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I’m tired of you Americans saying we are not doing enough to fight the terrorists.” General Ashfaq Kayani, director general of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, was polite but firm during the meeting at his home in Islamabad in August 2006. “We may soon have a chance to conduct a major operation—what I need to know is whether you are with us or not.”
The confrontation was not the first and certainly not the last between his organization, the ISI, and mine, the CIA. As head of our National Clandestine Service, my mission was to oversee the running of covert operations, the recruitment of spies, and the theft of secrets on behalf of the United States. Since 9/11, the Pakistani intelligence service had arguably been our most important foreign relationship—but it never was or ever will be a smooth one.
Unbeknownst to me, and presumably to General Kayani, that sweltering August day in 2006, Usama bin Ladin and members of his family had recently taken refuge in a villa in Abbottabad, less than fifty miles northeast of where we sat.
We met in Kayani’s home on a tightly guarded Pakistani military base. The residence resembled something you might see in an affluent American suburb. There were several parts to the structure, one for his living quarters, another section that appeared to be an office, and a third area where the general met visitors like me. He was casually dressed but all business. After subordinates served fruit juice and tea, Kayani let me know what was on his mind.
A casual eavesdropper on my conversation with General Kayani might think, well, of course you would say yes to the general’s request, and of course the U.S. and allied governments would applaud your action. But in the world of counterterrorism, nothing is straightforward.
The loyalties of the ISI will probably always be suspect from an American perspective. While some senior officers like General Kayani proclaimed their support for our counterterrorism efforts, others a couple of echelons below him were happily supporting al-Qa’ida and the Taliban, an organization that the ISI (with some U.S. help) had essentially created years earlier. How much ISI officers knew about Bin Ladin’s whereabouts had always been hotly debated.
I had come to Pakistan along with the CIA’s director, General Mike Hayden, in part to try to nurture the tricky relationship between the Agency and the ISI. After several days of meetings, Hayden returned to the United States, but I stayed behind to probe the state of relations between our two organizations. My concern was more than bureaucratic. We were in the midst of a looming crisis, one in a series of tense moments that regularly marked our relations with the ISI. I had spent the day flying around on a Russian-built Pakistani MI-17 helicopter visiting Peshawar, the Khyber Pass, and remote tribal areas where the CIA and ISI tried to work together against terrorist targets.
On my arrival back in Islamabad, CIA officers alerted me to some new intelligence that a terrorist cell in the U.K. that we and our British allies had been monitoring had selected specific transatlantic flights that they planned to bring down in an attack that would rival 9/11 in scale. “Coño!” I said to myself. There had been many chilling intelligence reports over the past five years, but the more I learned, the more this seemed to me the most concrete and imminent threat to the U.S. since the World Trade Towers were brought down. The near-unanimous concern about a second attack that had galvanized our nation in the days, weeks, and months following 9/11 had since abated among politicians, the media, and the general public, but those of us on point in the fight knew that the threat had not gone away.
In recent months, our British allies had learned of a U.K.-based terror cell and its plans to blow up as many as ten commercial airliners as they headed from Britain to New York, Washington, D.C., and California. Through excellent intelligence work, British intelligence and police officials had monitored plotters as they implemented an ingenious plan of draining soft drink bottles and replacing the contents with concentrated hydrogen peroxide and other chemicals, including the use of the powdered breakfast drink Tang as an explosive accelerant. The altered containers could easily pass through routine airport screenings that were in use at the time. Had they been detonated while all ten planes were at altitude over the Atlantic, there would have been a loss of life in the thousands. Evidence of exactly how the planes were brought down would have been lost at sea, and the panic in the international transportation arena would have been devastating.
The effort British authorities devoted to tracking the plotters in their country was extraordinary. It was said to be the largest domestic surveillance effort ever conducted in the U.K. There seemed to be nineteen potential suicide bombers involved. Coincidentally (or perhaps not), that was the exact number of people who carried out the hijackings on September 11, 2001.
The Brits originally learned of the plot by finding that one of the plotters had traveled from the U.K. to meet with a known al-Qa’ida operative in Pakistan.
The central figure in the plot was a man by the name of Rashid Rauf, a dual British/Pakistani national. The Brits knew a fair amount about him. Rauf was said to have been born in England of Pakistani parents and raised in the West Midlands city of Birmingham. He disappeared from the U.K. in 2002 in the middle of an investigation of the murder of his uncle. While never charged in that crime, he was definitely a “person of interest” to British authorities, not only for that matter, but also because of his known ties to violent Islamic militant groups in Pakistan. But they needed to know more about him.
As troublesome as U.S. relations with Pakistan can be, our British allies can have an even more difficult time getting full cooperation from the ISI. Hard feelings dating back more than six decades to the Raj when Britain ruled the region meant that often the U.S. was able to get cooperation from the Pakistanis in ways that eluded the Brits.
So the CIA took the lead in working with the ISI to try to track down Rauf and others in Pakistan who were behind the plot that was brewing in the U.K. Using our clandestine technical resources, we were able to determine that planning for the strike was coming from North Waziristan in the mountainous Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan.
The CIA approached the ISI to see if they could shed additional light on the whereabouts and plans of Rashid Rauf. Although the plotters in the U.K. were under intense surveillance, at the time we did not know the whereabouts of Rauf. During his visit to Pakistan, General Hayden let senior Pakistani officials know that we were very interested in him.
In my meeting with General Kayani a few days later I was told that the Pakistanis had learned that Rauf might soon be traveling from the tribal areas toward the city of Bahawalpur. General Kayani saw that there was a rare opportunity to roll up a terrorist and he asked me if the U.S. would support Rauf’s immediate capture. I made an on-the-spot decision. “Absolutely. We want this bad guy!” It seemed to me that telling Kayani anything else would have undermined the relationship we were trying to build with the ISI. I made the call despite a vague understanding that British authorities were hoping we would not move too rashly against Rauf. They wanted time to follow the trail of the U.K.-based terrorists to see what other leads might develop and to generate more court-admissible evidence for a future trial. But to me, the news that the plotters had moved to the point of selecting actual flights to bring down meant that we could not afford to wait.
When my meeting with General Kayani ended, I departed for a local hotel. Brigadier General Azmat Hayam Khan, one of Kayani’s top subordinates and head of Pakistani counterterrorism, was supposed to host a dinner for me there as a way to build greater rapport with his senior officers. Such representational duties are among the more tedious of the chores of someone in my position, but necessary if you are hoping to maximize the support of your foreign counterparts.
The general was in the front seat of an armored sedan. Security vehicles led and trailed us as we wove our way through the teeming streets of Islamabad and headed for the hotel. In the backseat, I was joined by the CIA’s chief of station in the region, whose name I am not at liberty to divulge. Within minutes, Azmat’s cell phone rang. I could hear him fire off a series of urgent questions in Urdu. He turned to my colleague and said, “The plan, as General Kayani has said, is coming together. The terrorist Rauf is on a bus heading for one of our checkpoints. We want to proceed with his capture. Are you with us?”
My colleague turned to me. “What do you think, boss?”
“Let’s get him,” I said. The cautious thing would have been to consult with Washington. But doing so would have been the equivalent of saying “no.” Washington never responds instantly—especially in a situation such as this where they would have wanted to have some meetings, develop position papers, do some contingency planning, and consult the British. But in my mind, this opportunity demanded an instant decision.
Scrapping the plan for dinner, our two sides, the CIA and the ISI, set up command centers to listen to live feed from our forces in Bahawalpur providing a blow-by-blow account of the takedown of Rashid Rauf. The capture, carried out by Pakistani troops with CIA officers providing high-tech assistance nearby, was almost uneventful. If only I could say that about the aftermath.
Once I was assured that Rauf was in Pakistani control, I called CIA headquarters in Virginia and told my chief of staff what had happened. I asked her to go down the hall and brief the deputy CIA director, Steve Kappes. She called back minutes later: “Steve is livid. He wants to know why you let the Pakistanis conduct the takedown.”
“Because I agreed with them” was my simple answer.
She said that the Brits were insistent on following leads on this case a while longer to see who or what else might be implicated. “President Bush apparently told Prime Minister Blair a few hours earlier that we would move slowly on this plot,” she said. My unilateral decision apparently had caused a diplomatic incident. Because of it, they were scrambling to arrest all the known cell members in Britain that very night.
I was sorry for any inconvenience to President Bush and Prime Minister Blair—although no one had bothered to tell me about their conversation beforehand. But I am convinced that the decision to capture Rauf was the right one. If you are operating in a place like Great Britain you can confidently expect that Scotland Yard can track a criminal subject clandestinely for weeks on end. But in a country like Pakistan, if a chance suddenly presents itself to capture someone known to be in the final stage of planning multiple, simultaneous terrorist attacks, you better take them down. You act immediately because the opportunity may not come again—and you may not get another chance before attacks are launched. If, in the wake of a second successful terrorist attack of 9/11 proportions, it were to be revealed that the head of the U.S. clandestine service passed up a chance to capture one of the plot’s masterminds, the second-guessers outside, and especially inside, government would have been merciless, and rightly so.
As it turned out, the Brits were able to swiftly arrest twenty-five suspects. They eventually brought to trial seventeen on charges of plotting to commit murder. Three received life sentences. While the trials themselves may not be memorable to most Americans, the impact of the case behind them certainly is. It is because of this group that since 2006 you are unable to fly with more than three ounces of liquids in your carry-on luggage. Rauf’s plotters’ plan to mix commonly available chemicals in soda bottles would easily have killed thousands of innocent people in transatlantic flight.
The Pakistanis held Rauf in custody while the Brits rolled up the terror cells in England. Since Pakistan does not have an extradition treaty with the U.K., they refused to hand him over to the Brits and insisted that any questions we or the British had for Rauf be funneled through the ISI. Happy as we were to have Rauf off the streets, he was not under our control.
Three months after his capture, Pakistan moved to drop the terrorism charges against Rauf, allegedly for lack of evidence. They continued to hold him on explosives and false-identity counts, but in late 2007 he mysteriously “escaped” from Pakistani custody. He had been held at the high-security Adiala prison when his guards reportedly decided to allow him to go to a local mosque for prayers. Not surprisingly, Rauf did not return. Given the uncertain loyalties of some inside the Pakistani security system, it is foolish to take for granted our ability to follow, detain, or interrogate terrorists using Pakistani surrogates.
Two years later, it was reported in the media that Rauf was killed in a U.S. drone strike. His supporters deny this fact to this day.
In the immediate aftermath of the arrest of the plotters in the U.K. there was a lot of finger-pointing. Unnamed British sources told the media that the U.S. had overreacted and brought down Rauf prematurely. My relations with British intelligence took a decidedly chilly turn. A bogus theory from American writer Ron Suskind received great play in the media, suggesting that President Bush and Vice President Cheney had ordered the arrest of Rauf and the establishment of the draconian “no liquids on planes” rules to somehow influence the upcoming U.S. midterm elections. This was a patently ludicrous assertion.
And in general, the media widely denigrated the takedown of the terror cell in the U.K., saying that some of the British plotters had not yet gotten passports or plane tickets and therefore there was no urgency, as if stopping a terrorist attack doesn’t count unless the burning fuse is snuffed out seconds before an explosion. The pundits forget that if we had been so fortunate as to interdict any of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers months before the attacks they might have been dismissed as a laughable bunch of losers who didn’t inspire fear or confidence.
The liquids plot saga turned out to be emblematic of my CIA career. If there was a common thread during my lengthy time at the Agency, it was that no good deed went unpunished. The liquid plot incident further drove home to me the importance of swift action, of nimble decision making, and of being able to hold and interrogate key terrorist suspects ourselves without relying on surrogates who have a different and uncertain agenda.
Throughout my career, controversy followed me around like a hungry dog. I wish all my decisions and all my actions were universally supported and applauded. But I am comfortable with who I am and what I have done.
I have been extraordinarily privileged to play a role in some historic events and believe I am uniquely positioned to explode some myths and clarify some mysteries that have heretofore gone unexplained.
As memories of 9/11 faded, political correctness and timidity grew. The unanimity of support that the intelligence community enjoyed eroded, and one by one the tools needed to fight those who wish to destroy our country have been taken away. Worse, those men and women who volunteered to carry out our nation’s orders in combating al-Qa’ida found themselves second-guessed, investigated, and shunned.
It is doubtful whether the takedown of Rashid Rauf, which happened less than six years ago, could happen today. Certainly, the unilateral U.S. action that brought about Usama bin Ladin’s greatly deserved demise, for all the good it did, also served to highlight the gulf that exists between U.S. goals and intentions and those of many in powerful positions in Pakistan.
General Kayani, who in 2006 was chief of the ISI, is now even more influential as chief of the Army Staff, one of the most powerful men in Pakistan. Given the embarrassment of UBL’s being caught so close to the Pakistani capital, Kayani and his colleagues almost certainly would be less willing to join the U.S. in capturing a major terrorist on their soil. Knowing this, and also knowing that the United States has no strong options for interrogating and holding prisoners itself, if the U.S. could find another terror mastermind like Rauf, or even a successor to bin Ladin, we might simply be forced to eliminate him with a Hellfire missile rather than running the risks of attempting to capture him. The risks are not just to the lives of our forces but also to the fragile cooperation between our two nations. When terrorists are taken out by blunt force, our ability to exploit their phones, computers, and minds dies with them. The United States has chosen to unilaterally disarm itself in the war on terror; in writing this book, there is no more urgent message I want to convey.