October 7th, 2010
08:11 AM ET

Intel officers: Terror war far from over

Watching the worst terrorist attack in the nation's history on a TV at CIA headquarters was like a punch in the stomach for Gary Schroen.

The 35-year veteran of the CIA had just entered the agency's retirement program when planes struck the Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.

Schroen's career had been spent mostly overseas as a covert officer in the Middle East and Southwest Asia. Now in his late 60s, he felt he was going to miss what could be the agency's biggest battle in a land he knew well.

Two days later he was at the forefront, summoned back to duty to lead the first U.S. team into Afghanistan. His mission: Hook up with the opposition Northern Alliance, help beat back the Taliban army and, as he was instructed by his CIA boss, "Find [Osama] bin Laden, kill him and bring his head back to the United States in a box on dry ice."

Schroen said it was clear "the gloves were off, that this was a war, and we were going to get the guys who did this terrible deed."

The original end game seemed pretty straightforward - destroy al Qaeda and eliminate the Taliban.

But nine years later, current and former intelligence officials tell CNN a battle targeted primarily in one region has spread to a worldwide fight with no end in sight.

The elusive bin Laden is believed to be hiding somewhere along Pakistan's mountainous border with Afghanistan and a resurgent Taliban is causing havoc in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda affiliates and wannabes have sprung up and scattered, making their presence known in places like Yemen, Somalia, Northern Africa and even Europe and the United States.

A plan to wipe out al Qaeda initially prepared by the CIA during the closing days of the Clinton administration was revised and put into action by the Bush White House just days after 9/11. Former CIA official John McLaughlin, who was the deputy director at the time, called it "a very bold plan with a very bold objective" to destroy both al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

From his perch as CIA station chief in Islamabad, Pakistan, in 2001, Bob Grenier was concerned the United States would end up mired in an open-ended insurgent war like the Soviets did in the 1980s. But by early 2002, he had changed his mind.

"The war in 2001 went much better than I dared hoped it would. I thought we would be able to consolidate a victory, that this war was a new beginning for Afghanistan, and the Afghans would preclude a return of the Taliban," said Grenier, who is now a partner in a business consultancy.

McLaughlin seconded that assessment.

"In the first year or so, I think we were very successful in the sense that the Taliban was banished, and al Qaeda fled - chased them into Pakistan - and in the next couple of years wrapped up most of their 9/11 era leadership, either captured or killed," he said.

But the situation changed on a number of fronts.

In March 2003, the United States invaded Iraq. Andy Johnson, the former staff director of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said resources were diverted from the unfinished business in South Asia.

"I don't think anybody can reasonably argue that the level of military and intelligence resources and reconstruction resources that were devoted to Iraq did not diminish our ability to seal the deal in Afghanistan, in Pakistan."

Grenier did not think it was so much an issue of resources but rather a lack of what he called command attention. He said, "As far as Washington was concerned, it [Afghanistan] was very much a side show. All of the real effort and thought was being put into Iraq."

A former senior intelligence official said the intelligence community was careful not to take away counterterrorism resources as it responded to the needs in Iraq. But the former official acknowledged the CIA does not have a lot of reserve capability.

Pakistan was always problematic. The current and former intelligence officials CNN spoke with agreed that the cooperation of Pakistani authorities was instrumental in helping track down many of the senior al Qaeda leadership who were captured or killed after they fled to Pakistan. Ramzi Binalshibh, who assisted some of the 9/11 hijackers, was captured in Karachi in September 2002. Six months later, 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was taken into custody in Rawalpindi. Both men are being held by the United States at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

But Grenier said despite the success, it was becoming apparent that some of the suspected terrorists fleeing Afghanistan were finding a safe haven in the tribal areas of Pakistan near the Afghan border.

"It was something the Pakistanis were very reluctant to acknowledge simply because they were concerned about the prospect of triggering tribal warfare in those areas, if they tried to track down al Qaeda members in a heavy-handed manner."

"There's a duality to the problem with Pakistan," said former Deputy Director McLaughlin. "Pakistan has often been our best ally against al Qaeda even as its territory has provided safe harbor for this terrorist movement," he said, adding that the situation continues today.

The failure of the Pakistan government to take action led to the CIA use of unmanned aerial vehicles to fire missiles targeted at killing suspected militants operating out of the ungoverned areas of the country. That effort started during the Bush administration and has increased dramatically under President Obama.

The situation appeared to be going fairly well in Afghanistan for the first few years. Al Qaeda was driven out and the Taliban was routed. Elections were held. There was a new president in place. However, it became increasingly evident the Afghan government had little control beyond the capital of Kabul.

Grenier said the CIA could have done more.

"The CIA could have played a more prominent role in consolidating support behind responsible leaders, warlords if you will, in different parts of the country," Grenier said.

McLaughlin said Afghanistan began to be affected by the terrorist safe haven created across the border in Pakistan.

"The things that have turned Afghanistan into what it is today are essentially the safe havens along the border, which allowed the Taliban to eventually regroup, allowed al Qaeda to seek shelter there - techniques they learned in Iraq migrating into the training camps in that area, migrating into Afghanistan."

The terrorist problem has become even more complex as militants in various parts of the world began to align with al Qaeda. Grenier said the overall war on terror and the U.S. invasion of Iraq may have contributed to the broadening of the problem.

"The measures taken to deal with extremism have had the unintended consequence of creating more - and more cohesive - militants."

Grenier says attacks from regional extremist groups like the bungled Times Square bombing would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

McLaughlin said the terrorist movement today is harder to combat and confront because it is so diverse.

"You have to follow individuals in diverse little movements who hardly have names, because two or three of them might arm some lunatic to come here to set a bomb off in Times Square," McLaughlin said, referring to Faisal Shahzad, the man who bungled an attempt to set off a car bomb in New York.

A current U.S. intelligence official said the battle being waged by the intelligence community is causing the enemy to feel the heat.

"Aggressive, precise and effective operations have chewed through al Qaeda's senior leadership ranks," the official said.

But the efforts by the intelligence community and military to take the terrorists off the battlefield will not completely solve the problem.

"Radicalization is an issue to deal with. Strengthening counterterrorism laws in some countries is required," the intelligence official said.

Grenier said he believes that bin Laden's and other militants' safe haven in Pakistan will not be eliminated until those ungoverned areas are fully incorporated into Pakistan - an effort he says will take a generation.

McLaughlin said terrorism can't be stamped out completely - just like crime, it dates back to Biblical days.

"It ends when we get to a point where terrorism has shrunk to almost a nuisance level - still there, but not having the impact in terms of deaths and destruction that it has today."

McLaughlin said it will take three things to get there: destroying the al Qaeda leadership, denying safe haven, and changing conditions that give rise to the movement - the problems of education, unemployment and the Israeli-Arab conflict.

Former Senate staff member Johnson thinks the terrorism problem will diminish with a robust intelligence operation, which ensures "the flames of terror have been tamped down to the point they are embers and those embers are not allowed to flame again."

The U.S. intelligence official said it is tough to define victory.

"It's not Yorktown or Iwo Jima, where identifying the winners was easy," the official said. "Perhaps, from an American perspective, the best way to assess progress is to note the fact that there hasn't been a 9/11-style attack since that terrible day."

How does Schroen, who led the first team into Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks, feel about not getting the perpetrators of 9/11?

"It's the only thing I regret in my long career with the CIA, that we didn't get Osama bin Laden in 2001 when we had a chance. That son of a bitch is out there still plotting to kill Americans."

soundoff (8 Responses)
  1. HermanC

    Ahh, yes, the Pentagonal Church of the Bin Laden Corpse Cult. The Catholic Church took down $95 B last year for the Cult of the Rock and the Crypt. The Pentagonal Church took down $155 B last year, and received a +$95 B BONUS for 2011 for the Cult of Bin Laden's Corpse, which unequivocally and irrefutably proves that **Bin Laden is more popular than Jesus**!!
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    October 10, 2010 at 2:39 pm | Report abuse |
  2. HermanC

    "The US auto industry has a fuel economy target of only 24 mpg for 2011 model light trucks
    that is expected to 'save' more than 250 million gal/year of fuel a year. But that savings will be
    entirely eliminated by increased fuel consumption due to an average obesity weight gain
    among US residents.

    According to a 2008 study by Prof Sheldon H. Jacobson and Laura McLay growing
    overweight and obesity rates in the United States continue to increase fuel consumption
    by adding extra passenger weight to vehicles. And that “More than 1 billion gallons of
    fuel consumed each year can be attributed to this excessive obesity.” According to
    them Americans are approximately an inch taller now than they were in the 1960s.
    Moreover, nearly 66% of Americans are overweight with a body mass index
    exceeding 25; nearly 1/3rd of Americans are considered obese
    with a body mass index exceeding 30.

    The report argues that overweight or obese is the leading medical reason why potential
    recruits fail to qualify for military service. According to the report “when weight problems
    are combined with educational deficits, criminal records, and other disqualifiers such as a
    sthma or drug abuse, 75 percent of Americans 17 to 24 years old are unable to join
    the military for one or more reasons.” It also says that over 9 million young adult Americans
    between the ages of 17 and 24 (which is prime recruiting age) are too fat to join the military.
    The report emphasizes that the number of states with 40 percent or more of their
    young adults who were overweight or obese went from one, to 39, in one decade.'

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    The Supreme Court is preparing to

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    to blame industry for damages they cause.

    October 10, 2010 at 2:34 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Smith in Oregon

    Availability of marijuana will increase and the money and violence of The Mexican Cartel's and street gangs will DECREASE directly as a result of the passage of California's proposition 19.

    Once the US troops are pulled out of Afghanistan where 99% of the entire world's Heroin is produced, the Taliban will entirely eradicate the Opium poppy fields across Afghanistan AS THEY DID before preventing the Karzai clan from exporting that Heroin to the Chinese Triad's (world's largest and oldest criminal syndicate).

    The Chinese Triad's are the exclusive suppliers of Heroin to the Mexican Drug Cartel's who smuggle that Heroin into America.

    Pulling America out of Afghanistan would gut Hundreds of Billions of dollars in yearly revenue to the world's largest criminal syndicates.

    Yes on California's Marijuana legalization measure 19, and pulling American troops out of Afghanistan removes 2/3 of the entire illegal drug funding to the world's largest criminal syndicates from Marijuana, Heroin and Cocaine. That is hands down a WIN-WIN for all Americans and a major blow to the Chinese Triad's and the Mexican Drug Cartels.

    October 9, 2010 at 5:47 am | Report abuse |
  4. dindy Sri lanka

    these terrorists are well spread all over the world. some are gathering information. some are destroying the enemy"s money.that is one of the main way they attack the enemy. then some try to drive other people crazy from repeating the same thing on and on. Then the worst once are who pretend to be students who enter united states or Urope and later they get US passport or British passport or recently we found that some are on German passport too to operate terrorist activities. All the peace loving people must be vigilant over all these issues and co operate with the government and forces to solve this dangerous situation . They have no mercy for their own kind. So what about us who are not Muslims or Islam believers.

    October 8, 2010 at 5:52 am | Report abuse |
  5. moveebuff

    Like sheep to the slaughter....American soldiers are the pawns in the invasion that George W. Bush decided would be a good idea. 9 years later and billions of american tax dollars spent and worst of all, the fallen soldiers and the families that have lost their sons and daughters in vain. No one even wins in a war.

    October 7, 2010 at 9:07 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Jose Valdez

    I think the US has their priorities mixed up. Seems to me that there is uncontrollable violence in Mexico and neighboring US territory. Why not bring down the drug cartel and protect US citizens locally rather than send US citizens to Afghanistan for God know what –
    It's pretty sad when the cops in Mexico won't do anything because they are afraid of the drug cartel – who runs that country? Damn – someone needs to put an end to the Mexico terror!

    October 7, 2010 at 2:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • Larry Valecia, Calif.US Army Forever...

      Why should we help Mexico with its internal problem? If anything, we should send the troops to the border to keep out the illegals.

      October 7, 2010 at 4:45 pm | Report abuse |
  7. BUBBA--ALABAMA STYLE!!!

    Maybe if the United Stated,Great Britain and France would give up on trying to take control of South Asia and talk to the Taliban and regimes they don't like such as the one in Iran,that might be a start toward peace and stability in that part of the world.

    October 7, 2010 at 11:49 am | Report abuse |