"The rest of the CIA and the intelligence community looked on our efforts as eccentric and at times fanatic," recalled a former chief of the bin Laden unit. "It was a cult," agreed a U.S. official who dealt with them. "Jonestown," said another person involved, asked to sum up the unit's atmosphere. "I outlawed Kool-Aid."
Working with the Islamabad station, the bin Laden unit pushed for the recruitment of agents who could operate or travel in Afghanistan.
Afghan fighters signed up by the CIA to find Mir Aimal Kasi, center, executed in 2002 for killing two CIA employees, were later used to track Osama bin Laden.
(1997 Photo Susan Walsh -- AP)
This report was adapted from "Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001," The Penguin Press (New York: 2004), by Washington Post managing editor Steve Coll, who discussed the book online. (Read the discussion transcript).
Interview With Coll
Audio: Coll on WTOP
_____More From The Post_____
Flawed Ally Was Hunt's Best Hope (The Washington Post, Feb 23, 2004)
Legal Disputes Over Hunt Paralyzed Clinton's Aides (The Washington Post, Feb 22, 2004)
Bin Laden's Tarnak Farm
The CIA in the Panjshir
Where the CIA Wages Its New World War (The Washington Post, Sep 9, 1998)
Killings Boost Retaliation Fears (The Washington Post, Nov 16, 1997)
Kasi Guilty In Slayings Outside CIA (The Washington Post, Nov 11, 1997)
Saudi Sought in Bombings Moves to Afghan Militia Capital (The Washington Post, Apr 11, 1997)
Some of those were informal sources, helping the CIA because of their political opposition to the Taliban. Others were recruited onto the CIA's payroll. Case officers working the Afghan borderlands began to recruit a few Taliban military leaders, including a brigade-level commander in eastern Afghanistan. One young case officer operating from Islamabad recruited six or seven Taliban commanders operating in the eastern region. Yet none of the recruited agents was close to bin Laden. The CIA could not recruit a single agent inside the core al Qaeda terrorist leadership.
Black knew that the CIA was in trouble "without penetrations" of bin Laden's organization, as a classified Counterterrorist Center briefing to Clinton's national security aides put it late in 1999. "While we need to disrupt [terrorist] operations . . . we need also to recruit sources," even though "recruiting terrorist sources is difficult."
The CIA had the best agent coverage around Kandahar. Even so, its classified tracking reports from multiple sources always seemed a day or two behind bin Laden's movements. The lack of a source in al Qaeda's inner circle made forecasting the Saudi's hour-to-hour itinerary impossible. Moreover, Kandahar was the Taliban's military stronghold. The Taliban had provided safe haven to bin Laden in Afghanistan in exchange for money and al Qaeda's troops. Even if the CIA pinpointed bin Laden downtown, there was no easy way to organize a capture operation; the attacking force would face strong opposition from Taliban units.
In the summer of 1999, a truck bomb detonated outside the Kandahar house of Taliban leader Mohammad Omar. Afterward, bin Laden used his wealth to build new compounds for the Taliban leader. In Omar's home province of Uruzgan, bin Laden built a new training complex for foreign al Qaeda volunteers.
The CIA ordered satellite imagery and agent reports to document this camp. Officers hoped bin Laden might wander in for an inspection. At one point a team of four or five Afghan agents from the original TRODPINT group approached the camp at night. Al Qaeda guards opened fire and wounded one of them, they reported.
Kabul was a relatively easy place to spy. The Afghan capital was a sprawling and ethnically diverse city, a place of strangers and travelers. At one point the CIA believed bin Laden had two wives in Kabul. He would visit their houses periodically. The Islamabad station recruited an Afghan who worked as a security guard at one of the Kabul houses bin Laden used. But the agent was so far down the al Qaeda information chain that he never knew when bin Laden was going to turn up. He was summoned to duty just as the Saudi's vehicles rolled in.
Traveling 'the Circuit'
Bin Laden's travels within Afghanistan followed a somewhat predictable path. He would often ride west on the Ring Road from Kandahar, then loop north and east through Ghowr province. The CIA mapped guesthouses in obscure Ghowr, one of Afghanistan's most isolated and impoverished regions. From there the Saudi usually moved east to Kabul and then sometimes on to Jalalabad before turning south again toward Kandahar.
Americans who studied this track called it "the circuit." At the White House, counterterrorism coordinator Richard Clarke tried to develop logarithmic formulas that attempted to predict where bin Laden was likely to move next when he was at any given point.
The CIA's bin Laden unit sought to trap bin Laden out of "KKJ," an insider's abbreviation for the densely populated cities of Kabul, Kandahar and Jalalabad. They hoped to catch him in lightly populated rural areas. Yet they struggled to find a convincing plan.
They knew that on the ground in Afghanistan by the summer of 1999, there was only one experienced, proven guerrilla leader waging war and collecting intelligence day in and day out against the Taliban, bin Laden and their radical Islamic allies. This was the legendary Tajik guerrilla leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, a man with a long and mutually frustrating history with the CIA.
From 1997 onward, Massoud's Northern Alliance militia forces waged a brutal, existential war against the Taliban north of Kabul, often battling directly against bin Laden's Arab, Chechen and Pakistani volunteers. They knew bin Laden not only as a preacher, financier and terrorist planner, but sometimes as a military field commander who wandered near their battle lines.
There were serious doubts inside Clinton's cabinet about the history of drug trafficking and human rights violations among Massoud's Northern Alliance forces. But at the CIA, in the Counterterrorist Center, analysts and officers in the bin Laden unit knew one thing for certain: Massoud was the enemy of their enemy.
A deeper, more active, more lethal alliance with Massoud, these CIA officers argued, offered by far the best chance to capture or kill bin Laden before he struck again.
Staff writer Griff Witte contributed to this report.
NEXT: The CIA and Massoud.