regional analytic operations

See Counterterrorist Intelligence Centers. The CIA (and predecessors) has a long history of placing selected collection and analytic functions (e.g., Foreign Broadcast Information Service intercept locations) in places where they can coordinate with regional intelligence agencies, and also have access to people with native-level understanding of languages and culture.

Intelligence and terrorism in the 1970s

While there were no major foreign terror actions in the US during the early part decade, there were actions against US personnel and facilities in other countries. Terrorism was definitely present as a worldwide phenomenon, and the CIA produced regular reports on it. Attacks on US soil started in 1975.


The Uruguayan Tupamaros terrorist group kidnapped and killed United States Agency for International Development Police adviser Dan Mitrione; his body was found on August 10.


Within the context of nationalist terror, multiple Irish Republican Army bombings, starting on "Bloody Friday" (July 21), took place in Northern Ireland.

The best known terrorist in 1972 was the kidnapping and killing of Israeli Olympic team members, in the Munich massacre by the Palestinian group, Black September. West German response was "ad hoc" and poorly executed, resulting in the deaths of all hostages, several terrorists, and a German police officer. This incident focused world attention on the need for early warning, hostage rescue, and, with great controversy, preemptive and retaliatory attacks on terrorists.


Black September attacked the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Khartoum, Sudan. The terrorists killed the US ambassador, Cleo Noel and other diplomats.

In Guadalajara, Mexico, the People's Revolutionary Armed Forces killed the US consul general.


At Los Angeles Airport, 17 people were injured and 2 were killed at LAX when a bomb exploded near the Pan Am ticket area.


In January, Puerto Rican nationalists bombed a Wall Street bar, killing four and injuring 60; 2 days later, the Weather Underground claims responsibility for an explosion in a bathroom at the U.S. Department of State in Washington.


The hijacking of an Air France passenger aircraft, eventually arriving at Entebbe, Uganda pointed to the need for international antiterrorist cooperation, and also demonstrated the ability to rescue hostages at long range (i.e., the Israeli Operation Entebbe). This became a prototype for other hostage rescue forces.

Terrorism in the US was not necessarily directed at US organizations. Exiled Chilean Foreign Minister Orlando Letelier was killed by a car bomb in Washington, D.C. Subsequent investigations suggest the bombers may have had CIA ties in Chile. "... in February 1976, President Gerald Ford signed Executive Order (EO) 11905 which forbade all U.S. government employees from engaging in or conspiring to engage in political assassination" (Section 5(g)). Ford's EO was superseded by President Jimmy Carter's EO 12036, which tightened restrictions on intelligence agencies. The ban on assassinations was continued by President Ronald Reagan in 1981, (EO 12333, Sec 2.11) and extended to apply specifically to intelligence agencies. This ban remains in effect today, although challenges have been mounted in each of the last two years by Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga.cite web
url =
title = Presidential Orders and Document Regarding Foreign Intelligence and Terrorism
date = 2002-06-17
author = Center for Defense Information, CDI Terrorism Project


Also see EO 12036, signed by President Carter in 1978, and the current Executive Order, EO 12333, signed by President Reagan in 1981, continued the requirement for oversight to maintain the proper balance between the acquisition of essential information by the Intelligence Community, and the protection of individuals' constitutional and statutory rights.

Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro was seized by the Red Brigades later killed. This brought additional NATO attention to the problem.


In January, Iranian militants captured the buildings and staff of the US embassy in Teheran. A number of CIA operational documents were reconstructed.

In November, there was Muslim-on-Muslim violence with the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. French security forces assisted the Saudis in recapturing the building, indicating that ad hoc alliances would form for both terrorism and counterterrorism.

Intelligence and terrorism in the 1980s

It became increasingly obvious, in the 1980s, that there is no generally accepted definition of terrorism, as a unique offense. For example, many discussions of terrorism emphasize it is directed against noncombatants. World War II kamikaze suicide attacks were terrifying for the sailors against which they were directed, but the attacks were exclusively directed at military targets, by the regular military of a nation-state.

Attacks by non-national actors, such as the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing of US and French troops under UN auspices, are more problematic. The Beirut attacks are usually called "terrorism" in news reports, but, if terrorism is assumed to be against noncombatants, they may not qualify. The organizers and attackers might well be categorized as illegal combatants under the Geneva Convention, but the Conventions do not define terrorism.

During this decade, the US supported Muslim fighters against the Soviets in Afghanistan. The training and arms supplied may have helped start transnational jihadist groups.


In April 1982, President Ronald Reagan signed National Security Decision Directive (NSDD) 30cite web
url =
publisher = Federation of American Scientists
author = Ronald Reagan
title = National Security Decision Directive (NSDD) 30: Managing Terrorist Incidents
] dealing with responses to armed attacks on U.S. citizens or assets. The NSDD created a coordinating body, the Interdepartmental Group on Terrorism, to develop and assign to various executive agencies specific responsibilities when terrorist incidents occurred. The objective was to have in place, before an incident occurred, guidelines for such matters as lines of authority, intelligence responsibilities, and response training. A Special Situation Group (SSG) was established to advise the president, and lead agencies to coordinate responses were named.:#For international terrorist incidents outside U.S. territory, the State Department had the lead role.:#For incidents, the Justice Department was to be the lead agency with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI0 in the lead for operational response.:#For plane hijackings within the "special jurisdiction of the United States, the lead agency was the Federal Aviation Administration.:#For planning and managing public health aspects of terrorist incidents, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was the responsible agency.

Supporting the SSG was a Terrorist Incident Working Group with representatives from the Departments of State and Defense, the Director of Central Intelligence, the FBI, FEMA, and the National Security Staff. It was to give "direct operational support…and to provide advice and recommendations during an incident" to the SSG.

In November 1982, following the establishment of the DoD Inspector General, the Deputy Secretary of Defense directed that the Inspector General for Intelligence be redesignated as the Assistant to the Secretary of Defense (Intelligence Oversight) (ATSD (IO)). Today, the ATSD (IO) reports on Intelligence Oversight activities at least quarterly to the Secretary of Defense and, through him, to the Intelligence Oversight Board (IOB), a standing committee of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB).cite web
title = Mission/History: Assistant to the Secretary of Defense (Intelligence Oversight)
url =


The major terrorist incident was the bombing of a UN observer force in Beirut, which led to considerable rethinking of U.S. rules of engagement, the deterrent effect of a US presence, and the issue of force protection intelligence. See the Marine rethinking of the role of SIGINT for force protection.

1983 Beirut barracks bombing

Suicide attacks in Beirut cost the lives of 241 American and 58 French soldiers, with many casualties. Often called terrorist attacks, this designation seems to be more a facet of the means of attack, and that it was carried out by non-national actors, than that it was intended to terrorize a civilian population.

Further complicating the designation is that there is no consensus on who sponsored the attacks. A US court did find Iran responsible, which would make it an attack by a nation-state on military personnel of two other nation-states. In 2001, former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger stated: "But we still do not have the actual knowledge of who did the bombing of the Marine barracks at the Beirut Airport, and we certainly didn't then." cite news
publisher=PBS Frontline
title=Interview: Caspar Weinberger

Rules of engagement for the Marines were restrictive; they could not set up what would be considered today a safe perimeter against truck bombs. They carried rifles that had to be loaded before use; there were no heavier weapons that could deflect a truck or destroy its engine. citation
title = Report of the DoD Commission on Beirut International Airport Terrorist Act, October 23, 1983
date = 20 December 1983
url =
first1=Robert L.J. | last1= Long|first2= Robert J. | last2=Murray |first3= Lawrence F. | last3 = Snowden | first4= Eugene F., Jr. | last4 = Tighe | first5 =Joseph T., Jr. | last5= Palastra

The Commission termed this a terrorist attack, and raised questions about the intelligence support available to it (emphasis added):

Intelligence provided a good picture of the broad threat facing the USMNF [US multinational force] in Lebanon. Every intelligence agency in the national community and throughout the chain of command disseminated a great amount of analysis and raw data. Key Defense officials and the military chain of command ere alert to, and concerned with, the insights it provided them. There was an awareness of the existing dangerous situation at every level, but no one had specific information on how, where and when the threat would be carried out. Throughout the period of the USMNF presence in Lebanon, intelligence sources were unable to provide proven, accurate, definitive information on terrorist tactics against our forces. This shortcoming held to be the case on 23 October 1983. The terrorist threat was just one among many threats facing the USMNF from the many factions armed with artillery, crew served weapons and small arms.citation
chapter = Part Four. Intelligence
pages = 57-66
title = Report of the DoD Commission on Beirut International Airport Terrorist Act, October 23, 1983
date = 20 December 1983
url =
first1=Robert L.J. | last1= Long|first2= Robert J. | last2=Murray |first3= Lawrence F. | last3 = Snowden | first4= Eugene F., Jr. | last4 = Tighe | first5 =Joseph T., Jr. | last5= Palastra
] ...

The USMNF was operating in an urban environment surrounded by hostile forces without any way of pursuing the accuracy of data in order to head off attack. The intelligence structure should be reviewed from both a design and capabilities standpoint. We need to establish ourselves early in a potential trouble spot and find new techniques to isolate and penetrate our potential enemies. Once established, our military forces (and especially ground forces) need to have aggressive, specific intelligence to give the commander the hard information he needs to counter the threats against his force. U.S. intelligence is primarily geared for the support of air and naval forces engaged in nuclear and conventional warfare. Significant attention must be given by the entire U.S. intelligence structure to purging and refining of masses of generalized information into intelligence analysis useful to small unit ground commanders.


In 1984, the CIA both suffered from terrorism directed at it, and also supported anti-Soviet guerillas in Afghanistan that the Soviets considered terrorists.

Kidnapping of CIA Beirut station chief and US response authorizing preemption

"NSDD 138 was the next known significant Reagan-era action. It was promulgated after the March 16, 1984 kidnapping of the Central Intelligence Agency's Beirut, Lebanon station chief, William Buckley. This NSDD, much of which remains classified, permitted both the CIA and the Federal Bureau of Investigation to form covert operations teams and to use military special operations forces to conduct guerrilla-style war against guerrillas. The NSDD reportedly permits pre-emptive operations, retaliation, expanded intelligence collection, and when necessary, killing of guerrillas in "pre-emptive" self-defense. States that sponsored guerrillas, or what today would generally be lumped under the term terrorists, could be targeted for operations. These included Iran, Libya, Syria, Cuba, North Korea - all identified before Sept. 11, 2001, by the State Department as state-sponsors of terrorism. Nicaragua and the Soviet Union were reportedly also on the list."

Creation of al-Qaeda

The network that became known as al-Qaeda ("The Base") grew out of Arab volunteers who fought the Soviets and their puppet regimes in Afghanistan in the 1980s. In 1984 Abdullah Azzam and Osama bin Laden set up an organization known as the Office of Services in Peshawar, Pakistan, to coordinate and finance the "Afghan Arabs", as the volunteers became known.

Azzam and Bin Laden set up recruitment offices in the US, under the name "Al-Khifah", the hub of which was the Farouq Mosque in Brooklyn's Atlantic Avenue. This was "a place of pivotal importance for Operation Cyclone".citation
first = Andrew | last = Marshall
url -
title = Terror 'blowback' burns CIA: America's spies paid and trained their nation's worst enemies
journal = Independent On Sunday
date = 1 Nov 1998
comment = privately archived copy

upport to the Afghan resistance

The CIA also channeled US aid to Afghan resistance fighters via Pakistan in a covert operation known as Operation Cyclone. It denied dealing with non-Afghan fighters, or having direct contact with bin Laden.citation
first = Steve | last = Coll
title = Ghost Wars
publisher = Penguin
year = 2005
page = 87
] However, various authorities relate that the Agency brought both Afghans and Arabs to the United States for military training.citation
first = Giles | last = Foden
url =,1284,551971,00.html
title = Blowback Chronicles
journal = Guardian
date = 15 Sep 2001
] citation
first = John | last = Cooley
title =Unholy Wars: Afghanistan, America and International Terrorism
publisher = Pluto Press
edition = 3
year = 2002
ISBN-10= 0745319181
] citation
url =
title = Cooperative Research transcript of Fox TV interview with J. Michael Springmann (head of the non-immigrant visa section at the US consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in 1987-88)
date = July 18, 2002
] citation
journal = US News & World Report
date = 12 December 2001
title = The easy path to the United States for three of the 9/11 hijackers
first = Edward T. | last = Pound
url =


Foundation of the Counterterrorist Center

In the mid 1980s there was a spate of terrorist activity, much of it by Palestinian organizations. In 1986 the CIA founded the Counterterrorist Center, an interdisciplinary body drawing its personnel from the Directorates of Operations, Intelligence, and other US intelligence organizations. It first got to grips with secular terrorism, but found the upcoming Islamist terror much more difficult to penetrate. In the 1990s the latter became a major preoccupation of the center.

Afghanistan and its consequences

In the 1980s the CIA covertly supported the Afghan guerrilla struggle against the Soviets, in an operation known as "Operation Cyclone". "Blowback" is a CIA term of art referring to operations, launched against an enemy, which eventually hurt their originators. Various programs, either directly supported by, or known to, US intelligence, were encouraged, in the 1980s, to train combatants for Afghanistan.

Some of this training and preparation took place in the United States. In the case at hand, blowback into the United States may have come from a pipeline, from Brooklyn, New York, to Peshawar, Pakistan, the gateway to joining the Afghan mujahedin. The Brooklyn end was at the Al Kifah Refugee Center, funded under the CIA's Operation Cyclone, and the associated Afghan Refugee Service. The Maktab al-Khidamat ("Office of Services") was founded in Peshawar in 1984 by Abdullah Azzam and Osama bin Laden to finance and support this effort. "Cold warriors" in the CIA and US State Department looked favorably on these efforts, and considered that they should be formally endorsed and expanded, perhaps along the lines of the international brigades of the Spanish Civil War. "Bin Laden actually did some very good things", said Milton Bearden, chief of the CIA's Islamabad station in the later 1980s. "He put a lot of money in a lot of right places in Afghanistan. He never came on the screen of any Americans as either a terrific asset or someone who was anti-American." The CIA denied, however, actually assisting the "Arab Afghans" (as the Arab volunteers became known), or having direct contact with Bin Laden. [ citation
url =
title = Hunting Bin Laden
journal = Frontline
date = March 21, 2000

Arrested in the US, for the embassy bombings, was a former Egyptian soldier named Ali Mohamed (sometimes called "al-Amriki", the American), who is alleged to have provided training and assistance to Mr Bin Laden's operatives. At that time, however, he was a member of the United States Army Special Forces.citation
title = Terror 'blowback' burns CIA: America's spies paid trained their nation's worst enemies
first = Andrew | last = Marshall
journal = Independent
date = 1 November 1998
comment = Copy. Original not online.
url =
] FBI special agent Jack Cloonan calls him "bin Laden's first trainer".citation
title = The Torture Question: Interview, Jack Cloonan: When 9/11 happens, what was your history with Al Qaeda?
url =
journal = PBS Frontline
date = 18 October 2005
publisher = PBS
] Originally an Egyptian army captain, in the 1980s Mohamed came to the US and became a supply sergeant to the Green Berets in Fort Bragg. At the same time he was involved with Egyptian Islamic Jihad (which "merged" with al-Qaeda in the 1990s), and later with Qaeda itself. Mohamed boasted of fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. He had worked for the CIA in the earlier 1980s, but the agency supposedly dropped him after he boasted of his relationship. But Mohamed's behavior led his commanding officer, Lt. Col. Robert Anderson, to believe he was still a US intelligence asset. ("I assumed the CIA", said Anderson.) In 1989 Mohamed trained anti-Soviet fighters in his spare time, apparently at the al-Khifah center in Brooklyn. He was "honorably discharged" from the US military in November 1989.

Another individual associated with the Brooklyn center was the "Blind Sheikh" Abdel Rahman, a leading recruiter of "mujaheddin", who obtained US entry visas with the help of the CIA in 1987 and 1990.

J. Michael Springmann, head of the non-immigrant visa section at the "CIA-dominated" US consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in 1987-88, said he learned that the CIA had a "program to bring people to the United States for terrorist training, people recruited by the CIA and its asset Usama bin Laden, and the idea was to get them trained and send them back to Afghanistan to fight the then Soviets." "Their nationalities for the most part were Pakistani, Palestinian, Syrian, Lebanese." These "recruits without backgrounds" were given visas over Springmann's protests.citation
url =
title = Policing the Borders: Old Fears, New Realities
first = J. Michael | last = Springmann
journal = Centre for Research in Globalisation
date = 5 February 2003

[T] hose directly recruited by the US ... went to Camp Peary — "the Farm", as the CIA's spy training centre in Virginia is known in the intelligence community ... At the Farm and other secret camps, young Afghans and Arab nationals from countries such as Egypt and Jordan learned strategic sabotage skills. [Giles Foden, [,1284,551971,00.html "Blowback Chronicles"] , "Guardian" (UK), Sept. 15, 2001; referring to John Cooley, Unholy Wars: Afghanistan, America and International Terrorism (Pluto Press, no date given)] ]

Bin Laden's early years: terrorist financier

In about 1988 Bin Laden set up al-Qaeda from the more extreme elements of the Services Office. But it was not a large organization. When Jamal al-Fadl (who had been recruited through the Brooklyn center in the mid 1980s) joined in 1989, he was described as Qaeda's "third member". [Peter L Bergen, "Holy War, Inc: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden" (Weidenfield & Nicholson, 2001), p.65.]

Congressional testimony from then-DCI George Tenet speaks of knowledge and analysis of Bin Laden, from his early years as a terrorist financier to his leadership of a worldwide network of terrorism based in Afghanistan.

According to Tenet, Bin Laden gained prominence during the Afghan war for his role in financing the recruitment, transportation, and training of Arab nationals who fought alongside the Afghan mujahedin against the Soviets during the 1980s. Tenet denied there had been any US government involvement with him until the early nineties. See Allegations of CIA assistance to Osama bin Laden.

Intelligence and terrorism in the 1990s

The 1990s were characterized by a wide range of terrorist activities, from a religious cult that used WMDs, to an attack on the World Trade Center by an "ad hoc" jihadist group, to coordinated al-Qaeda attacks.

Accounts differ on when the United States recognized bin Laden as an individual financier of terror, as opposed to when al-Qaida was recognized as a group.

In the early 1990s Ali Mohamed, who had been a United States Army Special Forces supply sergeant, returned to Afghanistan, where he gave training in al-Qaeda camps. According to FBI special agent Jack Cloonan, in one of Mohamed's first classes were Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and other al-Qaeda leaders.citation
title = The Torture Question: Interview, Jack Cloonan: When 9/11 happens, what was your history with Al Qaeda?
url =
journal = PBS Frontline
date = 18 October 2005
publisher = PBS
] According to the "San Francisco Chronicle", he was involved in planning the 1998 bombings of US embassies in Africa citation
journal = San Francisco Chronicle
title = Al Qaeda terrorist worked with FBI: Ex-Silicon Valley resident plotted embassy attacks
first1 = Lance | last1=Williams | first2 = Erin | last2 =McCormick
date = November 4, 2001
url =
] [ Jack Cloonan interview] , Frontline, PBS, Oct. 18, 2005.]


Eventually, the Services office and Al-Kifah were also linked to Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, an Egyptian religious leader later jailed for the planned New York bombings. Even Sheikh Abdel-Rahman had, apparently, entered the US with the full knowledge of the CIA in 1990.

But by the mid-1990s, America's view of Al-Kifah had changed. It discovered that several of those charged with the World Trade Center bombing and the New York landmarks bombings were former Afghan veterans, recruited through the Brooklyn-based organisation. Many of those the US had trained and recruited for a war were still fighting: but now it was against America. A confidential CIA internal survey concluded that it was 'partly culpable' for the World Trade Center bomb, according to reports of the time. There had been blowback.

Jamal al-Fadl (himself recruited through the Brooklyn center in the mid 1980s) was described as the "third member". Al-Fadl later "defected" to the CIA and provided the agency's Bin Laden unit with a great deal of evidence about al-Qaeda.citation
url =
first = Jane | last = Mayer
title = Junior: The clandestine life of America’s top Al Qaeda source
journal = New Yorker
date = 11 September 2006


The 1993 World Trade Center bombing was a conspiracy, and a group of the conspirators were arrested, convicted, and imprisoned. There has been no strong argument that al-Qaeda was involved, although there have been allegations, including by a former Director of Central Intelligence, that Iraq supported the operational cell. In October 2001 in a PBS interview, former Clinton CIA Director James Woolsey argued a supposed link between Ramzi Youssef and the Iraqi intelligence services. He suggested the grand jury investigation turned up evidence pointing to Iraq that the Clinton Justice Department "brushed aside."

Neil Herman, who headed the FBI investigation, noted that despite Yasin's presence in Baghdad, there was no evidence of Iraqi support for the attack. "We looked at that rather extensively," he told CNN terrorism analyst Peter L. Bergen. "There were no ties to the Iraqi government." Bergen writes, "In sum, by the mid-'90s, the Joint Terrorism Task Force in New York, the F.B.I., the U.S. Attorney's office in the Southern District of New York, the C.I.A., the N.S.C., and the State Department had all found no evidence implicating the Iraqi government in the first Trade Center attack."Fact|date=March 2008

Claims that Saddam Hussein was behind the bombing are based on the research of Laurie Mylroie of the conservative American Enterprise Institute.citation
url =
first = Peter | last = Bergen
journal = Washington Monthly
date =


Only a brief mention of Colombian FARC activity is mentioned in the declassified part of the 1995 Terrorism Review.citation
author = DCI Counterterrorism Center
title = 1995 Terrorism Review
publisher = Central Intelligence Agency
url =
comment = URL does not go directly to document, but to FOIA Reading Room. Search using "terrorism review"

March 1995 actions by the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo demonstrated that the use of WMD is no longer restricted to the battlefield. Japanese authorities have determined that the Aum was working on developing the chemical nerve agents sarin and VX. The Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo, which attacked Japanese civilians with deadly gas just one year ago (March 20, 1995) also tried to mine its own uranium in Australia and to buy Russian nuclear warheads.


The attack on the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia is the only declassified subject in the 1996 Terrorism Reviewcitation
author = DCI Counterterrorism Center
title = 1996 Terrorism Review
publisher = Central Intelligence Agency
url =
comment = URL does not go directly to document, but to FOIA Reading Room. Search using "terrorism review"
] Responsibility for the attack was, at the time of publication of the Review, not determined.

Bin Ladin came to the attention of the CIA as an emerging terrorist threat during his stay in Sudan from 1991 to 1996.

The Agency, however, began to be concerned than bin Laden would extend his activities beyond Afghanistan. It experimented with various internal organizations that could focus on subjects such as bin Laden specifically and al-Qaeda generally.In 1996 an experimental "virtual station" was launched, modeled on the agency's geographically-based stations, but based in Washington and dedicated to a particular transnational issue. It was placed under the Counterterrorist Center (CTC), and, like the CTC, cut across disciplines and drew its personnel from widely across the CIA and other intelligence agencies. Michael Scheuer, who up to then headed the Center's Islamic extremist branch, was asked to run it. Scheuer, who had noticed a stream of intelligence reports about Osama bin Laden, suggested the station be dedicated to this particular individual. The station began to produce evidence that Bin Laden was not only a financier, but also an organizer of terror. Originally dubbed "Terrorist Financial Links" (TFL),citation
first = George | last = Tenet | authorlink = George Tenet
title = At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA
publisher = HarperCollins
year = 2007
ISBN-10 = 0061147788
page = p.100.
] the unit soon became rechristened the Bin Laden Issue Station.

Jamal al-Fadl, who defected to the CIA in spring 1996, began to provide the Station with a new image of the Qaeda leader: he was not only a terrorist financier, but a terrorist organizer too, and sought weapons of mass destruction. FBI special agent Dan Coleman (who together with his partner Jack Cloonan had been "seconded" to the Bin Laden Station) called him Qaeda's "Rosetta Stone". [Jane Mayer, [ "Junior: The clandestine life of America's top Al Qaeda source"] , "New Yorker", Sept. 11, 2006.]


On 7 August 1998, near simultaneous car bomb attacks struck US embassies, and local buildings, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and Nairobi, Kenya. The attacks, linked to local members of the al Qaeda terrorist network headed by Osama bin Laden, brought bin Laden and al Qaeda to international attention for the first time, and resulted in the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation placing bin Laden on its Ten Most Wanted list.

The declassified page of the 1998 Terrorism Review speaks of the release of hostages by Colombia's two major guerilla organizations, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). Kidnapping is the only threat mentioned, with a warning of continued danger to US interests. citation
author = DCI Counterterrorism Center
title = 1998 Terrorism Review
publisher = Central Intelligence Agency
url =
comment = URL does not go directly to document, but to FOIA Reading Room. Search using "terrorism review"

The Review makes no mention of other countries or threats, but only the cover and one page were even partially declassified.


In 1999 DCI George Tenet launched a grand "Plan" to deal with al-Qaeda. In preparation, he selected new leadership for the Counterterrorist Center (CTC). He placed Cofer Black in charge of the CTC, and "Rich B" (a "top-flight executive" from Tenet's own leadership group) in charge of the CTC's Bin Laden unit. Tenet assigned the CTC to develop the Plan. [Tenet, "At The Center of the Storm", pp.119, 120.] The proposals, brought out in September, sought to penetrate Qaeda's "Afghan sanctuary" with US and Afghan agents, in order to obtain information on and mount operations against Bin Laden's network. In October, officers from the Bin Laden unit visited northern Afghanistan. Once the Plan was finalized, the Agency created a "Qaeda cell" (whose functions overlapped those of the CTC's Bin Laden unit) to give operational leadership to the effort. CIA intelligence chief Charles E. Allen to set up a "Qaeda cell" was put in charge of the tactical execution of the Plan. i

The CIA concentrated its inadequate financial resources on the Plan, so that at least some of its more modest aspirations were realized. 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". (But this excluded Bin Laden's inner circle itself.)citation
url =
first = George | last = Tenet | authorlink = George Tenet
title = Written Statement for the Record of the Director of Central Intelligence Before the Joint Inquiry Committee
date = 17 October 2002

Al Qaeda operated as an organization in more than sixty countries, the CIA's Counterterrorist Center calculated by late 1999 [a figure that was to help underpin the "War On Terror" two years later] . Its formal, sworn, hard-core membership might number in the hundreds. Thousands more joined allied militias such as the [Afghan] Taliban or the Chechen rebel groups or Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines or the Islamic movement of Uzbekistan....

A heavily redacted CIA document, the 1999 Terrorism Review, reveals concern with Libyan support of terrorism, through its External Security Organization (ESO). citation
author = DCI Counterterrorism Center
title = 1999 Terrorism Review
publisher = Central Intelligence Agency
url =
comment = URL does not go directly to document, but to FOIA Reading Room. Search using "terrorism review"
] The ESO is described as responsible for surveillance, assassination, and kidnapping of Libyan dissidents outside the country; examples were given from actions in the United Kingdom and Egypt. Libya was also described as attempting to build influence in sub-Saharan Africa, supporting a range of Palestinian rejectionist groups, and giving funds and equipment to the Moro Islamic Liberation Organization and Abu Sayyaf Group in the Philippines.

In addition, the World Anti-Imperialist Center (Mahatba) and the World Islamic Call Society (WICS) were described as part of terrorist infrastructure. This review does not mention any country, other than Libya, or non-national actor as a sponsor of terrorism, as opposed to an operational terrorist group.

Intelligence and terrorism in the 2000s

In late 2000 Tenet, recognizing the deficiency of "big-picture" analysis of al-Qaeda, appointed a senior manager in the Counterterrorist Center to investigate "creating a strategic assessment capability". This led to the creation of the Strategic Assessments Branch in 2001.


On October 12, 2000 three suicide bombers detonated a skiff packed with explosives alongside the American Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, the USS Cole, which was docked in Aden Harbor, Yemen. The blast blew a hole convert|20|ft|m high and convert|40|ft|m wide in the ship's hull, killed 17 of the ship's crew and injured 30. "With just slightly more skilled execution, CIA analysts later concluded, the bombers would have killed three hundred and sent the destroyer to the bottom." [Steve Coll, "Ghost Wars" (Penguin, 2005 edn), p.537.] See USS Cole bombing for details of the attack and response to it.

The attack on the USS Cole apparently came out of the blue. However Kie Fallis at the Defense Intelligence Agency, from "data mining and analysis", had "predicted" in early autumn 2000 a Qaeda attack by an explosives-laden small boat against a US warship. And in late September 2000 the DIA experimental data-mining operation Able Danger had uncovered information of increased Qaeda "activity" in Aden Harbor, Yemen. Able Danger elevated Yemen "to be one of the top three hot spots for al-Qaeda in the entire world" and, allegedly days before the Cole attack, warned the Pentagon and administration of the danger. But the "warnings" were "ignored". [ [ Able Danger timeline] , Cooperative Research.]

Clandestine intelligence/covert action

In 2000 the CIA and USAF jointly ran a series of flights over Afghanistan with a small remote-controlled reconnaissance drone, the Predator; they obtained probable photos of Bin Laden. Cofer Black and others became advocates of arming the Predator with missiles to try to assassinate Bin Laden and other Qaeda leaders.


Covert action

Paramilitary support

In the spring of 2001, CIA officers evaluated the forces of Ahmed Shah Massoud, and found his strength less than the previous fall. While the officers gave him cash and supplies, and received intelligence on the Taliban, they did not have the authority to build back his fighting strength against the Taliban.

Targeted killing in war versus assassination

While the US has had a series of Presidential Executive Orders banning assassinations, none of those Orders actually defined assassination. citation
first1 =Elizabeth B. | last1 = Bazan
date =4 January 2002
url =
title =Assassination Ban and E.O. 12333: A Brief Summary
publisher =CRS Report for Congress
] Using dictionary rather than statutory definition, a common definition is "murder by surprise for political purposes". Jeffrey Addicott argues that if murder is generally accepted as an illegal act in US and international law, so if assassination is a form of murder, the Orders cannot be making illegal something that is already illegal. citation
first1 =Jeffrey | last1 = Addicott
year =2002
url =
publisher = University of Pittsburgh School of Law
journal = Jurist
title =The Yemen Attack: Illegal Assassination or Lawful Killing?

The Hague and Geneva Conventions did not consider non-national actors as belligerents in general war. The Conventions do consider spontaneous rising against invasion and civil war as having lawful combatants, but there are much more restrictions of the status, as legal combatants, of fighters who came to a war from an external country. This discussion will not address the controversial issue of illegal combatants, but, following Addicott's reasoning, assumes that violence, in defense to an attack, is legal under Article 51 of the UN Charter.

Note that before the attackers in the September 11, 2001 attacks were identified, the US invoked the NATO treaty, without objection, as a member state that had been attacked. "In the War on Terror, it is beyond legal dispute that the virtual-State al-Qa’eda terrorists are aggressors and that the United States is engaging in self-defense when using violence against them." Black and others became advocates of arming the Predator with AGM-114 Hellfire missiles to try to assassinate Bin Laden and other Qaeda leaders. But there were both legal and technical issues. Tenet in particular was concerned about the CIA moving back into the business of assassination. And a series of live-fire tests in the Nevada Desert in summer 2001 produced mixed results.

In June 2001, at a test site in Nevada in the US, CIA and Air Force personnel built a replica of Bin Laden's villa in Kandahar, Afghanistan. The Predator controllers tested aiming and firing a Predator missile at the house, and post-strike analysis showed it would have killed anyone in the targeted room. The significance of this demonstration was called a "holy grail" by one participant. A weapon now existed which, at long range, could kill Bin Laden shortly after finding him. Practice runs proved reliable, but, according to the "Washington Post", the Bush Administration refrained from such action. On September 4, a new set of directives called for increasing pressure against the Taliban until they either ejected al Qaeda or faced a serious threat to their continued power. No decision on using this capability had reached President Bush by September 11. citation
first = Barton | last = Gellman
url =
title = A Strategy's Cautious Evolution
journal = Washington Post
date = January 20, 2002
page = p.A01

Tenet advised cautiously at the Cabinet-level Principals Committee on September 4, 2001. If the Cabinet wanted to empower the CIA to field a lethal drone, he said, "they should do so with their eyes wide open, fully aware of the potential fallout if there were a controversial or mistaken strike". National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice concluded that the armed Predator was required, but evidently not ready. She advised the CIA to consider re-starting reconnaissnace flights. The "previously reluctant" Tenet then ordered the Agency to do so. The CIA was authorized to "deploy the system with weapons-capable aircraft". [Steve Coll, "Ghost Wars" (Penguin, 2005 edn), p.581.] citation
url =
title = Tenet statement to the 9/11 Commission
date = March 24, 2004
pages = pp.15, 16

trategic Assessments Branch

The Counterterrorist Center, which Tenet had assigned to advise on setting up a strategic assessment capability, reported back in March. "In [an] early Spring 2001 briefing to the DCI, [the] CTC requested hiring a small group of contractors not involved in day-to-day crises to digest vast quantities of information and develop targeting strategies. The briefing emphasized that the unit needed people, not money."

The Strategic Assessments Branch of the Counterterrorist Center was formally set up in July. But it struggled to find personnel. The branch's chief reported for duty on September 10, 2001. ["9/11 Commission Report", [ chapter 11] , p.342 ( [ HTML version] ).] [ [ Tenet statement to the 9/11 Commission, March 24, 2004] , p.8.] [ [ Joint Inquiry Final Report, part three] , p.387.]

World-Wide Attack Matrix

After 9/11, the CIA came under criticism for not having done enough to prevent the attacks. DCI George Tenet rejected the criticism, citing the Agency's planning efforts especially over the preceding two years. His response came in a briefing held on September 15, 2001, where he presented the Worldwide Attack Matrix, a classified document describing covert CIA anti-terror operations in eighty countries in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. The actions, underway or being recommended, would range from "routine propaganda to lethal covert action in preparation for military attacks." The plans, if carried out, "would give the CIA the broadest and most lethal authority in its history." [cite web
work=The Washington Post
title=At Camp David, Advise and Dissent
first1=Bob | last1 = Woodward | first2= Dan | last2 = Balz

Tenet said that the CIA's efforts had put the Agency in a position to respond rapidly and effectively to the attacks, both in the "Afghan sanctuary" and in "ninety-two countries around the world". [George Tenet, "At The Center Of The Storm" (Harper Press, 2007), pp.121-2; cf. p.178.]

At the Cabinet-level Principals Committee meeting on terrorism of September 4, 2001, Tenet warned of the dangers of a contoversial or mistaken strike with an under-tested armed drone. After the meeting, the CIA resumed reconnaissance flights, the drones now being weapons-capable but as yet unarmed. [Steve Coll, "Ghost Wars" (Penguin, 2005 edn), pp.580-1] [ [ Tenet statement to the 9/11 Commission, March 24, 2004] , pp.15, 16] [Barton Gellman, " [ A Strategy's Cautious Evolution] ", "Washington Post", Jan. 20, 2002, p.A01] ["9/11 Commission Report", [ chapter 6] , pp.210-14 ( [ HTML version] ); ibid, [ Notes] , p.513, note 258 (see note 255) ( [ HTML version] )]


Starting on September 11, the strategy was no longer steady escalation, but multiple attacks on multiple fronts. On 5 November 2002, newspapers reported that Al-Qaeda operatives in a car travelling through Yemen had been killed by a missile launched from a CIA-controlled Predator drone (a medium-altitude, remote-controlled aircraft).


On May 15, 2005, it was reported that another of these drones had been used to assassinate Al-Qaeda figure Haitham al-Yemeni inside Pakistan. cite journal
first =Dana
last =Priest
authorlink = Dana Priest
date = 2005-05-15
title =Surveillance Operation in Pakistan Located and Killed Al Qaeda Official
journal =Washington Post
pages =A25
url =


On January 13 2006, the CIA launched an airstrike on Damadola, a Pakistani village near the Afghan border, where they believed Ayman al-Zawahiri was located. The airstrike killed a number of civilians but al-Zawahiri apparently was not among them. cite journal
first =Dafna
last =Linzer
coauthors =Griff Witte
year =2006
month =January 14
title =U.S. Airstrike Targets Al Qaeda's Zawahiri
pages =A09
url =
] The Pakistani government issued a citation
url =
date = January 14, 2006
journal = Cable News Network
title = Pakistan protests airstrike: 18 killed, but al Qaeda No. 2 man apparently not among them
] protest against the US attack, which it considered violated its sovereignty.


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