Jawbreaker: The Attack on Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda: A Personal Account by the CIA's Key Field Commander

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In Jawbreaker Gary Berntsen, until recently one of the CIA’s most decorated officers, comes out from under cover for the first time to describe his no-holds-barred pursuit of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda.

With his unique mix of clandestine knowledge and paramilitary training, Berntsen represents the new face of counterterrorism. Recognized within the agency for his ...
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Jawbreaker: The Attack on Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda: A Personal Account by the CIA's Key Field Commander

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In Jawbreaker Gary Berntsen, until recently one of the CIA’s most decorated officers, comes out from under cover for the first time to describe his no-holds-barred pursuit of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda.

With his unique mix of clandestine knowledge and paramilitary training, Berntsen represents the new face of counterterrorism. Recognized within the agency for his aggressiveness, Berntsen, when dispatched to Afghanistan, made annihilating the enemy his job description.

As the CIA’s key commander coordinating the fight against the Taliban forces around Kabul, and the drive toward Tora Bora, Berntsen not only led dozens of CIA and Special Operations Forces, he also raised 2,000 Afghan fighters to aid in the hunt for bin Laden.

In this first-person account of that incredible pursuit, which actually began years earlier in an East Africa bombing investigation, Berntsen describes being ferried by rickety helicopter over the towering peaks of Afghanistan, sitting by General Tommy Franks’s side as heated negotiations were conducted with Northern Alliance generals, bargaining relentlessly with treacherous Afghan warlords and Taliban traitors, plotting to save hostages about to be used as pawns, calling in B-52 strikes on dug-in enemy units, and deploying a dizzying array of Special Forces teams in the pursuit of the world’s most wanted terrorist. Most crucially, Berntsen tells of cornering bin Laden in the Tora Bora mountains-and what happened when Berntsen begged Washington to block the al-Qaeda leader’s last avenue of escape.

As disturbingly eye-opening as it is adrenaline-charged, Jawbreaker races from CIA war rooms to diplomatic offices to mountaintop redoubts to paint a vivid portrait of a new kind of warfare, showing what can and should be done to deal a death blow to freedom’s enemies.

CIA Commander Gary Berntsen on…

His eyebrow-raising style:
“Most CIA Case Officers advanced their careers by recruiting sources and producing intelligence, I took a more grab-them-by-the-neck approach…I operated on the principle that it was easier to seek forgiveness than ask for approval. Take risks, but make sure you’re successful. Success, not good intentions, would determine my fate.”

Doing whatever it took:
“I didn’t just want to survive: I wanted to annihilate the enemy. And I didn’t want to end up like one of my favorite historical characters-Alexander Burns…He was one of the first of more than 14,000 British soldiers to be wiped out by the Afghans in the First Afghan War. Like Burns before me, I was also an intelligence officer and spoke Persian. This was my second trip into Afghanistan, too. The difference, I told myself, was that Burns had been a gentleman and I would do whatever it took to win.”

Dealing with a Taliban official who controlled American hostages:
“Tell him that if he betrays me or loses the hostages I’ll spend every waking moment of my life hunting him down to kill him. Tell him I’m not like any American he has ever met.”

The capabilities of his Tora Bora spotter team:
“Working nonstop, the four men directed strike after strike by B-1s, B-2s, and F-14s onto the al-Qaeda encampment with incredible precision. Somehow through the massive bureaucracy, thousands of miles of distance [and] reams of red tape…the U.S. had managed to place four of the most skilled men in the world above the motherlode of al-Qaeda, with a laser designator and communications system linked to the most potent air power in history…As I listened over our encrypted radio network, one word kept pounding in my head: revenge.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307237408
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 12/27/2005
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 6.43 (w) x 9.56 (h) x 1.17 (d)

Meet the Author

Gary Berntsen spent more than twenty years as an officer in the Clandestine Service and served in an array of Field Command assignments. He has been awarded both the Distinguished Intelligence Medal and the Intelligence Star.

Ralph Pezzullo is a former journalist, award-winning playwright, and screenwriter, and is the author of At the Fall of Samoza, Plunging into Haiti, and the mystery novel Eve Missing.

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Read an Excerpt


By Gary Berntsen and Ralph Pezzullo

Random House

Gary Berntsen and Ralph Pezzullo
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0307237400

Chapter One



"Dawn comes not twice to awaken a man." -an Arab proverb

* * * * * *

I jumped out of bed by the second ring and grabbed the STU-III secure telephone from the waist-high dresser. The digital clock read 4:23 a.m. in the dark bedroom of our Reston, Virginia, townhouse. My wife, Rebecca, sat up, rubbing her eyes.


A voice on the other end said, "Gary, it's Dorothy in the watch office."

I recognized her voice immediately. Dorothy was one of XXXXXXX officers assigned to my staff in the CIA's Counterterrorism Center. Our job was to identify, penetrate and disrupt the activities of Islamic Jihad Organization (IJO)-the Hezbollah's terrorist arm and the most deadly organization of its kind up to that time.

"One second," I said, removing the top of a XXXXXXX by the phone, extracting a XXXXXX key XXXX and inserting the key into the phone. "I'm going secure."


After pushing the "secure voice" button, a small horizontal panel lit up indicating that the encryption sequence was underway. It took fifteen seconds before the screen on the phone read "TOP SECRET."

Dorothy said: "I have you TS."

"I have you TS," I echoed back.

"Thirty-five minutes ago the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi was attacked with a large explosive device," Dorothy began. "Ten minutes later our Embassy in Dar es Salaam was also attacked with an explosive device. I just talked to Chief CTC O'Connell [CTC is the CIA's Counterterrorism Center]. He wants you to come in."

"Do you have numbers on casualties? Did we lose any of our people?" I asked.

Hearing the word "casualties," my wife gasped.

"There have been large-scale casualties, including some of our people," Dorothy answered.

"Thanks," I said. "I'm on my way in."

I turned the key, extracted it, XXXXXXXXXX, carefully reset the top and stood for a moment in the darkness. I was one of our country's most experienced clandestine counterterrorism officers, but news like this still filled me with cold, seething anger. Pictures of the carnage from bombings I'd witnessed in places like Sri Lanka and Nepal flashed in my head.

My wife understood instinctively that something terrible had happened. "Where?" she asked.

Being an intense, aggressive guy, I imagined myself rushing to the scene immediately and grabbing the bombers. But I managed to remain outwardly calm. "Nairobi and Dar es Salaam," I answered. "We've just had two Embassies bombed within thirty minutes."

After nineteen years married to a CIA officer, my wife knew the drill. "Should I pack a bag for you now?" she asked.

I thought of practicalities for a second. "I have to go into the building first. If I fly out I'll come back first and get some things. Why don't you go back to bed?"

"Go back to bed?" she asked, incredulously. "I can't go back to bed now. I'll make you some coffee and start getting your stuff ready."

Using the encrypted phone, I called one of my branch chiefs, Ted-an FBI agent assigned to CTC. The CIA and the FBI, in the spirit of cooperation, had begun placing officers in each other's counterterrorism units, and Ted was one of the first FBI detailees.

Ted was one tough guy. Prior to joining the FBI, he'd been a Maryland State Police officer. While working undercover, he infiltrated a motorcycle gang suspected of major criminal activity. One night, they got suspicious, dragged him into a deserted field on Maryland's Eastern Shore and stuck a gun to his head. Ted didn't lose his cool. Not only did he talk the gang out of killing him, he eventually locked up sixty of them for crimes varying from grand theft, to drug trafficking, to murder. At the Bureau, he played a lead role in a number of important counterterrorism investigations, including the Iraqi attempt to assassinate former President George Herbert Walker Bush after the Gulf War.

He was the kind of officer I wanted at my side in a crisis. I quickly filled him in.

Then I jumped in the shower, skipped shaving and got dressed, foregoing a jacket because it was going to be a hot, humid August day. Exiting the bedroom, I ran into my seventeen-year-old daughter, Alexis, on the landing. The sound of my moving around had roused her.

She asked, "Dad, what's going on? Why are you guys up so early?"

There was no point trying to hide the truth. Alexis already knew that I was one of the CIA's senior counterterrorism officers, but her thirteen-year-old brother, Thomas, thought I had a desk job at the XXXXXXX.

"There were some attacks on our Embassies in Africa so I need to go in early," I told her.

"Are you going to Africa?"

"Maybe, sweetheart, but not right now."

After a quick cup of coffee and kisses for my wife and daughter, I started out the door. Over my shoulder, the first reports of the bombings aired over CNN.

Standing outside our townhouse was my maroon 1987 Chrysler K station wagon-the car my son and daughter teasingly called "the red rocket." No, it wasn't an Aston Martin or a Land Rover equipped with surface-to-air rockets, but it got me where I wanted to go. My wife and daughter got the new wheels.

I'd taken this route so many times I could drive it in my sleep: down the Dulles toll road, onto route 123, a sharp turn into CIA headquarters twenty minutes later. At this hour of the morning the vast parking area was almost empty, except for vehicles belonging to members of the watch office and Directorate of Intelligence personnel who worked on the President's Daily Brief.

Passing through the CIA entrance, I swiped my badge over an optical reader and punched in my security code. My watch read 5:05 a.m. as I entered an elevator of the oldest wing of the three-building complex and hit five.

The Crisis Center consisted of two large rooms-one packed with communications racks with radios and multiple workstations to monitor Counterterrorism Center (CTC) developments around the world. The second room housed a large conference table and chairs.

CTC is part of the CIA's Directorate of Operations. The rest of the CIA's XXXX employees are organized under three other directorates: Science & Technology, Intelligence and Administration. Most of them are analysts, scientists and administrators.

The Directorate of Operations (DO) is the place that employs clandestine case officers like myself. Back in the mid-'90s the Clinton administration had reduced the number of operations officers by twenty-five percent. The DO is responsible for collecting human intelligence and running operations against 6 billion people and governments around the globe who want to harm the United States.

The FBI, for purposes of comparison, has approximately 10,000 field officers (special agents) covering the United States. There are one thousand FBI officers assigned to New York City alone.

You could say that working for Operations is challenging. Most of my closest colleagues are type-A individuals who won't back down from anyone or anything. We accept the fact that we live in a hard world and deal with that reality. It's dangerous work.

In the past, I've stopped dozens of bombings and assassinations overseas. I've also hunted down and captured terrorists from various groups. These are CIA successes that were never reported in the news.

When we're portrayed in the media, ninety-five percent of what's said or written is dead wrong. Books like Tom Clancy's Clear and Present Danger where the Deputy Director of the CIA personally hunts down terrorists-ridiculous. Movies like Three Days of the Condor where CIA operatives assassinate members of the American Literacy Historical Society-disgusting!

* * *

I felt a jolt of energy as I entered the Crisis Center. Chief CTC Jeff O'Connell stood in the dimly lit conference room speaking on a secure phone directly to the White House. Especially at that early hour of the morning, it was an intensely focused group. Ted (my FBI deputy) as well as the top officers in CTC were already there. News reports from CNN were being projected on the wall behind the head of the table.

O'Connell was around fifty, with slightly thinning reddish blond hair, five-foot-ten and fit. An excellent Arabist, O'Connell had served with distinction in multiple Middle East posts fighting Palestinian terrorist groups like Black September and Abu Nidal. Every time I saw him I was reminded of William Buckley and my early days in the Directorate of Operations.

I'd met both men in 1984 when-fresh out of training-I received my first assignment in NE Division (Directorate of Operations Near East and South Asian Division) working on Iraqi issues. It was a hell of a time to cut one's teeth. Two days before my assignment, on April 18, 1983, a van packed with two thousand pounds of explosives blew off the front of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, collapsing the front portion of the seven-story structure and killing sixty-three people including the XXXXX. In one fell swoop, the creme de la creme of the United States' Middle East intelligence had been wiped out. A single CIA officer, who happened to be out of the building buying a carpet, survived.

The attack was the work of Hezbollah, Lebanon's Shiite Muslim political party (Party of God), under the banner of the Islamic Jihad Organization (IJO). Led by the Shiite cleric Fadallah, Hezbollah was closely tied to the Islamic regime in Iran.

I'd entered NE Division during its darkest hour. The darkness grew thicker a few months later when the man dispatched as the new chief in Beruit, William Buckley, was kidnapped by Hezbollah. Hezbollah wanted the government of Kuwait to release Mustafa Badr al-Din (the brother-in-law of Imad Mughniyad, Hezbollah's IJO terror chief), who was responsible for the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait City. But the United States would not allow itself to be blackmailed by terrorists.

Despite the heroic efforts of many brave men and women to try to rescue Buckley, he was tortured and maltreated and eventually died in captivity. One of my last tasks before being deployed in the field was to review tapes of Buckley sent to the CIA by Hezbollah. As long as I live, I'll never erase the heartbreaking image of that tired, broken man, dressed in a sweat suit and holding up a newspaper to confirm the date, forced to read Hezbollah propaganda.

I promised myself right then and there that I'd do absolutely everything in my power to guard against myself or any of my people getting kidnapped by terrorists. Out of the Buckley experience, I derived two important lessons: focus on those groups that pose an immediate threat and strike them quickly; understand that the risks cannot be removed even though CIA and political leadership will always gravitate towards risk-free solutions.

Most of the officers in the Crisis Center conference room had lost a friend or colleague in the '83 Beirut bombing. O'Connell lowered the sound on CNN so that it played like a silent horror movie on the wall behind him. I watched as shocked, injured people climbed out of the rubble of the U.S. Embassies. O'Connell pointed out that initial estimates indicated that casualties were higher in Nairobi than in Dar es Salaam. When he mentioned the name of a young XXXX assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Kenya, found among the confirmed dead, I felt like I'd been kicked in the chest. XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX.

O'Connell wasted no time. "I think all of us probably sense Hezbollah fingerprints on both these bombings," he said. "But let's keep an open mind." Then he reviewed the bombing report for the Khobar Towers in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. In 1996, after years of not attacking the U.S., the Hezbollah and the Iranian Government set off a gigantic bomb in a fuel truck that killed nineteen U.S. servicemen in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.

O'Connell looked directly at me. "Gary will lead an Emergency Deployment Team (EDT) to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Ted will lead a second team to Nairobi. Both of you understand Hezbollah, but I'm going to cover my bets. I'm going to give each of you an officer out of the bin Laden shop in the event bin Laden has decided to go big."

The CTC Chief of Operations gave us our air deployments. I would leave that afternoon on a XXXXXX jet. Ted would travel with a big contingent of FBI special agents out of Andrews Air Force Base at noon.

Ted raised his hand. "Given that initial reports indicated larger loss of life and damage in Nairobi, I recommend that Gary lead the Nairobi team. I can serve as his deputy and you can insert someone else into Tanzania."


O'Connell said, "We're going to have a massive deployment of the FBI in Nairobi. Ted, I need you to ensure that we do not get off track with the FBI. Any more questions?"

O'Connell dismissed the group. The Chief of Operations (who was my immediate supervisor), Ted and I waited until the others filed out. The Chief of Operations, a former Marine and experienced Near East veteran, turned to me and said, "Your assuming command of the EDT teams has not been coordinated with the CIA Special Missions folks. I'll smooth it over. They already have established teams. You'll be layered on top of the existing structure."

"Don't worry," I said with a grin. "We'll work like one big happy family."


The three of us left at 6:00 a.m.-the Chief of Operations for his office in CTC; FBI Ted and I in search of Africa's Chief of Operations. With twenty years' experience in the field, the Chief of Operations/Africa quickly described the size of the missions in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, approximate number of employees. XXXXXXXXXXXXX

"Who's the CIA Chief in Nairobi?" I asked.

" J.T. He's an intelligence analyst."

"An intelligence analyst?" I blurted out.


Excerpted from Jawbreaker by Gary Berntsen and Ralph Pezzullo Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 41 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 42 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 7, 2009

    Great Book - How Absurd that the eBook costs more than the hardcopy?

    BN you have to do something about this? I am nearly thinking of gong kindle because of your ebook pricing.

    3 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 23, 2012

    Outstanding book

    I personley thought it was the best book ever.

    P.S. awsome book

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 25, 2006

    almost got the pig

    outstanding on Gary's part and his crew State dept is the loser

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 19, 2015

    Well done....

    Well done within the confines of CIA pukes

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 23, 2015


    "Ahh, so you've awoken", he purrs.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 22, 2015


    She woke up. Looking around, she saw the tom, and her heat scent was intensified by her fear.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 28, 2014

    Many redacted blacked out sections

    I got to about the fith page and closed the app and called my credit card company to stip payment. I have had so many problems with ebooks I have switched to buying paperback copies. My wife is going to get a kindle hopefully it has better files and pictures that can be zoomed in.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 18, 2013

    Good Read

    I enjoyed the book, first hand account of what really happened. Hats off to the guy's gettin it done.

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  • Posted June 2, 2011


    Its a great perspective, and including the redacted parts in context was interesting, but this guy is obviously his own biggest fan. The horn-honking gets old pretty quick. My only other complaint is that the Nook version isnt completely optimized, so some of the footnote links are a little janky. I'd still reccomend it though.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 14, 2011

    Untouchable Insight

    I could not put this book down. I felt the need to tell everyone that I know loves to read, loves America, and loves a no-nonsense look at facts to check this book out. Gary's best work by a mile.

    If you want to know the truth from a credible source, on the ground, chasing after UBL, this is the book. End of Story.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 20, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Audiobook copy skips

    Great book, but I am very disappointed that B&N would distribute a copy of an audiobook that skips and has evidence of disc scratches in it.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 11, 2006

    Riveting and important!

    A thrill ride through an important episode in modern history. The Afghan War has been obscured behind the quagmire in Iraq. People forget how quickly and efficiently that war was won. This book spells it out in colorful detail. Gary Berntsen is the CIA officer on the ground who managed the important battlefields in the eastern part of the country, which led to the fall of Kabul. His team ultimately trapped Bin Laden and 1,000 al-Qaeda fighters in the mountains of Tora Bora. Mr. Berntsen tells his fascinating story with the help of author Ralph Pezzullo. This is an important book that needs to be read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 27, 2006


    Jawbreaker relates, from a you-are-there perspective, how some 500 Americans (special warfare types) along with their Afghan allies defeated some 60,000 Talaban and Al-Queda well-armed fighters in less than 60 days, just after 911. If you never heard of this war, as I never had, this book will dazzle your imagination as to the awesome power and coordiantion ability of our elite forces. After reading this book, you will change your opinion about the CIA and the Bush Administration.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 13, 2006

    Great book, but...

    To get the full effect and range of names (that are changed) one must first read: 'First In: An Insider's Account of How the CIA Spearheaded the War on Terror in Afghanistan' by Gary C. Schroen (Team lead in Afghanistan) where the majority of names are listed among other items that aren't listed in Jawbreaker. By doing this you're laying the ground work for yourself when you read Jawbreaker. 'First In' is an OUTSTANDING book! By you reading 'First In' first you'll be able to decifer who and what Gary is speaking about more clearly. To the Layman reading Jawbreaker one could get lost when he speaks of operations. Trust me, if you've already ordered this book, fine. However, order 'First In' as well. Set Jawbreaker aside, read 'First In', then pick up Jawbreaker.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 30, 2005

    How Bin Laden Got Away

    If there's a book about the war on terror on your New Year's reading list, 'Jawbreaker' should be it. It is an insider¿s account about the post 9-11 hunt for Bin Laden in Afghanistán, written by the CIA man who commanded it on the ground, Gary Berntsen. Despite his and his men's heroic efforts, Bin Laden, whom they had cornered at Tora Bora, escaped in a fog of U.S. domestic political considerations. Berntsen explains how, nailing Gen. Tommy Franks and the White House--fearing an unacceptable number of U.S. casualities-- for nixing his appeals to throw special forces troops at Bin Laden. The cover story? They weren't sure Bin Laden was there, which the author (who was there) convincingly and forcefully refutes. The highly decorated Berntsen has stepped out of the shadows with a great read -- as well as a chilling, cautionary and necessary tale.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 7, 2005

    An outstanding book!

    Gary Berntsen was the most decorated GS-15 in the CIA's Directorate of Operations when he left the Agency last fall after 23 years of service. He was awarded two of the CIA's highest medals: the CIA Intelligence Star, and the Distinguished Intelligence Medal. This is the story of him leading the CIA team 'Jawbreaker', a handful of men that fought in northern Afghanistan after September 11th, 2001, and against overwhelming odds, eventually captured Kabul, the capital city. The book also discusses many of his other exploits around the world as a CIA officer. Gary comes across as a larger-than-life figure, and a very likeable person. I think other readers will enjoy this book as much as I did. An outstanding book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 11, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted June 22, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 23, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted February 4, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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