The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency's Counterterrorism Center was established in 1986, and is a division of the CIA's National Clandestine Service. It is not to be confused with the National Counterterrorism Center, which is a separate entity. The current director, who has remained anonymous for security reasons, uses the cover identity "Roger" and has led the CTC since 2006.
Foundation and early years
The Counterterrorist Center was established in February 1986, under the CIA's Directorate of Operations, with Duane Clarridge as its first director. It was an "interdisciplinary" body; many of its personnel, and most its chiefs, were drawn from the CIA's Directorate of Operations, but others came from the Directorates of Intelligence and Science and Technology. Observing that terrorism knew no geographical boundaries, the CTC was designed to cut across the traditional region-based bodies of the CIA.
Discredited by the Iran-Contra scandal of 1986, the original aims later gave way to a more analytical role. This did not prevent the Center contemplating an "Eagle" drone aircraft project in 1986-7, which could have been used to spy on hostage-takers in Lebanon. The idea was unrealistic in terms of the technical abilities of the time, but can be compared to the Predator drone eventually inaugurated in 2000.
In the early 1990s, the CTC had no more than a hundred personnel, divided into about a dozen branches. Besides branches specializing in Lebanon's Hezbollah, and secular groups like the Japanese Red Army, another concentrated on Sunni Islamist radicalism, primarily in Algeria.
In January 1996, the CTC opened the Bin Laden Issue Station to track Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, with Michael Scheuer, formerly in charge of the CTC's Islamic Extremist Branch, as its first head. The reasons were similar to those for the establishment of the CTC itself. The new Station, unlike the traditional country-based ones, was not geographically limited, and drew its personnel from across the U.S. intelligence community.
Geoffrey O'Connell was Director of the CTC from 1997 until Cofer Black became Director in June 1999, as part of a reshuffle by CIA chief George Tenet, who was embarking on a plan to deal with al-Qaeda. At the same time Tenet made one of his executives head of the unnamed section in charge of the Bin Laden Station.
Paul Pillar became chief of analysis in 1993, and by 1997, he was the Center's deputy director. But in summer 1999 he suffered a clash of styles with Cofer Black. Soon after, Pillar left the CTC. He was replaced as deputy director by Ben Bonk. Henry Crumpton was head of operations in the late 1990s, and came back after 9/11 as chief of a new Special Operations section.
In the late 1990s, the CIA began to set up Counterterrorist Intelligence Centers, in collaboration with the intelligence services of individual countries to deal with Islamist militants. The CTICs spread widely after the September 11, 2001 attacks, existing in more than two dozen countries by 2005. Officers from the host nations serving in the CTICs were vetted by the CIA, and usually supervised by the local CIA chief of station.
"The Plan", 1999–2001
In December 1998 CIA chief George Tenet "declared war" on Osama bin Laden. Early in 1999 Tenet ordered the CTC to conduct a review of the CIA's operational strategy, with the aim of creating 'a new, comprehensive plan of attack' against al-Qaeda. By mid-September, the result of this review, known simply as "The Plan", had been briefed to CIA operational level personnel, and to the NSA, the FBI, and other partners.
Once Cofer Black had finalized his operational plan, Charles Allen, associate deputy director of Central Intelligence for Collection, created a dedicated al-Qaeda cell with officers from across the intelligence community. This cell met daily, focusing on penetrating the Afghan sanctuary, and ensuring that collection initiatives were synchronized with operational plans. Allen met with Tenet on a weekly basis to review initiatives.
The CIA increasingly concentrated its diminished resources on counterterrorism, so that resources for this activity increased sharply, in contrast to the general trend. At least some of the Plan's more modest aspirations were translated into action. Intelligence collection efforts on bin Laden and al-Qaeda increased significantly from 1999.
The core 9/11 hijackers emerge
Beginning in September 1999, the CTC picked up multiple signs that bin Laden had set in motion major terrorist attacks for the turn of the year. The CIA set in motion what Black later described as the "largest collection and disruption activity in the history of mankind". They focused on known al-Qaeda terrorists, and on senior personnel both inside and outside Afghanistan.
Amid this activity, in November–December 1999 Mohamed Atta, Marwan al-Shehhi, Ziad Jarrah, and Nawaf al-Hazmi visited Afghanistan, where they were selected by al-Qaeda for the 9/11 operation. In late 1999, the NSA picked up traces of an "operational cadre" consisting of al-Hazmi, his younger brother Salem, and Khalid al-Mihdhar, who were planning to go to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in January 2000. A CTC officer sought permission to conduct surveillance on the men. At about this time the SOCOM-DIA data mining operation "Able Danger" also identified a potential al-Qaeda unit, consisting of the future leading 9/11 hijackers, and termed them the "Brooklyn cell". Altogether, the operation found five cells, including two of the three cells involved in the 9/11 attack.
The Predator drone, 2000–2001
In autumn 2000, a series of flights over Afghanistan by Predator drones, under the joint control of the USAF and the CTC, produced probable sightings of bin Laden. CTC Director Black advocated arming Predators with missiles to try to launch a targeted killing of bin Laden, but there were legal and technical issues: under the new Bush administration in 2001, Black continued to lobby for Predators armed with adapted Hellfire anti-tank missiles. On Black's advice, Tenet raised the matter at the long-awaited Cabinet-level Principals Committee meeting on terrorism of September 4, 2001, and received authorisation to deploy the system.
9/11 and after
After the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, some CTC staff were exempted from an order to evacuate the CIA headquarters building at Langley. They included the shift of the Global Response Center on the exposed sixth floor, which Black argued had was essential to keep operating during the crisis. Tenet finally agreed with Black that their lives would have to be put at risk.
The CTC obtained passenger lists from the planes used in the attack, and identified Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, whose names they had first linked with terrorism in the winter of 1999–2000. Tenet later proposed inserting CIA teams into Afghanistan to assist local warlords in the fight against al-Qaeda.
The CIA geared up to take the lead in the attack on al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. The NALT team, led by Gary Schroen, entered the country once more on September 26. A new branch was added to the CTC, named CTC Special Operations, or CTC/SO, headed by Henry Crumpton, with the aim of locating and destroying al-Qaeda resources. Execution of this mission was nowhere more evident than at Qala-i-Jangi, a 19th-century fortress on the outskirts of the northern Afghan town of Mazar-i-Sharif, when it fell to American allies.
- Miller, Greg (March 24, 2012). "At CIA, a convert to Islam leads the terrorism hunt". The Washington Post. Retrieved November 13, 2012.
- Steve Coll, Ghost Wars (2005 edn), pp.137–46, 527–8; 9/11 Commission Report, chapter 3, pp.75, 92 (HTML version). The "explosive drones" are from Coll's interview with Clarridge, Dec. 28, 2001: Ghost Wars, p.685, note 3.
- Coll, Ghost Wars (2005 edn), pp.140–6. (Coll misspells Bedlington's name "Bedington".)
- Coll, Ghost Wars (2005 edn), pp.252–3.
- Coll, Ghost Wars (2005 edn), pp. 257, 375, 451, 457.
- Tenet, At The Center Of The Storm, pp.*; cf. Coll, Ghost Wars (2005 edn), p.523.
- Coll, Ghost Wars, pp.436–7, and p.646 note 42; 9/11 Commission Report, chapter 11, p.357 (HTML version).
- Coll, Ghost Wars, pp.457, 466–72, 485, and p.654 note 7; Tenet statement to the Joint Inquiry on 9/11, Oct. 17, 2002; 9/11 Commission Report, chapter 4, pp.142–3 (HTML version); Tenet, At the Center of the Storm, pp.119, 120.
- Coll, Ghost Wars, pp.495–6; 911 Commission Report, chapter 6, pp.174–80 (HTML version).
- 9/11 Commission Report, chapter 5, pp.155–8, 168 (HTML version). Data derived from subsequent intelligence interrogations of captives.
- 9/11 Commission Report, chapter 6, p.181 (HTML version); Coll, Ghost Wars, pp.487–88.
- Shaffer interview on Able Danger, Government Security News, Aug. 2005; Bill Gertz et al, "Inside the Ring", Washington Times, Sept. 30, 2005. "Press Conference of Rep Curt Weldon: 9/11 Commission and Operation "Able Danger"" (Sept. 17, 2005; transcript on Global Research website) is another important source for Able Danger. (Weldon was vice chairman of the House Armed Services and Homeland Security committees.)
- 9/11 Commission Report, chapter 6, pp.181–2
- 9/11 Commission Report chapter 11, pp.383–4.
- Tenet, At The Center Of The Storm, pp.164–65. The conversation is a virtual replica of that given in Bob Woodward, Bush At War (2002/3) (Publisher's extract from chapter 1).
- Tenet, At The Center Of The Storm, p.167.
- Tenet, At The Center Of The Storm, pp.209, 211, 217, 221–3. Cf. Franklin Freeman, "Afghan Massacres...", Liberty Strikes Back.