U.S. Intelligence and terrorism in the 1980s

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

In the 1980s, U.S. intelligence took on more responsibility for terrorism. This was difficult, in that that there is no generally accepted definition of terrorism, as a unique offense. For example, many discussions of terrorism emphasize it is directed against noncombatants. World War II kamikaze suicide attacks were terrifying for the sailors against which they were directed, but the attacks were exclusively directed at military targets, by the regular military of a nation-state.

Attacks by non-national actors, such as the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing of US and French troops under UN auspices, are more problematic. The Beirut attacks are usually called "terrorism" in news reports, but, if terrorism is assumed to be against noncombatants, they may not qualify. The organizers and attackers might well be categorized as illegal combatants under the Geneva Convention, but the Conventions do not define terrorism.

During this decade, the US supported Muslim fighters against the Soviets in Afghanistan. The training and arms supplied may have helped start transnational jihadist groups.


In April 1982, President Ronald Reagan signed National Security Decision Directive (NSDD) 30[1] dealing with responses to armed attacks on U.S. citizens or assets. The NSDD created a coordinating body, the Interdepartmental Group on Terrorism, to develop and assign to various executive agencies specific responsibilities when terrorist incidents occurred. The objective was to have in place, before an incident occurred, guidelines for such matters as lines of authority, intelligence responsibilities, and response training. A Special Situation Group (SSG) was established to advise the president, and lead agencies to coordinate responses were named.

  1. For international terrorist incidents outside U.S. territory, the State Department had the lead role.
  2. For incidents, the Justice Department was to be the lead agency with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI0 in the lead for operational response.
  3. For plane hijackings within the "special jurisdiction of the United States, the lead agency was the Federal Aviation Administration.
  4. For planning and managing public health aspects of terrorist incidents, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was the responsible agency.

Supporting the SSG was a Terrorist Incident Working Group with representatives from the Departments of State and Defense, the Director of Central Intelligence, the FBI, FEMA, and the National Security Staff. It was to give "direct operational support…and to provide advice and recommendations during an incident" to the SSG.[2]

In November 1982, following the establishment of the DoD Inspector General, the Deputy Secretary of Defense directed that the Inspector General for Intelligence be redesignated as the Assistant to the Secretary of Defense (Intelligence Oversight) (ATSD (IO)). Today, the ATSD (IO) reports on Intelligence Oversight activities at least quarterly to the Secretary of Defense and, through him, to the Intelligence Oversight Board (IOB), a standing committee of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB).[3]


The major terrorist incident was the bombing of a UN observer force in Beirut, which led to considerable rethinking of U.S. rules of engagement, the deterrent effect of a US presence, and the issue of force protection intelligence. See the Marine rethinking of the role of SIGINT for force protection.

1983 Beirut barracks bombing

Suicide attacks in Beirut cost the lives of 241 American and 58 French soldiers, with many casualties. Often called terrorist attacks, this designation seems to be more a facet of the means of attack, and that it was carried out by non-national actors, than that it was intended to terrorize a civilian population.

Further complicating the designation is that there is no consensus on who sponsored the attacks. A US court did find Iran responsible, which would make it an attack by a nation-state on military personnel of two other nation-states. In 2001, former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger stated: "But we still do not have the actual knowledge of who did the bombing of the Marine barracks at the Beirut Airport, and we certainly didn't then." [4]

Rules of engagement for the Marines were restrictive; they could not set up what would be considered today a safe perimeter against truck bombs. They carried rifles that had to be loaded before use; there were no heavier weapons that could deflect a truck or destroy its engine. [5]

The Commission termed this a terrorist attack, and raised questions about the intelligence support available to it (emphasis added):

Intelligence provided a good picture of the broad threat facing the USMNF [US multinational force] in Lebanon. Every intelligence agency in the national community and throughout the chain of command disseminated a great amount of analysis and raw data. Key Defense officials and the military chain of command ere alert to, and concerned with, the insights it provided them. There was an awareness of the existing dangerous situation at every level, but no one had specific information on how, where and when the threat would be carried out. Throughout the period of the USMNF presence in Lebanon, intelligence sources were unable to provide proven, accurate, definitive information on terrorist tactics against our forces. This shortcoming held to be the case on 23 October 1983. The terrorist threat was just one among many threats facing the USMNF from the many factions armed with artillery, crew served weapons and small arms.[6]...

The USMNF was operating in an urban environment surrounded by hostile forces without any way of pursuing the accuracy of data in order to head off attack. The intelligence structure should be reviewed from both a design and capabilities standpoint. We need to establish ourselves early in a potential trouble spot and find new techniques to isolate and penetrate our potential enemies. Once established, our military forces (and especially ground forces) need to have aggressive, specific intelligence to give the commander the hard information he needs to counter the threats against his force. U.S. intelligence is primarily geared for the support of air and naval forces engaged in nuclear and conventional warfare. Significant attention must be given by the entire U.S. intelligence structure to purging and refining of masses of generalized information into intelligence analysis useful to small unit ground commanders.


In 1984, the CIA both suffered from terrorism directed at it, and also supported anti-Soviet guerrillas in Afghanistan that the Soviets considered terrorists.

Kidnapping of CIA Beirut station chief and US response authorizing preemption

"NSDD 138 was the next known significant Reagan-era action. It was promulgated after the March 16, 1984 kidnapping of the Central Intelligence Agency's Beirut, Lebanon station chief, William Buckley. This NSDD, much of which remains classified, permitted both the CIA and the Federal Bureau of Investigation to form covert operations teams and to use military special operations forces to conduct guerrilla-style war against guerrillas. The NSDD reportedly permits pre-emptive operations, retaliation, expanded intelligence collection, and when necessary, killing of guerrillas in "pre-emptive" self-defense. States that sponsored guerrillas, or what today would generally be lumped under the term terrorists, could be targeted for operations. These included Iran, Libya, Syria, Cuba, North Korea - all identified before Sept. 11, 2001, by the State Department as state-sponsors of terrorism. Nicaragua and the Soviet Union were reportedly also on the list."[2]

Creation of al-Qaeda

The network that became known as al-Qaeda ("The Base") grew out of Arab volunteers who fought the Soviets and their puppet regimes in Afghanistan in the 1980s. In 1984 Abdullah Azzam and Osama bin Laden set up an organization known as the Office of Services in Peshawar, Pakistan, to coordinate and finance the "Afghan Arabs", as the volunteers became known.

Azzam and Bin Laden set up recruitment offices in the US, under the name "Al-Khifah", the hub of which was the Farouq Mosque in Brooklyn's Atlantic Avenue. This was "a place of pivotal importance for Operation Cyclone".[7]

Support to the Afghan resistance

The CIA also channeled US aid to Afghan resistance fighters via Pakistan in a covert operation known as Operation Cyclone. It denied dealing with non-Afghan fighters, or having direct contact with bin Laden.[8] However, various authorities relate that the Agency brought both Afghans and Arabs to the United States for military training.[9]


Foundation of the Counterterrorist Center

In the mid 1980s there was a spate of terrorist activity, much of it by Palestinian organizations. The CIA's 1986 response was to found the Counterterrorist Center, an interdisciplinary body drawing its personnel from the Directorates of Operations, Intelligence, and other US intelligence organizations. It first got to grips with secular terrorism, but found the upcoming Islamist terror much more difficult to penetrate. In the 1990s the latter became a major preoccupation of the center.

Afghanistan and its consequences

In the 1980s the CIA covertly supported the Afghan guerrilla struggle against the Soviets, in an operation known as "Operation Cyclone". "Blowback" is a CIA term of art referring to operations, launched against an enemy, which eventually hurt their originators. Various programs, either directly supported by, or known to, US intelligence, were encouraged, in the 1980s, to train combatants for Afghanistan.

Some of this training and preparation took place in the United States. In the case at hand, blowback into the United States may have come from a pipeline, from Brooklyn, New York, to Peshawar, Pakistan, the gateway to joining the Afghan mujahedin. The Brooklyn end was at the Al Kifa Refugee Center, funded under the CIA's Operation Cyclone, and the associated Afghan Refugee Service. The Services Office (Maktab al-Khidamat) was founded in Peshawar in 1984 by Abdullah Azzam and Osama bin Laden to finance and support this effort. "Cold warriors" in the CIA and US State Department looked favorably on these efforts, and considered that they should be formally endorsed and expanded, perhaps along the lines of the international brigades of the Spanish Civil War. "Bin Laden actually did some very good things", said Milton Bearden, chief of the CIA's Islamabad station in the later 1980s. "He put a lot of money in a lot of right places in Afghanistan. He never came on the screen of any Americans as either a terrific asset or someone who was anti-American." The CIA denied, however, actually assisting the "Arab Afghans" (as the Arab volunteers became known), or having direct contact with Bin Laden.[10]

Arrested in the US, for the embassy bombings, was a former Egyptian soldier named Ali Mohamed (sometimes called "al-Amriki", the American), who is alleged to have provided training and assistance to Mr Bin Laden's operatives. [11] He had served with the U.S. Army and been discharged in 1989. Another individual associated with the Brooklyn center was the "Blind Sheikh" Omar Abdel-Rahman, a leading recruiter of mujaheddin, who obtained US entry visas with the help of the CIA in 1987 and 1990.

J. Michael Springmann, head of the non-immigrant visa section at the "CIA-dominated" US consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in 1987-88, said he learned that the CIA had a "program to bring people to the United States for terrorist training, people recruited by the CIA and its asset Usama bin Laden, and the idea was to get them trained and send them back to Afghanistan to fight the then Soviets." "Their nationalities for the most part were Pakistani, Palestinian, Syrian, Lebanese." These "recruits without backgrounds" were given visas over Springmann's protests.[12]

[T]hose directly recruited by the US ... went to Camp Peary — "the Farm", as the CIA's spy training centre in Virginia is known in the intelligence community ... At the Farm and other secret camps, young Afghans and Arab nationals from countries such as Egypt and Jordan learned strategic sabotage skills.[13]

Bin Laden's early years: terrorist financier

In about 1988 Bin Laden set up al-Qaeda from the more extreme elements of the Services Office. But it was not a large organization. When Jamal al-Fadl (who had been recruited through the Brooklyn center in the mid 1980s) joined in 1989, he was described as Qaeda's "third member".[14]

Congressional testimony from then-DCI George Tenet speaks of knowledge and analysis of Bin Laden, from his early years as a terrorist financier to his leadership of a worldwide network of terrorism based in Afghanistan.[15]

According to Tenet, Bin Laden gained prominence during the Afghan war for his role in financing the recruitment, transportation, and training of Arab nationals who fought alongside the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviets during the 1980s. Tenet denied there had been any US government involvement with him until the early nineties. See Allegations of CIA assistance to Osama bin Laden.


  1. Ronald Reagan. National Security Decision Directive (NSDD) 30: Managing Terrorist Incidents. Federation of American Scientists.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Center for Defense Information, CDI Terrorism Project (June 17, 2002). Presidential Orders and Document Regarding Foreign Intelligence and Terrorism.
  3. Mission/History: Assistant to the Secretary of Defense (Intelligence Oversight).
  4. Weinberger, Caspar. Interview: Caspar Weinberger, PBS Frontline, 2001.
  5. Long, Robert L.J.; Robert J. Murray & Lawrence F. Snowden et al. (20 December 1983), Report of the DoD Commission on Beirut International Airport Terrorist Act, October 23, 1983
  6. Long, Robert L.J.; Robert J. Murray & Lawrence F. Snowden et al. (20 December 1983), Part Four. Intelligence, Report of the DoD Commission on Beirut International Airport Terrorist Act, October 23, 1983, at 57-66
  7. Marshall, Andrew (1 Nov 1998), "Terror 'blowback' burns CIA: America's spies paid and trained their nation's worst enemies", Independent On Sunday
  8. Coll, Steve (2005), Ghost Wars, Penguin, at 87
  9. Pound, Edward T. (12 December 2001), "The easy path to the United States for three of the 9/11 hijackers", US News & World Report
  10. "Hunting Bin Laden", Frontline, March 21, 2000
  11. Marshall, Andrew (1 November 1998), "Terror 'blowback' burns CIA: America's spies paid trained their nation's worst enemies", Independent
  12. Springmann, J. Michael (5 February 2003), "Policing the Borders: Old Fears, New Realities", Centre for Research in Globalisation
  13. Giles Foden, "Blowback Chronicles", Guardian (UK), Sept. 15, 2001; referring to John Cooley, Unholy Wars: Afghanistan, America and International Terrorism (Pluto Press, no date given)]
  14. Peter L Bergen, Holy War, Inc: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden (Weidenfield & Nicholson, 2001), p.65.
  15. Tenet, George (17 October 2002), Written Statement for the Record of the Director of Central Intelligence Before the Joint Inquiry Committee