At the Center of The Storm- My Years at the CIA by George Tenet, Former Director CIA & The Great War of Our Time- the CIA’s Fight Against Terrorism- From al Qaida to ISIS by Michael Morell, Former Dy. Director CIA

These two books paint a contemporaneous picture of the CIA’s fight against Islamic terrorism. George Tenet was the Director, CIA from 1997 to 2004, having the unique distinction of serving two Presidents, Clinton and Bush. While Tenet was inducted from outside the CIA, Morell was a career Intelligence officer, who served the CIA for 33 years, retiring as Deputy Director in 2013. Tenet was in the thick of the storm arising from the 9/11 attacks while Morell’s book brings us up to the birth and growth of the ISIS. Both of them witnessed the ‘finest hours’ of the CIA- Tenet in dismantling of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 2001, and Morell in the killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbotabad in 2011. Both also suffered some ignominy arising from significant failures in Iraq and Libya.

Pakistan was an important ally of the CIA in the fight against terrorism, having delivered important fugitives such as Khalid Mohammed Sheikh, Ramzi Yousef and Abu Faraj al-Libi, but both Tenet and Morell attest to the difficult relation they had with Pakistan’s security and intelligence agencies. Tenet writes, “The Pakistanis always knew more than they were telling us, and they had been singularly uncooperative in helping us run these guys down. My own belief, one shared widely within the CIA, was that what the Pakistanis feared was a two-front conflict, with the Indians seeking to reclaim Pakistan and the Taliban mullahs trying to export their radical brand of Islam across the border with Afghanistan…the best way to avoid having their nation Talibanized was to keep their enemy close. That meant not co-operating with us in hunting down Bin Laden and his organization”.

Tenet holds that the relationship was further complicated by mistrust and resentment with suspicions in the Pakistani officer corps that the U.S. had unstated ulterior motives in Afghanistan, especially to keep the nation unstable and chaotic to discourage construction of oil and gas pipelines through Afghanistan and Pakistan. He adds, “From an intelligence perspective, we had precious few leverage points to build”.

Morell also dilates on the CIA’s fraught relationship with the ISI, which became worse after the Abbotabad raid and the earlier Raymond Davis affair in January 2011 in Lahore. Of Pasha, the ISI Chief, Morell says that he was the most nationalistic leader that he met but whose thinking got clouded by his ultra nationalism. Pasha strongly felt that “Indians have been, are, and will remain an existential threat to the state of Pakistan.” Morell adds that he disagreed to his face and told him that India was focused on growing its economy and improving the standard of living of its people, and that it had moved on long ago from its singular focus on Pakistan. Pasha and his government were stuck in a time warp and while they worried about India, other much more serious threats were emerging around them. Pasha did not respond.

Both Tenet and Morell mention in some detail the career path and the hunt for Osama Bin Laden (OBL). Osama was the only son of the tenth wife of a Saudi construction magnate and first appeared in CIA dispatches in 1990s’ while living in Sudan. Osama was born in Riyadh in 1957 and studied in Abdul Aziz University where he became close to the Muslim Brotherhood. He went to Afghanistan in early 1980s and was involved in funding and organizing the flow of foreign militants into Afghanistan in the war against the Soviets. That experience firmed up his belief that ideologically driven militants could defeat a professional army. This was reinforced in Somalia, where he had sent his advisors to assist the warlord, Mohammed Farrah Aidid, who was then attacking American forces working in support of an U.S. aid effort to deal with famine and chaos in Somalia. U.S. withdrawal from Somalia strengthened Osama’s belief that the Americans were soft and could be more easily defeated than the Soviets.

OBL spent the years 1991-96 in Sudan establishing training camps and financing the travel of hundreds of Afghan war veterans to these camps. In late 1992, he financed the bombing of a hotel in Aden housing U.S. servicemen. During this period OBL also acquired an interest in procuring WMDs, a fact which the CIA came to know only much later. In 1996, OBL relocated to Afghanistan and between 1995 and mid-1998 started publically professing his hatred for the U.S. expressing his intent to force the U.S. to retreat from the Muslim lands. At the same time, OBL built a document forgery capability and mechanisms to move money securely.

CIA’s efforts to track al-Qaida (AQ) started in 1996 with the setting up of an exclusive “Alec” station but Morell, himself from the analyst stream in the CIA, regrets that divisions within the CIA prevented the Alec station, headed by an analyst, from getting the required support from the Directorate of Operations. Alec station also failed to penetrate the AQ in terms of spies, with coverage limited to peripheral assets. As a consequence, AQ’s plans for bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998 went undetected.

The subsequent 9/11 disaster led to allegations of failure to connect the dots but Tenet dismisses most of these as uninformed. The CIA, however, was the first off the block to offer a comprehensive plan against AQ centered on dismantling the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. This was in line with the Bush doctrine, which had lain down that the U.S. would make no distinction between terrorists and nations that harbored them. Action was swift and by late September itself the CIA had a team out in Afghanistan persuading the Northern Alliance to rise against the Taliban. A U.S. Special Forces contingent joined in October 2001 to support the Northern Alliance forces in their sweep south, assisted by massive precision air strikes. Tenet informs that some of the CIA officers in Afghanistan slept on millions of dollars, which was used to capitalize on the Afghan tradition of switching sides. Kabul fell in mid-November and by the year-end the Taliban was out of power. The al-Qaida leadership was forced out of Afghanistan but many of them then moved to neighboring FATA in Pakistan.

Morell justifiably wonders why this initial victory in Afghanistan turned into the longest war in American history. His answer is: that happened because the goal shifted from ensuring that AQ was not able to use Afghanistan as a safe haven to permanently altering the Afghan polity and society. This was an impossible endeavor, doomed to fail since it was impossible to graft liberal democracy on an essentially tribal society.

In 2005, OBL moved to Abbotabad and stayed there for six years. During this period the activities of the AQ went down, then up and again down. For Morrel, the most fundamental lesson in terrorism is that whenever there is pressure on a terror group and when it has to worry about its own security, its capabilities decline, but when it finds itself free to operate, there is a surge in its activities. The documents recovered from Abbotabad indicate that OBL was still micromanaging the affairs of AQ. The break regarding the hideout came from penetrating his courier channel clue regarding which was provided by interrogations.

In contrast to the successes in Afghanistan and the killing of OBL, the CIA’s assessment on WMDs in Iraq was palpably wrong, and Morell admits that he and others in the CIA did not apply the required rigor to the assessment. He attributes the failure, one of the largest in the history of CIA, to the presence of biases among the analysts, which the leadership failed to correct. There was also pressure from the Vice President Cheney’s office to demonize Saddam and attribute connections that did not exist. The CIA, for instance, did not have any information on AQ’s links with Saddam but Scooter Libby, National Security Advisor to the Vice President, tried to pressurize the CIA to withdraw a paper that said as much. Ironically, Charles Duelfer, who led the WMD hunt in Iraq after the invasion, concluded that Saddam wanted to maintain the appearance of having WMDs only to deter his main enemy, Iran. He was confident that the CIA would be smart enough to figure out the real story.

The Iraq war was a war of choice and an unforeseen consequence of it was the support provided to the AQ’s narrative, which helped spread the group’s ideology. It reinforced the AQ’s contention that the U.S. was intent on bringing war to Muslim lands. OBL actually welcomed the intervention hoping that the Americans would meet the same fate as the Soviets in Afghanistan.

The failure to read the Arab Spring was another setback for the CIA. Morell admits that while the CIA was good at providing strategic warnings it was not as good on the tactical front. The Agency had been providing a wealth of analysis regarding political, economic, societal and demographic trends as also the failure of the regimes to meet the expectations of the people. What was missed was the burgeoning activity on the social media, which could have opened a window on the pressures building up. The failure was not on account of resource constraints but reliance on a handful of authoritarian leaders who were already isolated and oblivious of the tsunami that was about to hit them. The CIA had been lax in raising its own assets and had failed to mine the wealth of information available on the social media. Morell ruefully states that the CIA was so accustomed to stealing secrets that it failed to pay attention to information streaming on Twitter.

The CIA also made a misjudgment in holding that the popular revolts would undermine the AQ since the Arab Spring had demonstrated that political change was possible without resort to militancy. Instead, most of the new leadership that emerged showed a lack of will or capability to deal with the AQ and other militant groups. The Arab Spring thus became a godsend to the Islamic extremist outfits not only across the Middle East but also North Africa. In Egypt, following Morsi’s ascension as President, there was no political will to use the mechanisms in place to combat terrorism even though the mechanisms were themselves left untouched. This enabled the AQ, which had been inactive in Egypt for two decades, to make a comeback, establishing new footholds in Sinai and other parts of the country.

In Libya, it was not so much the lack of willingness as the capacity to fight terrorism. After the fall of Gadhafi, the Libyan state, as such, ceased to exist. Militias who had an extremist view of the world, which gave the AQ its opening to fill the power vacuum. Defeat of the Libyan army resulted in the availability of a large number of conventional weapons for the militant groups not only in Libya but also around the region. This resulted in strengthening the AQ affiliates from Mali to Egypt.

Both Tenet and Morell appear to be in a moral quandary over the use of Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (EITs) and creation of CIA’s own detention system, both of which had the explicit approval of President Bush. Both these practices led to considerable public approbation but the CIA leadership felt justified in casting aside sensitivities over human rights, as there was intense pressure to somehow ensure that there were no further attacks on the U.S. or its airliners. The job, in the immediate wake of 9/11, looked extremely difficult in view of the deluge of threat reports emanating from different sources. The near blowing up of an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami by the shoe bomber, Richard Reid, in December 2001, further exacerbated the danger. Both Tenet and Morell have, however, attested to the phenomenal efficacy of the EITs and cite several instances where recalcitrant captives provided extremely valuable information after being subjected to EITs. They justify EITs as it foiled further attacks and saved innocent lives.

Summing up the position regarding AQ, Morell holds that the outfit’s great success was the spread of its ideology and its franchising across a wide swathe of territory that extended from northern Nigeria north into Sahel, primarily northern Mali, and across north Africa from Morocco to Algeria to Tunisia to Libya and Egypt; included parts of East Africa, primarily Somalia but also Kenya; stretched across Gulf of Aden to Yemen and up to Iraq and Syria; as also South Asia (Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh) and some parts of Southeast Asia. The spread of AQ ideology followed its successes in East Africa, Yemen and the U.S. (embassy bombings in 1998, the ‘Cole’ bombing in 2000 and 9/11) but the Arab Spring provided the most significant boost as it created safe havens, provided the franchises and a catchment area for recruits, money and weapons. However, the AQ remains weak in the core area, and in the assessment of Morell, cannot launch another attack of the scale of 9/11 though there would be significant increase in small-scale attacks.

The ISIS came well after Tenet’s time but Morell has given his views on it. He argues that the ISIS was born of the AQ and traces its lineage to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who shared OBL’s ideology fully but had an on-off relationship with the AQ core, as he did not like being managed from Pakistan. Morell holds that while there is a deep rift between the AQ and ISIS leadership (Jabhat al-Nusra, the AQ franchise in Syria, has since also announced cutting off its links with AQ), the latter shares AQ’s goal of establishing a global Caliphate. Like the AQ, the ISIS sees both the West and its allies in the Middle East as its primary enemies and believes that violence is the most effective way of achieving its ends.

The ISIS poses four significant threats, as under:

  1. ISIS is a threat to the stability of the Middle East. It is putting the territorial integrity of both Syria and Iraq at risk. Collapse of either could lead to religious and sectarian strife in the region as also a violent redrawing of borders.
  2. ISIS’s success in the battlefield and clever use of social media is attracting young men and women to its cause, many of who have travelled to Syria and Iraq to join the fight. These foreign nationals are getting battle-hardened and increasingly radicalized. Attacks can now be at the behest of ISIS or by individuals acting on their own.
  3. ISIS is building a following among other extremist groups and this has occurred in Algeria, Egypt, Libya and Afghanistan. More will follow. These will target ISIS’s enemies and will increasingly mimic ISIS’s brutality; an example being the beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians by an ISIS affiliated group in early 2015.
  4. Radicalizing young men and women who have never travelled to Syria or Iraq but who want to commit an attack to demonstrate their solidarity with ISIS. Examples include the Fort Hood shooting in late 2009 that killed 13 and the Boston marathon bombing, in spring 2013, which killed 5 and injured nearly 300.

Among the direct AQ affiliates, Morell holds the AQAP as the most closely aligned with the AQ leadership in Pakistan and the most dangerous for the U.S. homeland. This is chiefly on account of its advanced bomb making abilities which cannot be detected by standard detection systems, the cleverest of the bomb makers being one Ibrahim al-Asiri, a Saudi by birth. Examples include the Christmas day bomber in 2009, the printer cartridge plot in 2010, and the non-metallic bomb plot in 2012, two of which were nearly successful. Asiri was also behind the underwear bomb of the Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, which nearly brought down an airliner flying from Amsterdam to Detroit.

On Afghanistan, Morell feels that the best case scenario after U.S. troops depart is that the Afghan government holds Kabul and most cities while the Taliban has sway over vast swathes territory in the south and east. The worst-case scenario is the Taliban knocking at Kabul’s doors within eighteen months of the departure of U.S. troops. The AQ leadership will then be free to relocate from FATA to safe houses in Afghanistan thus undoing the very rationale for the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan.

A carapace of anxiety and a deep sense of foreboding inform both Tenet and Morell’s accounts over AQ’s continued efforts to target the West and its persistent efforts to acquire WMDs. They both lived through very uncertain times when the next jihadist attack in the U.S. appeared to be around the corner but no one knew when and where it would come from. The CIA’s greatest challenge, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, was to prevent another such attack, a job made all the more difficult by a deluge of apocalyptic reporting. While the dismantling of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and the killing of Osama was remarkably laudable achievements, both Tenet and Morell were subjected to media and public opprobrium over the Iraq WMD report and the Benghazi incident respectively. Their accounts are, in a way, an attempt at exculpation or, at least, an effort to present their side of the story, but they also indicate the dangers of dovetailing intelligence for narrow political ends or their tendentious use by the White House or the Senate oversight committees. This, however, in no way takes away from the painstaking effort of both the authors to present a balanced and honest account of the challenges of their time and the ups and downs of a career in Intelligence marred both by opportunities and pitfalls. The books have been written in an easy, conversational style, without any academic encumbrances, by people in the thick of events, which makes them all the more interesting.