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U.S. Intelligence and terrorism from 2000

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For more information, see: Terrorism and U.S. Intelligence.
See also: terrorism

U.S. intelligence continued to be concerned with terrorism from 2000 on, with the level of activity, of course, increasing greatly after the 9-11 attacks.

In late 2000 Tenet appointed a senior manager in the Counterterrorism Center to investigate "creating a strategic assessment capability". This led to the creation of the Strategic Assessments Branch in 2001.


On October 12, 2000 three suicide bombers detonated a skiff packed with explosives alongside the American Burke-class destroyer, the USS Cole, which was docked in Aden Harbor, Yemen. The blast blew a hole 20 feet high and 40 feet wide in the ship's hull, killed 17 of the ship's crew and injured 30.

Clandestine intelligence/covert action

In 2000 the CIA and USAF jointly ran a series of flights over Afghanistan with a small remote-controlled reconnaissance drone, the Predator; they obtained probable photos of Bin Laden. Cofer Black and others became advocates of arming the Predator with missiles to try to assassinate Bin Laden and other Qaeda leaders.


Covert action

Paramilitary support

In the spring of 2001, CIA officers evaluated the forces of Ahmed Shah Massoud, and found his strength less than the previous fall. While the officers gave him cash and supplies, and received intelligence on the Taliban, they did not have the authority to build back his fighting strength against the Taliban.[1]

Targeted killing in war versus assassination

While the US has had a series of Presidential Executive Orders banning assassinations, none of those Orders actually defined assassination.[2] Using dictionary rather than statutory definition, a common definition is "murder by surprise for political purposes". Jeffrey Addicott argues that if murder is generally accepted as an illegal act in US and international law, so if assassination is a form of murder, the Orders cannot be making illegal something that is already illegal. [3]

The Hague and Geneva Conventions did not consider non-national actors as belligerents in general war. The Conventions do consider spontaneous rising against invasion and civil war as having lawful combatants, but there are much more restrictions of the status, as legal combatants, of fighters who came to a war from an external country. This discussion will not address the controversial issue of illegal combatants, but, following Addicott's reasoning, assumes that violence, in defense to an attack, is legal under Article 51 of the UN Charter.

Note that before the attackers in the September 11, 2001 attacks were identified, the US invoked the NATO treaty, without objection, as a member state that had been attacked. "In the War on Terror, it is beyond legal dispute that the virtual-State al-Qa’eda terrorists are aggressors and that the United States is engaging in self-defense when using violence against them."

Black and others became advocates of arming the Predator with AGM-114 Hellfire missiles to try to assassinate Bin Laden and other Qaeda leaders. But there were both legal and technical issues. Tenet in particular was concerned about the CIA moving back into the business of assassination. And a series of live-fire tests in the Nevada Desert in summer 2001 produced mixed results.

In June 2001, at a test site in Nevada in the US, CIA and Air Force personnel built a replica of Bin Laden's villa in Kandahar, Afghanistan. The Predator controllers tested aiming and firing a Predator missile at the house, and post-strike analysis showed it would have killed anyone in the targeted room. The significance of this demonstration was called a "holy grail" by one participant. A weapon now existed which, at long range, could kill Bin Laden shortly after finding him. Practice runs proved reliable, but, according to the Washington Post, the Bush Administration refrained from such action. On September 4, a new set of directives called for increasing pressure against the Taliban until they either ejected al Qaeda or faced a serious threat to their continued power. No decision on using this capability had reached President Bush by September 11. [1]

Tenet advised cautiously at the Cabinet-level Principals Committee on September 4, 2001. If the Cabinet wanted to empower the CIA to field a lethal drone, he said, "they should do so with their eyes wide open, fully aware of the potential fallout if there were a controversial or mistaken strike". National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice concluded that the armed Predator was required, but evidently not ready. She advised the CIA to consider re-starting reconnaissnace flights. The "previously reluctant" Tenet then ordered the Agency to do so. The CIA was authorized to "deploy the system with weapons-capable aircraft".[4][5]

Strategic Assessments Branch

The Counterterrorism Center, which Tenet had assigned to advise on setting up a strategic assessment capability, reported back in March. "In [an] early Spring 2001 briefing to the DCI, [the] CTC requested hiring a small group of contractors not involved in day-to-day crises to digest vast quantities of information and develop targeting strategies. The briefing emphasized that the unit needed people, not money."

The Strategic Assessments Branch of the Counterterrorism Center was formally set up in July. But it struggled to find personnel. The branch's chief reported for duty on September 10, 2001.[6][7][8]

World-Wide Attack Matrix

After 9/11, the CIA came under criticism for not having done enough to prevent the attacks. DCI George Tenetrejected the criticism, citing the Agency's planning efforts especially over the preceding two years. His response came in a briefing held on September 15, 2001, where he presented the Worldwide Attack Matrix, a classified document describing covert CIA anti-terror operations in eighty countries in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. The actions, underway or being recommended, would range from "routine propaganda to lethal covert action in preparation for military attacks." The plans, if carried out, "would give the CIA the broadest and most lethal authority in its history."[9]

Tenet said that the CIA's efforts had put the Agency in a position to respond rapidly and effectively to the attacks, both in the "Afghan sanctuary" and in "ninety-two countries around the world". [10]

At the Cabinet-level Principals Committee meeting on terrorism of September 4, 2001, Tenet warned of the dangers of a contoversial or mistaken strike with an under-tested armed drone. After the meeting, the CIA resumed reconnaissance flights, the drones now being weapons-capable but as yet unarmed.


Starting on September 11, the strategy was no longer steady escalation, but multiple attacks on multiple fronts. On 5 November 2002, newspapers reported that Al-Qaeda operatives in a car travelling through Yemen had been killed by a missile launched from a CIA-controlled Predator drone (a medium-altitude, remote-controlled aircraft).


On May 15, 2005, it was reported that another of these drones had been used to assassinate Al-Qaeda figure Haitham al-Yemeni inside Pakistan.[11]


On January 13 2006, the CIA launched an airstrike on Damadola, a Pakistani village near the Afghan border, where they believed Ayman al-Zawahiri was located. The airstrike killed a number of civilians but al-Zawahiri apparently was not among them.[12] The Pakistani government issued a [13]protest against the US attack, which it considered violated its sovereignty.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Gellman, Barton (January 20, 2002), "A Strategy's Cautious Evolution", Washington Post: p.A01
  2. Bazan, Elizabeth B. (4 January 2002), Assassination Ban and E.O. 12333: A Brief Summary, CRS Report for Congress
  3. Addicott, Jeffrey (2002), "The Yemen Attack: Illegal Assassination or Lawful Killing?", Jurist
  4. Steve Coll, Ghost Wars (Penguin, 2005 edn), p.581.
  5. Tenet statement to the 9/11 Commission, March 24, 2004, at pp.15, 16
  6. 9/11 Commission Report, chapter 11, p.342 (HTML version).
  7. Tenet statement to the 9/11 Commission, March 24, 2004, p.8.
  8. Joint Inquiry Final Report, part three, p.387.
  9. At Camp David, Advise and Dissent. The Washington Post (2002-01-30).
  10. George Tenet, At The Center Of The Storm (Harper Press, 2007), pp.121-2; cf. p.178.
  11. Priest, Dana (15 May 2005). "Surveillance Operation in Pakistan Located and Killed Al Qaeda Official". Washington Post: A25.
  12. Linzer, Dafna; Griff Witte (January 14 2006). "U.S. Airstrike Targets Al Qaeda's Zawahiri": A09.
  13. "Pakistan protests airstrike: 18 killed, but al Qaeda No. 2 man apparently not among them", Cable News Network, January 14, 2006