Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America's Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda

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9781250012197: Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America's Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda
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"Fast paced, gripping . . . [a] well written dive into the arcane world of counterterrorism over the past decade ." ―Foreign Policy

In Counterstrike, Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker of The New York Times take readers into a previously hidden theater of war, as U.S. ground troops, intelligence operatives, and top executive branch officials have fashioned effective new strategies to fight terrorism, in sharp contrast to the cowboy slogans that once characterized the U.S. government's public posture. They show how these innovative strategies, drawn from classic Cold War deterrence theory, were employed in the dramatic raid in which Osama bin Laden was killed, and in a new afterword the authors point to the ongoing challenges and successes facing America in the Middle East, in cyberspace, and at home.

Filled with startling revelations about how our national security is being managed, Counterstrike will change the way Americans think about the ongoing struggle with violent radical extremism.

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About the Author:

ERIC SCHMITT is a terrorism correspondent for The New York Times, and has embedded with troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Pakistan. He has twice been a member of Times reporting teams that were awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

THOM SHANKER, Pentagon correspondent for The New York Times, routinely spends time embedded with troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was formerly a foreign editor and correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, based in Moscow, Berlin, and Sarajevo.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1

KNOW THINE ENEMY

At the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait City, Brigadier General Jeffrey Schloesser watched in horror—but not surprise—the sickening images from 6,500 miles away that flickered from the television screen. It was Tuesday afternoon, September 11, 2001.

Schloesser, a forty-seven-year-old former Army Special Operations helicopter pilot from Kansas, was one of a small number of counterterrorism experts in the military’s ranks. He spoke fluent Arabic and was steeped in Middle East politics and history, having earned a master’s degree from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and served a yearlong tour in Jordan. He was now serving as the embassy’s liaison to the Kuwaiti military.

For Schloesser and for many of his uniformed and civilian colleagues serving in the Middle East, the United States had been in an undeclared war with Al Qaeda long before this day. Eleven months earlier, on October 12, 2000, Al Qaeda operatives in a small skiff had detonated a one-thousand-pound suicide bomb alongside the Navy destroyer USS Cole as it refueled in the port of Aden, on Yemen’s southern coast. Seventeen American sailors were killed, and thirty-nine others injured in the blast that ripped a forty-by-forty-foot blackened gash in the ship’s port side. The gloves are coming off now, Schloesser had thought then. But the deadly strike failed to outrage the American public.

After the Cole bombing, the movements and travel of American embassy employees and their families in Kuwait were sharply restricted. Al Qaeda had failed in an eerily similar but less publicized attack against the Navy destroyer USS The Sullivans earlier that January as part of the 2000 millennium plots. The terrorists’ plan had been to load a boat full of explosives and blow it up near the warship during a port call in Yemen. But the plotters overloaded the skiff, causing it to sink to the bottom of Aden harbor. Months later, after leaving Kuwait, Schloesser would learn that an Al Qaeda operative had been captured carrying a chilling set of blueprints, plans of the house next door to where he and his wife, Patty, had lived. Years later, it gave Patty Schloesser the creeps just thinking about it.

Now, as the searing Kuwaiti summer afternoon gave way to a hazy evening, Schloesser and the CIA station chief looked away from the television images and locked glances with their boss, Ambassador James A. Larocco, a career foreign service officer who had served tours in Egypt, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. “Guys, we’ve got to take immediate steps right here,” Larocco said. As the three men rushed out of the station chief’s office to report to superiors in Washington, coordinate with Kuwaiti security forces going on alert, and check in with a spider web of informants and spies for clues to a possible next wave of attacks, each man felt it in his gut: Al Qaeda. For Schloesser, who was already preparing to leave for a new assignment at the Pentagon, a decade of planning and carrying out a secretive counterterrorism campaign against Al Qaeda was just beginning.

*   *   *

Juan Zarate stood at the window of his new fourth-floor office at the Treasury Department in Washington looking south toward the Pentagon. Clouds of billowing black smoke smeared the early morning sky. “Jim, I can tell you right now, the Pentagon’s been hit!” Zarate yelled over the phone to his former boss at the Justice Department, James S. Reynolds, whom he had called to alert to the strikes. “We’re under attack!”

Three weeks earlier, Zarate had been a rising star in the Justice Department’s terrorism and violent crimes section. With degrees from Harvard College and Harvard Law School, Zarate had been a young federal prosecutor assisting on some of the biggest cases in the burgeoning field of counterterrorism.

The son of immigrants—his mother from Cuba; his father, a physician, from Mexico—Zarate had already lived a life that was a classic all-American success story. Raised in Orange County, California, in a politically conservative family, he showed an interest in security conflicts at a precocious age. As a fifth grader, he wrote a term paper on the war in Angola in the 1970s and the role of Cuban forces there. Zarate, balding, with rimless glasses, looked older than his thirty years. As a junior-level attorney, he had already participated in the prosecutions of the bombers of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998, attacks organized by Al Qaeda that killed 224 people and wounded thousands. Later, his superiors assigned him to cases involving Hamas, the FARC insurgent group in Colombia, and the attack on the USS Cole. The Cole bombing, in particular, was seared in his mind after he pored over the graphic photos of damage to the ship and the sailors killed on board. “If the American people saw what we’re seeing, they’d demand war,” Zarate said.

When the Treasury Department came calling in August 2001 and offered to make him part of a senior team running its international financial enforcement and sanctions branch, Zarate jumped at the chance to broaden his counterterrorism credentials and delve into the murky world of illicit financing. Three weeks later, on September 11, Zarate could barely find his new office in the cavernous Treasury Department building, much less know which levers to pull and which people to call in a crisis. It left him feeling momentarily helpless. “If I were back at DOJ, I’d know what to do, who to call,” he said. “I didn’t really know what to do here yet.” Zarate followed his instincts, which were screaming, “Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda,” and called his former colleagues at Justice to offer his assistance.

As a Californian, Zarate was quick to remind federal investigators to watch for aircraft flying from the West Coast, not just the East Coast. Zarate had a flashback to an earlier failed Al Qaeda plan: the so-called Bojinka plot, hatched in the Philippines in 1995, to bomb twelve American commercial jets as they flew over the Pacific. That scheme unraveled only after extensive planning and even some trial runs. One of the conspirators in that plot was a man named Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, whom authorities would later identify as the mastermind of the September 11 attacks. “Bojinka animated a lot of our thinking,” Zarate said. “We expected more attacks. We anticipated more attacks. The only question in my mind was size and scope.”

Soon after the strike on the Pentagon, Zarate and a handful of senior Treasury officials rushed from their offices to the Secret Service headquarters six blocks away, where they watched the day’s events unfold from the service’s command center. Within months, Zarate would become the point man for the Treasury—and for much of the U.S. government—tracking the movement of money through the murky channels of terrorist financing, dissecting the sophisticated and shadowy networks of donors, illicit activities, and other sources that filled terrorist and insurgent coffers. From Justice to Treasury and ultimately to the upper echelons of the White House’s National Security Council, Zarate would over the next decade employ his keen intellect, near-photographic memory, and deft ability to bring together disparate players in the government’s bruising internal bureaucratic battles over how to carry out the Bush administration’s global war on terror.

*   *   *

On the morning of September 11, Michael G. Vickers was immersed in the details of plans to help transform the Pentagon by creating lighter, faster, and more lethal forces to deal with emerging threats. Vickers directed strategic studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, one of the leading independent defense research organizations in Washington. Restructuring the armed forces was one of the Pentagon’s top priorities in the early days of the Bush administration. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was in the midst of setting strategy and budgets under a process called the Quadrennial Defense Review, which was mandated by statute. The Pentagon’s new leadership was assessing which weapons systems it ought to buy, how much money ought to be requested, and whether the number of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines should be changed.

But in the midafternoon, one of Rumsfeld’s top aides frantically called Vickers, telling him that the secretary urgently needed him for a different assignment, one that drew on his storied terror-fighting career from his Cold War days. Soft-spoken and wearing thick glasses, Vickers was the Pentagon’s own version of Clark Kent, an unassuming figure whose spare but unusually impressive official Pentagon biography only hinted at the extraordinary life he had lived in the 1970s and 1980s: “His operational experience spans covert action and espionage, unconventional warfare, counterterrorism (including hostage rescue operations), counterinsurgency, and foreign internal defense.” Mild manner notwithstanding, Vickers was one of the nation’s most experienced counterterrorism operatives and planners.

In 1973, when he was twenty years old, Vickers had enlisted directly into the Green Berets, taking advantage of a rarely offered program that admitted qualified civilians straight out of college or private life into the Special Forces. In Germany, with the 10th Special Forces Group, he learned how to operate behind Soviet lines to link up with partisan forces. The Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies had positioned a vastly greater number of tanks and armored troop carriers along the Fulda Gap in central Germany, across from American and NATO forces. If it came to war, one of his unit’s most sensitive missions would be to infiltrate behind Soviet lines, each four-ma...

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