IN HIS RISING E NTHUSIASM for the Afghan war and in his determination to punish the Soviets to the greatest possible degree, William Casey found that he needed allies outside of CIA headquarters. Time did little to shake his belief that the CIA’s career clandestine officers were too timid. But there were influential conservatives in the executive branch who could aid his push for a more potent covert war. The Reagan administration had attracted to Washington “an awful lot of Soldier of Fortune readers,” recalled Frank Anderson, a clandestine service officer involved in the Afghan program. These mercenary voyeurs included blunt paramilitary types such as Casey’s friend Oliver North and more cerebral anticommunist hawks who came from right-wing think tanks.1
Casey connected with these allies as they developed a new plan for the Afghan jihad. Known as National Security Decision Directive 166, with an annex classified Top Secret/Codeword, the blueprint they produced became the legal basis for a massive escalation of the CIA’s role in Afghanistan, starting in 1985.
The new policy document provided a retroactive rationale for the huge increases in covert funds forced into the Afghan program late in 1984 by Charlie Wilson. It also looked forward to a new era of direct infusions of advanced U.S. military technology into Afghanistan, intensified training of Islamist guerrillas in explosives and sabotage techniques, and targeted attacks on Soviet military officers designed to demoralize the Soviet high command. Among other consequences these changes pushed the CIA, along with its clients in the Afghan resistance and in Pakistani intelligence, closer to the gray fields of assassination and terrorism.
The meetings that produced NSDD-166 changed the way the United States directed its covert Afghan program. For the first time the CIA lost its near-total control. The peculiar Washington institution known as “the interagency process” became dominant. This was typical of national security policy making by the 1980s. Representatives from various agencies and Cabinet departments, selected for their relevance to the foreign policy issue at hand, would form under supervision from the White House’s National Security Council. The committee often selected a vague name with a tongue-twisting acronym that could be bandied about as a secret membership code. During the Reagan administration the CIA worked continuously with one such group, the Planning and Coordination Group, or PCG, the president’s unpublicized body for the oversight of all secret covert actions. With Casey’s cooperation the sweeping review of Afghan covert action was taken on early in 1985 by a PCG subset, the Policy Review Group, which began to meet in a high-ceilinged warren of the Old Executive Office Building, next door to the West Wing of the White House.
A striking gray gabled building imitating the styles of the French Renaissance, with capped peaks and sloping bays that spoke elaborately to 17th Street’s bland marble office boxes, the Old Executive Office Building housed many of the national security personnel who couldn’t fit inside the cramped West Wing. Casey kept an office there. Behind most of its tall doors lay regional National Security Council directorates. Here delegates from Langley, the Pentagon, and the State Department’s headquarters building in the nearby Washington neighborhood known as Foggy Bottom would all tramp in to review operations, debate policy, and prepare documents for presidential signature.
The new interagency group on Afghanistan, meeting in Room 208, forced the CIA to share a table with civilians and uniformed officers from the Pentagon. In early 1985 the most influential new figure was Fred Iklé, a former director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and an elegant anticommunist hardliner. With him came Michael Pillsbury, an eager former congressional aide.
With Iklé’s support, Pillsbury pushed a draft of NSDD-166 for Reagan’s signature. For a midlevel aide with little authority on paper beyond his high-level security clearances, he defined his mission ambitiously. To help Afghan rebels overcome rising Soviet military pressure, he wanted to provide them with the best guerrilla weapons and satellite intelligence. To do this Pillsbury needed new legal authority for CIA covert action that went beyond the Carter-era policy goal of “harassing” Soviet occupation forces. He sought to expand dramatically the stated aims and the military means of the CIA’s Afghan jihad.
The agency’s career officers at the Near East Division saw Pillsbury as a reckless amateur. Pillsbury saw himself as a principled conservative who refused to be cowed by cautious agency bureaucrats. He wanted to define the purpose of the CIA’s efforts in Afghanistan as “victory” over the Soviet forces. That language seemed too stark to CIA officers and State diplomats. Falling back, Pillsbury suggested they define the jihad’s goal as “to drive the Soviets out.” This, too, seemed provocative to other committee members. In the end they settled on language that directed the CIA to use “all available means” to support the mujahedin’s drive for a free Afghanistan.
Pillsbury attracted support by offering budgetary blank checks to every agency remotely involved in Afghanistan—State, the Agency for International Development, the United States Information Agency, and the Pentagon. Casey’s CIA would remain in the lead, working mainly through Pakistan’s ISI. But the CIA would also be given new authority to operate on its own outside of Pakistani eyesight. Other departments were encouraged to submit ambitious plans that could be integrated with the CIA’s work. The new policy was that “everybody gets to do what everybody wants to” in support of the mujahedin, Pillsbury recalled. “Everybody got what they wanted into this document and, in return for all this harmony, the goal got changed.”2
President Reagan signed the classified NSDD-166, titled “Expanded U.S. Aid to Afghan Guerrillas,” in March 1985, formally anointing its confrontational language as covert U.S. policy in Afghanistan. His national security adviser, Robert McFarlane, signed the highly classified sixteen-page annex, which laid out specific new steps to be taken by the CIA.
For the first time the agency could use satellite photographs of the Afghan battlefield to help the mujahedin plan attacks on Soviet targets. The agency would soon send in secure “burst communications” sets that would allow the rebels to use advanced American technology to thwart Soviet interception of their radio traffic. The CIA would begin for the first time to recruit substantial numbers of “unilateral” agents in Afghanistan—agents who would be undeclared and unknown to Pakistani intelligence. Also for the first time, by at least one account, the document explicitly endorsed direct attacks on individual Soviet military officers.3
Rapidly ebbing now were the romanticized neocolonial days of Howard Hart’s tour in the Islamabad station, a hands-off era of antique rifles, tea-sipping liaisons, and ink-splotched secret shipping manifests. Some of the agency’s career officers in the Near East Division were not enthusiastic about the changes, especially the ones that contemplated attacks on Soviet officers. They saw Pillsbury and his cowboy civilian ilk as dragging the CIA out of its respectable core business of espionage and into the murky, treacherous realm of an escalating dirty war.
At one interagency committee meeting in the spring of 1985, Fred Ikle proposed skipping over Pakistani intelligence altogether by flying American C-130s over Afghanistan and dropping weapons caches to Afghan commanders by parachute. Someone asked: What if the Russians begin shooting down the U.S. planes and ignite World War III? “Hmmm,” Iklé answered, according to Thomas Twetten, a senior officer in the CIA’s clandestine service. “World War III. That’s not such a bad idea.” If he said such a thing, Iklé said later, he must have been kidding. But Twetten remembered “a roomful of dumbstruck people.”4
Shooting Soviet officers was equally troubling to some at the agency. The CIA and KGB had settled during the 1980s into a shaky, unwritten gentlemen’s agreement that sought to discourage targeting each other’s salaried professional officers for kidnapping or murder. If that agreement broke down, there could be chaos in CIA stations worldwide. CIA officers in Pakistan made a point of treating gently the rare Soviet prisoners taken on the Afghan battlefield. The agency’s officers figured this would help American military officers and spies captured by Soviet forces on other Cold War proxy battlefields.5
But the congressmen writing the CIA’s budgetary checks now wanted to start killing Soviet officers serving in Afghanistan. Senator Gordon Humphrey traveled to Kabul at one point and came home crowing about how you could see Soviet generals in the windows of their tattered concrete apartment blocks; all the mujahedin needed were some long-range sniper rifles, and they could start picking them off one at a time.6
Increasingly, too, under ISI direction, the mujahedin received training and malleable explosives to mount car bomb and even camel bomb attacks in Soviet-occupied cities, usually designed to kill Soviet soldiers and commanders. Casey endorsed these techniques despite the qualms of some CIA career officers.
Casey never argued for attacks on purely civilian targets, but he was inclined toward aggressive force. In the worldwide antiterror campaign Casey began to envision during 1985, Afghanistan offered one way to attack the Soviet aggressors.
“We’re arming the Afghans, right?” Casey asked during one of the debates of this period. He wanted authority to strike at Middle Eastern terrorists preemptively. “Every time a mujahedin rebel kills a Soviet rifleman, are we engaged in assassination? This is a rough business. If we’re afraid to hit the terrorists because somebody’s going to yell ‘assassination,’ it’ll never stop. The terrorists will own the world.”7
AT THE CIA STATION in Islamabad the new era arrived in the form of visiting delegations from Washington: Pentagon officers carrying satellite maps, special forces commandos offering a course in advanced explosives, and suitcase-carrying congressional visitors who wanted Disney-quality tours of mujahedin camps and plenty of time to buy handwoven carpets. William Piekney tried to move them all cheerfully through the turnstiles. With senior delegations he might drive them to ISI’s unmarked headquarters for tea and talk with General Akhtar.
Iklé and Pillsbury touched down in Islamabad on April 30, 1985. They could not legally disclose the existence of NSDD-166, but they wanted Akhtar to understand its expansive goals. During a two-hour private conversation at the ISI chief’s residence, Iklé was able “to convey the thrust of the President’s new decision directive,” as Pillsbury put it.8
The visitors wanted to pump up Akhtar’s ambitions when he submitted quarterly lists of weapons needed by the mujahedin. The CIA’s Afghan supply system depended on these formal requests. Soon the classified lists cabled in from Islamabad included antiaircraft missiles, long-range sniper rifles, night-vision goggles, delayed timing devices for plastic explosives, and electronic intercept equipment. The new requests made it harder than ever to maintain plausible deniability about the CIA’s role in the jihad. This made the agency’s professional secret-keepers uncomfortable. But even the most reflexively clandestine among them recognized that by 1985 the Soviet leadership had already learned the outlines of the CIA’s Afghan program from press reports, captured fighters, intercepted communications, and KGB-supervised espionage operations carried out among the rebels. Even the American public knew the outlines of Langley’s work from newspaper stories and television documentaries. Increasingly, as the CIA and its gung-ho adversaries argued over the introduction of more sophisticated weapons, the issue was not whether the existence of an American covert supply line could be kept secret but whether the supply of precision American arms would provoke the Soviets into raiding Pakistan or retaliating against Americans.
Piekney’s station began to run more and more unilateral intelligence agents across the Afghan border. The swelling volume of weapons shipments, the rising number of questions from visiting congressmen about ISI ripoffs, and the worsening violence on the Afghan battlefield all argued for deeper and more independent CIA reporting. To some extent it was a matter of protecting the CIA from intensifying congressional oversight: The agency needed to be able to demonstrate that it was independently auditing the large new flows of weaponry. It could not do so credibly if it relied only on Pakistani intelligence for its reporting.
Some of the CIA’s unilateral reporting agents were Afghans; Hart’s relationship with Abdul Haq was passed along to Piekney, for instance. But most of the new agents who traveled in Afghanistan on the CIA’s behalf during the mid-1980s were European adventurers. These included European journalists, photographers, and ex–foreign legion members. Piekney’s connections from his previous tour in Paris helped with the recruitments. Warren Marik, an undeclared CIA case officer operating out of the American consulate in Karachi, away from ISI surveillance in Islamabad, handled many of the Europeans. After they flew in to Karachi from France or Belgium, Marik would hook them up with trusted Afghan guides and sometimes provide false papers and cover identities. A few of the European agents were given secure communications gear so they could send in timely reports from the Afghan battlefield, but most went across the border carrying only notebooks and cameras. When they came out, Marik would fly them quickly to Europe for debriefings. The photographs these agents took provided the CIA with its own archive of close-up pictures of battlefield damage, Soviet weapons systems, and troop deployments. The agents’ firsthand reports about Afghan commanders also provided a check on ISI claims about weapons handouts. And the Europeans came cheap, usually taking in the range of only $1,000 a month. They weren’t in it for the money; they sought adventure.9
For their part, politically savvy Afghan commanders began to understand by 1985 that one way to lobby for weapons and power—and to outflank ISI’s controlling brigadiers—was to build their own independent relationships in Washington or Riyadh. The Islamist radicals tended to cultivate wealthy patrons in Saudi Arabia. Sayyaf lectured there so often that he was awarded the kingdom’s King Faisal Intellectual Prize during 1985. The self-described “moderate” Afghan rebel leaders with ties to the old royal family or the country’s mystical Sufi brotherhoods relied more on support from Europe and Washington, particularly from Capitol Hill. A parade of well-tailored “Gucci muj,” as the CIA Near East officers derisively called them, began to fly in from Pakistan and march from office to office in Washington.
Those Afghans who felt neglected by Pakistani intelligence tended to be the most active in Washington. These included the royalist Pashtuns from the Durrani tribal federation, whose political ancestry made them unattractive to the Pakistan army. They swore allegiance to former king Zahir Shah, who lived in exile in a villa outside Rome. They denounced Pakistani intelligence for its aid to Hekmatyar, from the rival Ghilzai tribal federation, whom they regarded as a dangerous megalomaniac.
Gradually, too, Ahmed Shah Massoud’s brothers and Panjshiri aides began to make the rounds in Washington. Massoud’s now widely publicized record as a war hero in the harsh Panjshir gave him more clout and credibility than the Durrani Pashtuns, who tended to be dismissed, especially at Langley, as political self-promoters with weak battlefield records.
The CIA’s Near East Division found itself under rising pressure to direct more of the money and weapons flowing from NSDD-166’s escalation toward Massoud. Yet the agency still had only the most tenuous connections to Massoud. The CIA tended to view all the Washington lobbying as evidence of innate Afghan factionalism, not as an expression of dissent about Pakistani intelligence policy. “It was quite a spectacle as the bearded and robed mujahedin political leaders went from office to office, building to building, making their personal and parochial cases for support,” Directorate of Intelligence chief Robert Gates wrote later. “No one should have had any illusions about these people coming together politically—before or after a Soviet defeat.”10
The CIA’s leadership continued to regard Pakistani intelligence as the jihad’s main implementing agency, even as more and more American trainers arrived in Pakistan to teach new weapons and techniques. All this ensured that ISI’s Muslim Brotherhood–inspired clients—mainly Hekmatyar but also Sayyaf, Rabbani, and radical commanders who operated along the Pakistan border, such as Jallaladin Haqqanni—won the greatest share of support.
From its earliest days the Afghan war had been brutal, characterized by indiscriminate aerial bombing and the widespread slaughter of civilians. After six years the CIA, ISI, KGB, and Soviet special forces had all refined their tactics. Now, as the new American policy blueprint put it, each side sought to demoralize, sabotage, frighten, and confuse its enemy by whatever means necessary.
AS THE AFGHAN operations director for Pakistani intelligence between 1983 and 1987, Brigadier Mohammed Yousaf was Akhtar’s “barbarian handler,” as one CIA colleague put it, quoting an old Chinese moniker. Yousaf ran the clandestine training camps, kept the books on weapons handouts, received the new satellite maps, and occasionally accompanied mujahedin groups on commando missions. His strategy was “death by a thousand cuts.” He emphasized attacks on Soviet command targets in Kabul. He saw the capital as a center of gravity for the Soviets. If the city became a secure sanctuary, Soviet generals might never leave.11
ISI-supplied Afghan guerrillas detonated a briefcase bomb under a dining room table at Kabul University in 1983, killing nine Soviets, including a female professor. Yousaf and the Afghan car bombing squads he trained regarded Kabul University professors as fair game since they were poisoning young minds with Marxist anti-Islamic dogma. Mujahedin commandos later assassinated the university’s rector. Seven Soviet military officers were reported shot dead by Kabul assassins in a single year. By Yousaf’s estimation, car bombing squads trained by Pakistan and supplied with CIA-funded explosives and detonators made “numerous” attempts to kill the chief of the Afghan secret police, the notorious torturer Najibullah, but they repeatedly failed to get him.12
Fear of poisoning, surprise attacks, and assassination became rife among Russian officers and soldiers in Kabul. The rebels fashioned booby-trapped bombs from gooey black contact explosives, supplied to Pakistani intelligence by the CIA, that could be molded into ordinary shapes or poured into innocent utensils. Russian soldiers began to find bombs made from pens, watches, cigarette lighters, and tape recorders. “Hidden death has been camouflaged so masterfully that only someone with a practiced eye can see it,” the independent Russian writer Artyom Borovik reported during his travels. Kabul shopkeepers poisoned food eaten by Russian soldiers. Assassins lurked in the city’s mud-rock alleys. A rhyme invented by Russian conscripts went:
Just drop into a store
And you’ll be seen no more13
Across the Pakistan border Yousaf saw himself treading a careful line between guerrilla war and terrorism. “We are as good or bad [a] civilized nation as anyone living in the West,” he said later, “because when you carry out this sort of operation it has a double edge.” His squads bombed Kabul cinemas and cultural shows, but the attacking Afghan guerrillas knew that most of their victims “would be the Soviet soldiers.” Otherwise, Yousaf said, “You will not find any case of poisoning the water or any use of chemical or biological.” Car bombs were supposed to be targeted only at military leaders, he said later. By all accounts there were few car bombings aimed at civilians during this period. However, once the uncontrolled mortaring of Kabul began in 1985, after the CIA shipped in Egyptian and Chinese rockets that could be remotely fired from long range, random civilian casualties in the city began to mount steadily.
The CIA officers that Yousaf worked with closely impressed upon him one rule: Never use the terms sabotage or assassination when speaking with visiting congressmen.14
The KGB had no such worries. By 1985, Soviet and Afghan intelligence operatives played a greater role in the counterinsurgency campaign than ever before. Najibullah, the secret police chief, was elevated to the Afghan Politburo in November 1985. By the following spring Moscow had sacked Babrak Karmal and appointed Najibullah as Afghanistan’s president. His ruling councils were filled with ruthless intelligence operatives. The KGB-trained Afghan intelligence service swelled to about 30,000 professionals and 100,000 paid informers. Its domestic directorates, lacking cooperative sources among the population, routinely detained and tortured civilians in search of insight about mujahedin operations. The Afghan service also ran foreign operations in Iran and Pakistan. It maintained secret residencies in Quetta, Peshawar, Islamabad, New Delhi, Karachi, and elsewhere, communicating to Kabul through Soviet embassies and consulates. By planting agents in refugee camps Afghan intelligence gradually penetrated the mujahedin.15
Frustrated by the copious new supplies pouring into Afghanistan, the Soviet Fortieth Army deployed intelligence teams and helicopter-borne Spetsnaz special forces to try to seal the Pakistan border during 1985. They failed, but they wreaked havoc in the effort. Spetsnaz units dispatched high-tech communications intercept vehicles called “Omsk vans” to track mujahedin movements from Peshawar or Quetta. When they located a convoy, they sent the new, fearsome Mi-24D helicopters on intercept missions across the barren Pakistani hills. The helicopters would fly five or ten miles inside Pakistan, then swing around and move up behind the mujahedin as they slouched along canyon paths or desert culverts. Spetsnaz commandos poured out and ambushed the rebels. Increasingly Russian special forces captured mujahedin equipment, such as their ubiquitous Japanese-made pickup trucks, which were shipped in by the CIA. The Russian special forces began to operate in disguise, dressed as Islamic rebels. The KGB also ran “false bands” of mujahedin across Afghanistan, paying them to attack genuine rebel groups in an attempt to sow dissension.16
Mujahedin operating along the Pakistan border took heavy casualties in these Spetsnaz helicopter raids. They also had a few rare successes. Pakistani intelligence captured from Soviet defectors and handed over to Piekney the first intact Mi-24D ever taken in by the CIA. Langley ordered a team to Islamabad to load the dismantled prize on to a transport jet and fly it back to the United States; its exploitation saved the Pentagon millions of dollars in research and development costs, the Pentagon later reported.17
Encouraged by the CIA, Pakistani intelligence also focused on sabotage operations that would cut Soviet supply lines. But the missions often proved difficult because even the most ardent Afghan Islamists refused to mount suicide operations.
In his Wile E. Coyote–style efforts to blow up the Salang Tunnel north of Kabul, Yousaf tried to concoct truck bomb missions in which ISI would help load fuel tankers with explosives. Soviet soldiers moved quickly to intercept any truck that stalled inside the strategic tunnel, so there seemed no practical way to complete such a mission unless the truck driver was willing to die in the cause. The Afghans whom Yousaf trained uniformly denounced suicide attack proposals as against their religion. It was only the Arab volunteers—from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Algeria, and other countries, who had been raised in an entirely different culture, spoke their own language, and preached their own interpretations of Islam while fighting far from their homes and families—who later advocated suicide attacks. Afghan jihadists, tightly woven into family, clan, and regional social networks, never embraced suicide tactics in significant numbers.18
Afghan fighters also often refused to attack bridges or trade routes if they were important to civilian traders or farmers. The Afghan tolerance of civilian commerce in the midst of dire conflict frustrated visiting Americans. A congressman on tour would fly over Afghanistan, see a bridge standing unmolested, and complain loudly on his return to Washington that it ought to be blown up. But when the satellite-mapped attack plan was passed down through ISI to a particular Afghan commando team, the Afghans would often shrug off the order or use the supplied weapons to hit a different target of their own choosing. They took tolls from bridges. The livelihood of their clan often depended on open roads.
Still, the CIA shipped to Pakistani intelligence many tons of C-4 plastic explosives for sabotage operations during this period. Britain’s MI6 provided magnetic depth charges to attack bridge pylons, particularly the bridge near Termez that spanned the Amu Darya. After 1985 the CIA also supplied electronic timing and detonation devices that made it easier to set off explosions from a remote location. The most basic delay detonator was the “time pencil,” a chemical device that wore down gradually and set off a bomb or rocket after a predictable period. It had been developed by the CIA’s Office of Technical Services. Guerrillas could use these devices to set an explosive charge at night, retreat, and then watch it blow up at first light. After 1985 the CIA also shipped in “E cell” delay detonators, which used sophisticated electronics to achieve similar effects. Thousands of the delay timers were distributed on the frontier.
Speaking in an interview in July 1992, seven months before the first Islamist terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, a U.S. official closely involved in the CIA supply program was asked by the author to estimate the amount of plastic explosives that had been transferred by Pakistani intelligence to the mujahedin with CIA and Saudi support. The official spontaneously chose these words: “We could have probably blown up half of New York with the explosives that the Paks supplied.”
CIA lawyers and operators at Langley were more sensitive than ever about second-guessing from Congress and the press. Casey’s Nicaragua operations were going sour just as the covert Afghan war began to escalate. The agency was criticized sharply for placing mines in Nicaragua’s harbors. There was a feeling taking hold in the Directorate of Operations by late 1985 that perhaps Casey had gone too far, that the agency was headed for another political crash.
In the Afghan program the CIA was now supplying many “dual use” weapons systems, meaning weapons that could be used against legitimate military targets but also could be employed in terrorism or assassination. These included the new electronic detonators, the malleable plastic explosives, and sniper rifle packages. The rough rule at Langley was that the CIA would not supply any weapon where “its most likely use would be for assassination or criminal enterprise,” as one official involved put it. Since the CIA was not running the commando operations itself but was relying on Pakistani intelligence, “most likely use” could only be approximated. Langley’s Afghan task force chief, the rough and aggressive anticommunist Gust Avrakatos, tried to evade CIA lawyers. “These aren’t terrorist devices or assassination techniques,” Avrakatos told his colleagues when weapons such as sniper rifles had to be described in cables and memos. “Henceforth these are individual defensive devices.” He discouraged officers from putting too much in writing. When the Islamabad station sent a cable describing a borderline guerrilla tactic, he wrote back that the message had been garbled and that the station should not send “anything more on that subject ever again.” He shopped in Egypt for sabotage devices such as wheelbarrows rigged as bombs that could be used to target Soviet officers in Kabul. “Do I want to order bicycle bombs to park in front of an officers’ headquarters?” Avrakatos recalled asking. “Yes. That’s what spreads fear.” He endorsed a system run by Pakistani intelligence that rewarded Afghan commanders for the number of individual Soviet belt buckles they brought in.19
American law about assassination and terrorism was entering another of its periods of flux. The executive order banning assassination, enacted by President Ford in response to the exposure of CIA plots from the 1960s, had been sitting unexamined on the books for a decade. Not even the hardliners in the Reagan Cabinet wanted the ban removed, but they had begun to question its ambiguities.When did targeting a general or head of state in war or in response to a terrorist attack drift across the line and become assassination? Was the decision to target that general or head of state the issue, or was it the means employed to kill him? What if a preemptive assassination was undertaken to stop a terrorist from attacking the United States? The questions being debated were both strategic and pragmatic. For American national security, what policy was morally defensible and militarily effective? What, technically, did the Ford-era assassination ban cover? This had to be spelled out, CIA officers argued, or else agents and even civilian policy makers might inadvertently expose themselves to criminal prosecution.
Reagan’s lawyers at the White House and the Justice Department believed that preemptive attacks on individuals carried out in self-defense—such as against a terrorist about to launch a strike—were clearly legal. But there were many questions about how such a standard should be defined and implemented.
In the Afghan program sniper rifles created the greatest unease. They were known as “buffalo guns” and could accurately fire large, potent bullets from distances of one or two kilometers. The idea to supply them to the Afghan rebels had originated with a Special Forces enthusiast in Washington named Vaughan Forrest, who wrote a long report for the CIA and the National Security Council about how the mujahedin might counter Soviet Spetsnaz tactics by hitting Soviet commanders directly. “It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that you need to hit them hard, you need to hit them deep, and you need to hit his heart and brains,” Forrest said. His enthusiasm extended to a broader campaign of urban sabotage that some on the NSC interagency committee regarded as outright terrorism. But the idea of targeting Soviet commanders with the sniper rifles found support. “The phrase ‘shooting ducks in a barrel’ was used,” one participant recalled. The sniper program’s advocates wanted to “off Russian generals in series.”20
Through the CIA station in Islamabad, Pakistani intelligence endorsed a formal written request for the buffalo guns, plus supporting equipment such as night-vision goggles and high-powered scopes that would allow a shooter to hit his target from a mile away under cover of darkness. The incoming cable set off alarms in the general counsel’s office at the CIA. The night-vision equipment and scopes were clearly intended for missions that, if not outright assassination under the law, seemed uncomfortably close. Should the operation go sour, the Islamabad station chief might end up in handcuffs.
After several rounds of debate and teeth-gnashing, a compromise was reached: The guns could be shipped to Pakistan, but they would be stripped of the night-vision goggles and scopes that seemed to tilt their “most likely use” toward assassination. Also, the CIA would not provide ISI with target intelligence from satellites concerning where Soviet officers lived or how their apartment buildings might be approached stealthily. CIA officers tried to emphasize to ISI the guns’ value as “antimaterial” weapons, meaning that they could be used to shoot out the tires in a convoy of trucks from a distant mountaintop or to drill holes in a fuel tanker. American specialists traveled to Pakistan to train ISI officers on the rifles so that they, in turn, could train rebel commando teams. In the end, dozens of the sniper rifles were shipped to Afghanistan.21
THE TERRORIST ATTACKS came one after another during 1985, all broadcast live on network television to tens of millions of Americans. In June two Lebanese terrorists hijacked TWA Flight 847, murdered a Navy diver on board, and negotiated while mugging for cameras on a Beirut runway. In October the Palestinian terrorist Abu Abbas hijacked the cruise ship Achille Lauro in Italy, murdered a sixty-nine-year-old Jewish-American tourist, Leon Klinghoffer, dumped his body overboard, and ultimately escaped to Baghdad with Egyptian and Italian collaboration. Just after Christmas, Palestinian gunmen with the Abu Nidal Organization opened fire on passengers lined up at El Al ticket counters in Vienna and Rome, killing nineteen people, among them five Americans. One of the American victims was an eleven-year-old girl named Natasha Simpson who died in her father’s arms after a gunman unloaded an extra round in her head just to make sure. The attackers, boyish products of Palestinian refugee camps, had been pumped full of amphetamines by their handlers just before the holiday attacks.
The shock of these events followed the 1983 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Lebanon, which claimed the lives of some of the CIA’s brightest minds on the Middle East, and the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, in which 241 Marines died. The Shiite terrorist organization Hezbollah had seized American hostages in Lebanon. Casey and Reagan had been galvanized by this violence in Lebanon against official Americans and journalists. Now they confronted a new, wider wave of attacks targeting American civilians and tourists.
During 1985 about 6.5 million Americans traveled overseas, of whom about 6,000 died for various reasons, mainly from illnesses. Seventeen were killed by terrorists. Yet by the end of the year millions of Americans were canceling travel plans and demanding action from their government. Palestinian and Lebanese Shiite terrorists had captured America’s attention just as they had hoped to do.
“When we hijack a plane, it has more effect than if we killed a hundred Israelis in battle,” the Palestinian Marxist leader George Habash once said. “At least the world is talking about us now.” By the mid-1980s the American analyst Brian Jenkins’s observation had become famous: “Terrorists want a lot of people watching and a lot of people listening and not a lot of people dead.” He coined another oft-repeated phrase: “Terrorism is theater.”22
In its modern form it was a theater invented largely by a stateless Palestinian diaspora whose leftist leaders sought dramatic means to attract attention to their national claims. In the new academic specialty of terrorist studies it was common to date the first modern terrorist event as the Habash-led hijacking of an El Al flight from Rome to Tel Aviv on July 22, 1968. Thereafter inventive Palestinian terrorists attacked the vulnerabilities of aviation and exploited the new global reach of television, creating a succession of made-for-TV terrorist events that emphasized the spectacular. At the same time, because a purpose of their movement was to negotiate for statehood, they often sought to limit and calibrate their violence to create the greatest impact without alienating important political allies. As at the Munich Olympics in 1972 and at the Rome and Vienna airports in late 1985, these efforts to control public relations sometimes failed. In Washington especially the politics of antiterrorism were becoming angrier and angrier.
Shortly after the airport attacks Casey summoned the chief of the CIA’s European Division, Duane R. “Dewey” Clarridge, to his office on Langley’s seventh floor. A New Hampshire Yankee educated at Brown University, Clarridge was a cigar-chomping career officer who craved action and bridled at supervision. He had served in Nepal and India during the early Cold War, running anti-Soviet operations on obscure frontiers. He had impressed Casey as a hearty risk-taker, and the director rewarded him with full control over his secret war in Nicaragua. There Clarridge pushed the operation to the limits, running speedy Q-boats to smuggle guns and plant mines. When his harbor-mining operations created a congressional uproar, Casey moved Clarridge to the European Division in the Directorate of Operations. Now the director wanted his help again.
Reagan was putting intense pressure on the CIA to show more initiative in the fight against terrorism, Casey told Clarridge. The director wanted to reply by forming action teams that could put the CIA on the offensive in a global campaign against terrorist groups. Clarridge told Casey what the director already believed: To succeed, the CIA had to attack the terrorist cells preemptively. If not, “The incidents would become bolder, bloodier, and more numerous.”23
Casey erupted in a “sudden burst of animation” and told Clarridge to interview terrorism specialists around Washington and write up a proposal for a new covert CIA counterterrorist strategy. Clarridge found an office down the hall and started work just after New Year’s Day 1986. By late January Clarridge had drafted his blueprint, an eight- or nine-page double-spaced memo addressed to Casey.
The CIA had several problems in confronting the global terrorist threat, Clarridge wrote. The biggest was its “defensive mentality.” Terrorists operated worldwide “knowing there was little chance of retribution or of their being brought to justice.” Clarridge wanted a new legal operating system for the CIA that would allow offensive strikes against terrorists. He proposed the formation of two super-secret “action teams” that would be funded and equipped to track, attack, and snatch terrorists globally. The action teams would be authorized to kill terrorists if doing so would preempt a terrorist event, or arrest them and bring them to justice if possible. One action team would be made up of foreign nationals who could blend more easily into landscapes overseas. The other action team would be Americans.
Clarridge wrote that the CIA’s regional directorates, with their strict geographical borders, were a poor match for the international mobility of terrorist groups, especially the stateless Palestinians. Terrorism, Clarridge thought, “never fits one particular piece of real estate. It is effective precisely because it spreads all over the map.” Not only the CIA but “the government is not organized as a whole to really deal with transnational problems.”
He proposed a new interdisciplinary center at the CIA, global in reach, to be called the Counterterrorist Center, a “fusion center” that would combine resources from different directorates and break down the agency’s walls. The new center would be located within the Directorate of Operations but would include analysts from the Directorate of Intelligence and tinkerers from the Directorate of Science and Technology. This would be a sharp break from traditional agency organization where action-oriented spies in the Directorate of Operations were separated physically—by bars in some parts of the Langley compound—from the agency’s analysts in the Directorate of Intelligence, who wrote reports and forecasts. The separation helped protect the identities of espionage sources, clandestine service officers believed. But over the years the division had become calcified and unexamined.
The memo stirred sharp opposition from the Directorate of Operations. Among other things its officers feared the new center would poach resources and talent. Some spies in the D.O. sniffed at counterterrorism operations as “police work” best left to cops or the Federal Bureau of Investigation. But Robert Gates, then running the Directorate of Intelligence, weighed in to support Clarridge’s ideas, and Casey lined up, too. The CIA’s Counterterrorist Center was born on February 1, 1986. Clarridge was named its first director.
Clarridge helped draft a new highly classified presidential finding on terrorism, authorizing covert action by the CIA against terrorist groups worldwide. It was signed by Reagan at the time of the center’s birth, along with a broader policy document, National Security Decision Directive 207, “The National Program for Combatting Terrorism,” classified Top Secret.24
The covert action finding was developed through an interagency committee on terrorism formed at the National Security Council. The new NSC committee, under various names, would become the main locus for presidential decision-making about terrorism for years to come. Its founding directive highlighted counterterrorism questions that would surface repeatedly in the years ahead. Was terrorism a law enforcement problem or a national security issue? Should the CIA try to capture terrorists alive in order to try them on criminal charges in open courts, or should the goal be to bring them back in body bags? The policies set out in NSDD-207 came down on both sides of these questions. Yes, in some cases terrorism was a law enforcement problem, but in others it should be handled as a military matter. Terrorists should be captured for trial when possible, but that would not always be a requirement.
The initial draft finding authorized the new action teams Clarridge and Casey sought, and it permitted the CIA to undertake secret operations to defeat terrorism, both on its own and in liaison with foreign governments. The purpose of such covert action would be to detect, disrupt, and preempt terrorist strikes. This could include capturing terrorists for trial or striking militarily if the enemy were on the verge of launching a terrorist operation.
Clarridge interpreted the new finding as authority “to do pretty much anything he wanted against the terrorists,” recalled Robert Baer, one of the center’s early recruits from the Directorate of Operations. But the proposed action teams, particularly the one to be composed of foreigners, stirred nervous reaction on Capitol Hill. Some privately labeled them “hit teams.”25
The CIA and the NSC had to brief the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence about the new presidential finding. Robert Gates recalled going to a secure Hill hearing room for one such session, “and we got to the question of when you could kill a terrorist, and we had this almost theological argument. ‘Well, if the guy is driving toward the barracks with a truck full of explosives, can you kill him?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Well, what if he’s in his apartment putting the explosives together?’ ‘Well, I don’t know.’ ”26
It was a debate that would continue, more or less in that form and largely unresolved, for the next fifteen years, until the morning of September 11, 2001.
The Counterterrorist Center took life on Langley’s sixth floor in a burst of “pure frenetic energy,” Baer recalled. “Everyone worked in one huge, open bay. With the telephones ringing nonstop, printers clattering, files stacked all over the place, CNN playing on TV monitors bolted to the ceiling, hundreds of people in motion and at their computers, it gave the impression of a war room.” But as the political and legal scandals surrounding Casey’s adventures in Nicaragua and Iran swelled across Washington during 1986, the original “war room” vision for action teams and an offensive posture yielded to a more cautious, analytical, report-writing culture than Casey and Clarridge had originally imagined.
“Casey had envisaged it as something different than what it eventually became,” recalled Vincent Cannistraro, who arrived as an operations officer soon after the center’s founding. The Iran-Contra scandal had involved disclosures of illegal support by Oliver North, Casey, and other policy makers for Nicaraguan rebels as well as illegal shipments of missiles to Iran in an effort to free the American hostages in Lebanon. In the aftermath, “Casey, of course, was looked on as an adventurer and Dewey as kind of a cowboy,” Cannistraro said. The appetite for risk-taking within the center and on the Hill oversight committees waned rapidly.27
Still, Clarridge remained in charge, and he began to push his colleagues.
Secular leftist groups carried out the most visible terrorist strikes in 1985 and 1986. Some of these groups advocated a nationalist cause—the Palestinian terrorists, the Irish Republican Army, the Basque separatists. Others chased more abstract Marxist revolutionary goals, such as Germany’s Baader Meinhof Gang and Italy’s Red Brigades. Most case officers and analysts at the CIA saw fewer direct links between the Soviet Union and these secular leftist terrorists than Casey did. Still, all these terrorists openly described themselves as vanguards in the left-right ideological struggle of the Cold War. Clarridge opened terrorism-focused liaisons with security services across Europe, providing technological help where possible, such as beacons that he inserted into planted weapons to help track the locations of Basque separatist cells in Spain.28 The CIA’s officers and their counterparts in Europe had long experience with these kinds of groups. They understood their mind-sets. In some cases they had attended the same universities as the radicals. They knew how to talk to them, how to recruit them, how to corrupt them.
At its start the Counterterrorist Center concentrated heavily on these leftist terrorists. The center was organized into subunits that targeted particular groups. One of the largest units focused on the Abu Nidal Organization, which had claimed hundreds of civilian lives in multiple strikes during the 1980s. Clarridge and his colleagues decided to sow dissent by exposing the group’s financial operations and trying to raise suspicions among members. Abu Nidal had become a paranoid, self-immolating group on its own accord, but the agency helped accelerate its breakup through penetrations and disinformation. Abu Nidal faded as an effective terrorist organization within three years. There were other successes, especially in Germany and Italy, where the terrorists began to consume themselves, sometimes helped along by covert operations.
Hezbollah, on the other hand, proved a very hard target. It was the new center’s first attempt to penetrate a committed Islamist terrorist organization that targeted American citizens. The experience offered ill omens for the future. A radical Islamic Shiite faction in Lebanon’s civil war that began to serve as a proxy force for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Hezbollah had become a terrorist branch of the still-churning Iranian Revolution.
The CIA had no sources in Hezbollah’s leadership. Hezbollah’s pious members did not hang out in the hotels and salons that made Abu Nidal members such accessible targets. The CIA’s unilateral resources in the Middle East were spread thin. Baer was one of only two Arabic speakers in the Counterterrorist Center at the time it was launched. For a full year after Hezbollah kidnapped and tortured the CIA’s Beirut station chief, William Buckley, beginning in 1984, the agency “had absolutely no idea” who had taken him or the other American hostages in Lebanon, Baer recalled. Meanwhile, the Counterterrorist Center had to deal with hoax after hoax—some mounted by Hezbollah as disinformation—about where the hostages were located.29
Clarridge wanted to attack. He sought to enlist U.S. Special Forces to launch an elaborate hostage rescue operation in Beirut. He rigged up special refrigerator trucks in Europe, disguised to look as if they belonged to Lebanese merchants; he hoped they could be shipped in and used to run Delta Force commandos into West Beirut. But the Pentagon’s generals, citing weak intelligence about where the hostages were actually being held, said they would not launch such an operation unless there were American “eyes on the target,” confirming the presence of hostages, twenty-four hours before the operation began. They would not trust a Lebanese or other Arab spotter; they wanted an American in place.30
Clarridge had no obvious way to infiltrate an American agent into West Beirut. The Counterterrorist Center trained a Filipino-born Delta Force soldier for insertion in disguise into Beirut, in the hope that he might be able to provide the required American eyes on the target. But that high-risk operation foundered. The center was “totally incapable of collecting real-time intelligence on Hezbollah because, one, we didn’t understand it,” recalled Cannistraro. “We understood secular terrorism, radical terrorism; these were people we were comfortable with.”
Clarridge wondered if technology might not solve the problem that human intelligence seemed unable to crack. He loved the Counterterrorist Center’s engineers on the science and technology side; they took what Clarridge liked to call a “Radio Shack approach” to problem-solving. Clarridge commissioned them to work on a highly classified pilotless drone equipped with intercept equipment, an infrared camera, and low-noise wooden propellers. It might fly overhead at about 2,500 feet and locate the American hostages. He spent $7 million on five prototypes in what he dubbed the Eagle Program.
Another use for 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.31 But all of the technology was in its infancy. And Clarridge made some of his colleagues very nervous, especially in the era of Iran-Contra.
Clarridge wanted to kill the terrorists outright. He found the American government’s position against assassination of leaders who sponsored terrorism to be “hypocritical.” The president would authorize the military “to carry out air attacks that may or may not hit and kill the real target” but would not authorize the Counterterrorist Center to stealthily assassinate the same man. He asked, “Why is an expensive military raid with heavy collateral damage to our allies and to innocent children okay—more morally acceptable than a bullet to the head?”32
BY EARLY 1986, Brigadier Yousaf had constructed a large and sophisticated secret infrastructure for guerrilla training along the Afghan frontier. Between sixteen thousand and eighteen thousand fresh recruits passed through his camps and training courses each year. He also began to facilitate independent guerrilla and sabotage training by Afghan rebel parties, outside of ISI control. From six thousand to seven thousand jihadists trained this way each year, Yousaf later estimated. Some of these were Arab volunteers.33
The syllabus offered by Pakistani intelligence became more specialized. New mujahedin recruits entered a two- to three-week basic training course where they learned how to maneuver and fire an assault rifle. The best were then selected for graduate courses in more complex weapons and tactics. Yousaf established specialized training camps for explosives work, urban sabotage and car bombing, antiaircraft weapons, sniper rifles, and land mines. Thousands of new graduates—the great majority Afghans, but also now some Algerians, Palestinians, Tunisians, Saudi Arabians, and Egyptians—fanned out across Afghanistan as mountain snows melted in the spring of 1986 and a new fighting season began. Across the Afghan border they established new camps in rock valleys and captured government garrisons; this allowed them to continue training on their own, to recruit new fighters, and to refine the sabotage and guerrilla techniques taught by Pakistani intelligence.
“Terrorism is often confused or equated with . . . guerrilla warfare,” the terrorism theorist Bruce Hoffman once wrote. “This is not surprising, since guerrillas often employ the same tactics (assassination, kidnapping, bombings of public gathering-places, hostage-taking, etc.) for the same purposes (to intimidate or coerce, thereby affecting behavior through the arousal of fear) as terrorists.”34
Ten years later the vast training infrastructure that Yousaf and his colleagues built with the enormous budgets endorsed by NSDD-166—the specialized camps, the sabotage training manuals, the electronic bomb detonators, and so on—would be referred to routinely in America as “terrorist infrastructure.” At the time of its construction, however, it served a jihadist army that operated openly on the battlefield, attempted to seize and hold territory, and exercised sovereignty over civilian populations. They pursued a transparent national cause. By 1986, however, that Afghan cause entangled increasingly with the international Islamist networks whose leaders had a more ambitious goal: the toppling of corrupt and antireligious governments across the Islamic world.
In its first years the CIA’s new Counterterrorist Center placed virtually no emphasis on the Muslim Brotherhood–inspired networks. After Abu Nidal and Hezbollah, the center’s next largest branches all focused on secular leftist terrorist groups. These included multiple Palestinian groups, Marxist-Leninist terrorists in Europe, the Shining Path in Peru, and the Japanese Red Army.35
Continued ferment in Tehran generated fears among CIA analysts that other weak Middle Eastern regimes might succumb to Islamic revolt. But now more than six years had passed since the Iranian Revolution, and no other similar insurgency had yet erupted. There were stirrings of religious dissent in places such as Algeria and a few Islamist bombings in France. Britain’s MI6, concerned about rising Islamic radicalism, commissioned a retired Arabist spy to travel for months through the Muslim world, from Morocco to Indonesia, to write a detailed report about contemporary Islamism on the street and in the mosques.36 But these were minor efforts that attracted little attention within the CIA or outside it.
There was one other small blip on the Counterterrorist Center’s screen. From Pakistan arrived reports of a new group called the Islamic Salvation Foundation that had been formed in Peshawar to recruit and support Arab volunteers for the Afghan jihad, outside the control of any of the ISI-backed rebel parties. The network was operating offices and guesthouses along the Afghan frontier. Osama bin Laden, a wealthy young Saudi, was spreading large sums of money around Peshawar to help the new center expand. He was tapping into ISI’s guerrilla training camps on behalf of newly arrived Arab jihadists. The early reports of his activity that were passed along to the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center in this period suggested that bin Laden “certainly was not engaged in any fighting. He was not a warrior,” recalled Stanley Bedington, a senior analyst at the center from its beginning. Still, “When a man starts throwing around money like that, he comes to your notice.”37
When they first learned of efforts by bin Laden and allied Islamic proselytizers to increase the number of Arab volunteers fighting the Soviets, some of the most ardent cold warriors at Langley thought this program should be formally endorsed and expanded. The more committed anti-Soviet fighters, the better, they argued. As more and more Arabs arrived in Pakistan during 1985 and 1986, the CIA “examined ways to increase their participation, perhaps in the form of some sort of ‘international brigade,’ but nothing came of it,” Robert Gates recalled.38
At CIA headquarters Osama bin Laden was little more than a name in a file for now. But in tumultuous Peshawar he had begun to organize his own escalation of the Afghan war.