A former CIA operative explains why the terrorist Usama bin Ladin has little to fear from American intelligence.
by Reuel Marc Gerecht JULY 2001
The United States has spent billions of dollars on counterterrorism since the U.S. embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya, in August of 1998. Tens of millions have been spent on covert operations specifically targeting Usama bin Ladin and his terrorist organization, al-Qa’ida. Senior U.S. officials boldly claim-even after the suicide attack last October on the USS Cole, in the port of Aden-that the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are clandestinely “picking apart” bin Ladin’s organization “limb by limb.” But having worked for the CIA for nearly nine years on Middle Eastern matters (I left the Directorate of Operations because of frustration with the Agency’s many problems), I would argue that America’s counterterrorism program in the Middle East and its environs is a myth.
Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier, is on the cultural periphery of the Middle East. It is just down the Grand Trunk Road from the legendary Khyber Pass, the gateway to Afghanistan. Peshawar is where bin Ladin cut his teeth in the Islamic jihad, when, in the mid-1980s, he became the financier and logistics man for the Maktab al-Khidamat, The Office of Services, an overt organization trying to recruit and aid Muslim, chiefly Arab, volunteers for the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. The friendships and associations made in The Office of Services gave birth to the clandestine al-Qa’ida, The Base, whose explicit aim is to wage a jihad against the West, especially the United States.
According to Afghan contacts and Pakistani officials, bin Ladin’s men regularly move through Peshawar and use it as a hub for phone, fax, and modem communication with the outside world. Members of the embassy-bombing teams in Africa probably planned to flee back to Pakistan. Once there they would likely have made their way into bin Ladin’s open arms through al-Qa’ida’s numerous friends in Peshawar. Every tribe and region of Afghanistan is represented in this city, which is dominated by the Pathans, the pre-eminent tribe in the Northwest Frontier and southern Afghanistan. Peshawar is also a power base of the Taliban, Afghanistan’s fundamentalist rulers. Knowing the city’s ins and outs would be indispensable to any U.S. effort to capture or kill bin Ladin and his closest associates. Intelligence collection on al-Qa’ida can’t be of much real value unless the agent network covers Peshawar.
During a recent visit, at sunset, when the city’s cloistered alleys go black except for an occasional flashing neon sign, I would walk through Afghan neighborhoods. Even in the darkness I had a case officer’s worst sensation-eyes following me everywhere. To escape the crowds I would pop into carpet, copper, and jewelry shops and every cybercafé I could find. These were poorly lit one- or two-room walk-ups where young men surfed Western porn. No matter where I went, the feeling never left me. I couldn’t see how the CIA as it is today had any chance of running a successful counterterrorist operation against bin Ladin in Peshawar, the Dodge City of Central Asia.