The List

7 Things You Didn’t Know About the War on Terror

From an attempt to negotiate with Osama bin Laden to a proposal to threaten to bomb Mecca, it's been a wild decade for the U.S. national security establishment.

Our new book, Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America's Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda, is in many ways a summary of the past decade of our reporting on the military, intelligence community, and domestic law enforcement as it entered a new era of Darwinian evolution to counter violent extremism.

It also is our deep dive into a decade of American counterterrorism efforts -- from the work of commando trigger-pullers and spies on the ground up to senior political leaders who wanted to defend the nation (and get re-elected). Our efforts to report and write this book allowed us to uncover many new missions never discussed before -- and gave us an understanding of how the "war on terror" had changed over the last decade.

Our book assesses the 10 years since 9/11 as the military divides the fight: into tactical missions on the battlefields of modern terrorism; then the operational advancements that provided the means to success while not securing final victory; and at the top, the strategic level of policy debates about how the nation should combat this threat to its security.

Here are seven vignettes from Counterstrike that offer glimpses into the thinking of policymakers and commanders in early days after the Sept. 11 attacks and how that thinking evolved over the following decade into a more whole-of-government approach to combating terrorists:


1. Bush Tried to Negotiate with al Qaeda

The George W. Bush administration, like all of its predecessors, swore never to negotiate with terrorists. But it did undertake an extraordinary, and extraordinarily secret, outreach effort to open a line of communication with Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda's senior leadership. It was an attempt to replicate how the United States tried to sustain a dialogue with the Soviet Union, even during the darkest days of the Cold War, when White House and Kremlin leaders described in private and in public a set of acceptable behaviors -- and described with equal clarity the swift, vicious, even nuclear punishment for gross violations.

In the months after the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush's national security staff, working through the intelligence agencies, made several attempts to get a private message to bin Laden and his inner circle. The messages were sent through business associates of the bin Laden family's vast financial empire as well as through some of the al Qaeda leader's closest relatives, a number of whom were receptive to opening a secret dialogue to restrain and contain their terrorist kinsman, whom they viewed as a blot on their name. (To be sure, other relatives were openly hostile to the American entreaties.)

According to a senior American intelligence officer with first-hand knowledge of the effort, the response from Osama bin Laden was silence. And the effort was suspended.

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2. Sometimes a Wedding Is Just a Wedding

In the early days after the Sept. 11 attacks, the CIA and FBI vied to produce the most compelling intelligence reports that tracked suspected terrorist plots. The agencies often worked at cross purposes, sometimes unwittingly. At one point in early 2002, both agencies were tracking what American analysts said were growing preparations for a major "wedding" somewhere in the Midwest. (In terrorist vernacular, the word "wedding" is often code for a major attack.) Dribs and drabs on this "wedding" planning made their way to President Bush from both agencies, independent of each other, of course. Finally, over the Easter holiday, during a video-teleconference with top aides in Washington from his ranch in Crawford, Texas, Bush stopped the briefing, exasperated by the discrepancies in the rival agencies' reporting about the suspected threat.

"George, Bob, get together and sort this out," Bush told his CIA director, George J. Tenet, and FBI director, Robert S. Mueller III.

Bush's instincts were correct. When the analysts finally untangled their clues, it turned out that the ominous "wedding" really was just that: the matrimony of a young man and a young woman from two prominent Pakistani-American families. There was no threat. There was no plot.

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3. The Threat to Bomb Mecca

As fears of a second attack mounted following the 9/11 strikes, U.S. government planners frantically cast about for strategies to protect the country. Even the most far-fetched ideas had a hearing, however briefly. In one case, some government planners proposed that if al Qaeda appeared ready to attack America again, the United States should publicly threaten to bomb the city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, the holiest site in all of Islam, in retaliation. "Just nuts!" one Pentagon aide wrote to himself when he heard the proposal. The idea was quickly and permanently shelved.


4. The SEAL Raid in Iran That Didn't Happen

When U.S. forces routed the Taliban government in Afghanistan and forced bin Laden and his top lieutenants to flee, many senior al Qaeda leaders, including bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, escaped to neighboring Pakistan. But a separate group, including the al Qaeda leader's son, Saad bin Laden, fled to northern Iran, where American troops would not pursue them and the Iranians would likely not detain them. But the Shiite clerics running Iran placed the al Qaeda operatives and their family members under virtual house arrest, and they became a shield against possible attacks from the Sunni-based terrorist organization.

One plan in particular illustrated the bold thinking and wildly unrealistic aims of the military's initial approach after 9/11 to kill or capture terrorist leaders. The plan called for hunting the eight to 10 senior al Qaeda leaders and operatives who had sought refuge in Chalus, an Iranian resort town on the Caspian Sea, where they had been detained.

At the Joint Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, N.C., military planners drew up options for Navy SEALs to sneak ashore at night using state-of-the-art mini-submarines. Once they landed, the SEALs would slip past Iranian guards to snatch the al Qaeda leaders. Another option called for Special Operations helicopters to spirit American commandos into the town and whisk them out again with their quarry. The Americans went as far as conducting two or three rehearsals at an undisclosed location along the U.S. Gulf Coast in early 2002. They conducted small-boat insertion exercises involving about 30 Special Operations personnel, most SEALs, and eventually concluded the mission was feasible if they were provided with more detailed intelligence on the locations of the al Qaeda members and the security around them.

The logistics of the mission were daunting. Chalus sits at the edge of the Elburz coastal mountain range about 70 miles north of Tehran, and the failed rescue of the American hostages in Iran in April 1980 loomed large in commanders' memories. Eventually, Gen. Richard B. Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, rejected the mission as too risky and too politically volatile. Many of the al Qaeda operatives are reportedly still there.

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5. Intelligence Hauls of Unusual Size

U.S. intelligence and military commandos have carried out tens of thousands of raids in the decade since 9/11. The amount of material seized from terrorist and insurgent targets has grown to a massive size. The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) operates exploitation triage centers and giant warehouses for storing intelligence products -- in war zones, rear headquarters in countries like Qatar, and back in the United States. One intelligence analyst said that walking into one of the warehouses for documents and media exploitation reminded him of the final scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, when the captured Ark of the Covenant is crated up and rolled into a cavernous storage area that contains all the government's other dangerous secrets.

All told, more than two million individual documents and electronic files have been catalogued by media type: hard copy, phone number, thumb drive. Each is inspected by a linguist working with a communications analyst or computer expert. The DIA analysts are joined by specialists from other agencies, including the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration. Yet given the overwhelming volume, no more than about 10 percent of the captured intelligence has ever been analyzed. Intelligence officers say they simply are overwhelmed, and untold quality leads may still be buried in the piles of computers, digital files, travel documents, and pocket litter.

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6. The Digital Counterjihad

Cyberspace is the terrorists' ultimate safe haven. It's where they recruit, raise money, and even plot attacks, using coded language while playing online video war games. The U.S. government fights back. One technique is called false band replacement, whereby the intelligence agencies infiltrate militants' networks and post their own material to counter extremist efforts on those same jihadist websites. The trick is to forge the onscreen trademarks -- "web watermarks" -- of al Qaeda media sites. This makes messages posted on these sites official, and sows dissent and confusion among the militants.

This Internet spoofing can be used in support of more traditional combat missions. There is at least one case confirmed by American officials in which a jihadist website was hacked by American cyberwarriors to lure a high-value al Qaeda to a surreptitious meeting with extremist counterparts -- only to find a U.S. military team in waiting.


7. First, Kill the Mullahs

U.S. counterterrorism officials have learned fighting terrorists effectively means targeting specific nodes of that network that support and enable militants who strap on suicide vests. This strategy focuses on neutralizing enablers such as the financiers, gun-runners, and logisticians. Among these terror linchpins are religious leaders who bless attacks. Heavenly reward will not await a suicide bomber unless his death and those of his victims is deemed halal, in keeping with Islam's sacred sharia law. Each militant network has a sharia emir, usually at the level of a sheikh or mullah. In Iraq, American commanders specifically killed emirs to throw a wrench in a suicide bombing networks. "Take him out, and suicide bombings from that network are frozen until he is replaced," said one military officer with command experience in Iraq.

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The List

Helium Diplomacy and the Jamaican Menace

More cables you missed from the WikiLeaks deluge.

Does Jamaica belong in the Axis of Evil?

When policymakers are asked to name the terrorist breeding grounds that keep them up at night, they're likely to mention Pakistan's tribal areas, southern Afghanistan, or Yemen. Sunny Jamaica doesn't usually make the list. But one 2010 cable sent from the U.S. embassy in Kingston warned that the country "potentially presents fertile ground for those who might commit acts of violence in the name of Islamist extremism."

That's a strange conclusion, as the State Department estimates there are no more than 5,000 Muslims on the island of 3 million people. Even the cable admits that the small population has been "largely peaceful" -- but sees worrying trends in the country's future. It notes that a number of terrorists -- including shoe bomber Richard Reid, Beltway sniper Lee Boyd Malvo, and a 19-year-old man who participated in the 2005 London bombings -- were converts to Islam of Jamaican descent.

What is it about Jamaican Muslims that makes them so potentially lethal? The cable speculates that it is because the country "has a significant penchant for violence," and that the attackers may be motivated to "fill the void of an absent father figure in a society in which the family structure is fluid."

Richard Daley and Syria's helium diplomacy

As unrest has spread across Syria this year, the city of Homs has emerged as one of the centers of the protest movement. But just last year, its energetic governor, Iyad Ghazal, shared a dramatically different vision of the city's future with the U.S. embassy. In a January 2010 meeting, diplomats reported, he "waxed poetic" about what he called the "Dream of Homs," which would bring increased industrial development to the city and streamline Syria's often byzantine and top-heavy bureaucracy.

But the Homs governor was not above a bit of showmanship to supplement his laundry list of good government programs. He told the embassy that he had corresponded with Chicago Mayor Richard Daley's office about establishing a sister-city relationship between Homs and Chicago. In an attempt to seal the deal, he invited Daley, who was then in Jordan, to attend a hot-air balloon competition in the town of Palymra, after which they would sign a memorandum of understanding.

Daley found himself unable to make the trip, but the governor's good will efforts went on without him -- on two occasions, he pressed the U.S. embassy to bring Lebanese-Colombian singer Shakira to a festival in Palmyra. The embassy "tactfully demurred on budgetary grounds."

Office drama at Caijing

For years, the economics magazine Caijing was one of the lone bright spots in China's often stultifying state-run media scene. But by October 2009, Editor-in-Chief Hu Shuli's penchant for aggressive reporting had antagonized one too many Chinese officials.

As word spread of mass resignations within Caijing, the U.S. embassy related a source's assessment that the "watershed" event was censorship of the magazine's coverage of ethnic violence in the Xinjiang region that July. Another source told U.S. officials that the resignations were not provoked by simply one event, but "the culmination of political pressure that had been building for years."

The cable also noted widespread speculation that Hu would soon resign from the magazine herself to start another media venture. She did just that a month later, stepping down to become the editor of Caixin Media.

Mubarak and Tantawi agree: Iran is the enemy

Back in July 2009, when Iran's Green Movement was gaining momentum and President Hosni Mubarak's primacy in the Egyptian political scene appeared largely uncontested, it appeared perfectly plausible that Mubarak would outlive the Islamic Republic. Events did not quite turn out that way, of course -- but there is little doubt that Mubarak would have greeted the demise of his long-time nemesis with glee. In a meeting with then-CENTCOM chief Gen. David Petraeus that month, the Egyptian president asserted that Iran couldn't be trusted, that "'Israel has a plan, it seems' to use military action" to thwart its nuclear program, and that the United States would be forced to throw its weight behind Israel.

But Mubarak wasn't the only Egyptian official posing as an Iran hawk in 2009. Mohamed Tantawi, who was then defense minister and would go on to lead the military council that took power after Mubarak was toppled this year, struck a similar note in a meeting with a visiting U.S. congressional delegation. Questioned by Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) about his views, Tantawi replied that "Iran was a 'danger' for Egypt and the whole region," a State Department cable reported. While Tantawi cautioned against using force to halt Iran's nuclear program, he also said that the United States could lessen the Iranian threat by providing advanced weaponry to the Egyptian army.

As the head of Egypt's military-led government, Tantawi has overseen a tentative warming of relations with Iran. But while both the Egyptian and Iranian foreign ministers have expressed their willingness to reestablish diplomatic ties, progress has been slow. Given Tantawi's two decades at Mubarak's side as defense minister, this should perhaps come as no surprise.

U.S. embassy: Turkish prime minister is whacking Israel for political reasons

Turkey's deteriorating relationship with Israel is back in the news again. After a U.N. report contradicted the Turkish government's narrative of the 2010 Israel Defense Forces raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla -- a military action that killed nine Turks -- it expelled the Israeli ambassador and suspended all military agreements with Israel on Sept. 2.

The U.S. embassy in Ankara often seemed inclined to view these anti-Israel broadsides from Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as political posturing. In a 2009 cable, the embassy reported that Erdogan "has sought to shore up his domestic right political flank at the expense of this relationship."

Another cable noted that the Turkish diplomatic corps was grumbling about their mercurial prime minster, due to "his emotional inclination to exceed his talking points and his staff's frequent failure to back brief the [Ministry of Foreign Affairs] on his meetings."

Syrian veep leaks Obama's letter to Assad

In the early days of his administration, U.S. President Barack Obama sent a letter to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad intended to grease the wheels for a renewal of ties between the two countries. In the letter, which reportedly ran three pages long, Obama offered cooperation and a new start for the two countries' relationship.

Soon after the letter had been sent, reports on its contents appeared in Lebanon's pro-Syrian press. The U.S. embassy in Damascus reported in August 2009 that it had figured out how the news had probably gotten out: Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa, the embassy alleged, likely leaked word of the letter to Wiam Wahhab, a pro-Syrian Lebanese politician, who then passed the information on to the Lebanese press. The cable also said that Syrian officials "were privately furious" at Sharaa's indiscretion, and did what they could to minimize coverage of it in the Syrian press.

The embassy's estimation of Sharaa's declining political clout also has repercussions for Syrian politics today. The vice president "has become increasingly marginalized...and often complains that Bashar fails to brief him and heed his advice," reported the embassy. Sharaa was tapped earlier this year by Assad to lead the "national dialogue" intended to promote reconciliation with Syria's domestic opposition. By delegating responsibility for the dialogue to Sharaa, Assad may have been signaling that he did not take the conference any more seriously than the opposition, which boycotted the process completely.

The Green Movement was right: Iran's election was fraudulent

Following Iran's 2009 presidential election, the hottest question facing Iran-watchers was whether Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could have actually received over 60 percent of the vote, as Iran's Interior Ministry claimed. Three days after the vote, a U.S. official in Dubai charged with monitoring Iranian politics weighed in with a cable arguing that the election results showed conclusive evidence of fraud

Ahmadinejad's declared victory "contravene[s] known voting patterns in Iran's recent history," the cable reported. To achieve his landslide, Ahmadinejad would have needed to quadruple his base of support from the 2005 election and capture a significant share of the urban vote -- two developments that the Iran-watchers deemed unlikely. Green Movement leaders Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Moussavi's low vote totals in their home provinces and among their ethnic bases were also red flags.

The story of Afghanistan's least successful politician


The idea that Afghanistan's election system is rife with fraud is not exactly new. But a cable from the U.S. embassy in Kabul tried to put a human face on the costs of this corruption by highlighting the story of one candidate who tried, and failed, to convince the Afghan authorities to investigate allegations of fraud in the August 2009 Provincial Council elections.

The man seemed to have a good case: After gathering with his supporters on Election Day, the results came in -- and showed that the candidate had received no votes. The man submitted his complaint to the Election Complaints Commission (EEC), which upheld the highly improbable vote tally of zero. A subsequent search found, unsurprisingly, that the EEC had completely failed to investigate the case. Pleas to the Supreme Court, attorney general, and Parliament over the next several months also failed to resolve the issue.

"The inability of the Kapisa Provincial Council candidate to obtain a hearing illustrates the lassitude with which Afghanistan's electoral bodies monitor elections, and presents a convincing argument for delaying Afghanistan's next round of elections," the cable concluded.

Berlusconi and Gates discuss Israeli war preparations against Iran


A February 2010 discussion between U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi must have been a study in opposites -- one of the most discreet U.S. policymakers meeting with one of the world's most bombastic politicians.

But while the U.S. embassy neglected to comment on the personal politics between the two men, it did include one notable fact on Israeli preparations for an attack on Iran. "[Gates] cited an Israeli military exercise that flew 842 kilometers to Greece, pointing out the distance between Israeli air bases and Iran's nuclear reactor is 840 kilometers," the cable read.

Berlusconi got the message -- but apparently his legal troubles were still at the top of his mind. The prime minister, who has been embattled by corruption and allegations of sex scandals, "gave an extended rant about the Italian judicial system -- which frequently targets him since it is 'dominated by leftists.'"