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Bin Laden Issue Station

The Bin Laden Issue Station (19962005) was a unit codenamed Alec Station, after Michael Scheuers sons
of the Central Intelligence Agency dedicated to tracking name, as referred to by DIAs Able Danger liaison AnOsama bin Laden and his associates.
thony Shaer.[3] By 1999 the units sta had nicknamed
Soon after its creation, the Station developed a new, dead- themselves the "Manson Family", because they had acquired a reputation for crazed alarmism about the rising
lier vision of bin Ladens activities. The CIA inaugurated
[1]
a grand plan against al-Qaeda in 1999, but struggled to al Qaeda threat.
nd the resources to implement it. Nevertheless, by 9/11
the Agency achieved almost complete reporting on the
militants in Afghanistan, excluding bin Ladens inner circle itself.

The Station originally had twelve professional sta members, including CIA analyst Alfreda Frances Bikowsky
and former FBI agent Daniel Coleman.[4] This gure grew
to 4050 employees by September 11, 2001. (The CTC
had about 200 and 390 employees at the same
In 2000, a joint CIA-USAF project using Predator re- as a whole
[1](pp319;456)[2](pp109;479,n.2)
dates.)
connaissance drones and following a program drawn up
by the Bin Laden Station, produced probable sightings CIA chief George Tenet later described the Stations misof the al-Qaeda leader in Afghanistan. Resumption of sion as to track [bin Laden], collect intelligence on him,
ights in 2001 was delayed by arguments over a missile- run operations against him, disrupt his nances, and warn
armed version of the aircraft. Only on September 4, 2001 policymakers about his activities and intentions. By
was the go-ahead given for weapons-capable drones. Also early 1999 the unit had succeeded in identifying assets
in 2001, CIA chief George Tenet set up a Strategic As- and members of Bin Ladens organization ....[5](pp4;18)
sessments Branch, to remedy the deciency of big-picture
analysis on Islamist terrorism. The branchs head took up
his job on September 10, 2001.

2 New view of al-Qaeda, 1996


1998

Conception, birth and growth

Soon after its inception, the Station began to develop a


new, deadlier vision of al-Qaeda. In May 1996, Jamal
Ahmed al-Fadl walked into a US embassy in Africa and
established his credentials as a former senior employee
of Bin Laden.[2](p109) Al-Fadl had lived in the US in
the mid-1980s, and had been recruited to the Afghan
mujaheddin through the al-Khifa center at the Farouq
mosque in Brooklyn. Al-Khifa was the interface of
Operation Cyclone, the American eort to support the
mujaheddin, and the Peshawar, Pakistan-based Services
Oce of Abdullah Azzam and Osama bin Laden, whose
purpose was to raise recruits for the struggle against the
Soviets in Afghanistan.[6] Al-Fadl had joined al-Qaeda
in 1989, apparently in Afghanistan. Peter Bergen called
him the third member of the organization (presumably
after Azzam and bin Laden). But al-Fadl had since embezzled $110,000 from al-Qaeda, and now wanted to
defect.[2](p62)

The idea was born from discussions within the CIAs senior management, and that of the CIAs Counterterrorism
Center (CTC). David Cohen, head of the CIAs Directorate of Operations, and others, wanted to try out a
virtual station, modeled on the Agencys overseas stations, but based near Washington DC and dedicated to
a particular issue. The unit would fuse intelligence
disciplines into one oceoperations, analysis, signals
intercepts, overhead photography and so on.[1] Cohen
had trouble getting any Directorate of Operations ocer to run the unit. He nally recruited Michael Scheuer,
an analyst then running the CTCs Islamic Extremist
Branch; Scheuer was especially knowledgeable about
Afghanistan. Scheuer, who had noticed a recent stream
of reports about Bin Ladin and something called al
Qaeda, suggested that the new unit focus on this one
individual Cohen agreed.[2](pp109)
Al-Fadl was persuaded to come to the United States by
The Station opened in January 1996, as a unit under the Jack Cloonan, an FBI special agent who had been secCTC. Scheuer set it up and headed it from that time onded to the Bin Laden Issue Station. There, from late
until spring 1999. The Station was an interdisciplinary 1996, under the protection of Cloonan and his colleagues,
group, drawing on personnel from the CIA, FBI, NSA, al-Fadl provided a major breakthrough on the creation,
DIA and elsewhere in the intelligence community. For- character, direction and intentions of al Qaeda. Bin
mally known as the Bin Ladin Issue Station, it was Laden, the CIA now learned, had planned multiple ter1

rorist operations and aspired to moreincluding the acquisition of weapons-grade uranium. Another walk-in
source (since identied as L'Houssaine Kherchtou) corroborated al-Fadls claims. By the summer of 1998,
Scheuer later summed up, we had accumulated an extraordinary array of information on [al-Qaeda] and its intentions.
The reams of new information that the
CIAs Bin Ladin unit had been developing
since 1996 had not been pulled together and
synthesized for the rest of the government. Indeed, analysts in the unit felt that they were
viewed as alarmists even within the CIA. A
National Intelligence Estimate on terrorism in
1997 had only briey mentioned Bin Ladin,
and no subsequent national estimate would authoritatively evaluate the terrorism danger until after 9/11. Policymakers knew there was a
dangerous individual,Usama Bin Ladin,whom
they had been trying to capture and bring to
trial. Documents at the time referred to Bin
Ladin and his associates or Bin Ladin and
his network. They did not emphasize the existence of a structured worldwide organization gearing up to train thousands of potential
terrorists.[2](p118)

NEW LEADERSHIP AND THE NEW PLAN, 1999

By autumn 1997 the Station had roughed out a plan for


TRODPINT to capture bin Laden and hand him over
for trial, either to the US or an Arab country. In early
1998 the Cabinet-level Principals Committee apparently
gave their blessing, but the scheme was abandoned in the
spring for fear of collateral fatalities during a capture attempt.
In August 1998 militants truck-bombed the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. President Clinton ordered
cruise-missile strikes on bin Ladens training camps in
Afghanistan. But there was no follow-up action to these
strikes.[1](pp3716)[2](pp109115)

4 New leadership and the new Plan,


1999
In December 1998 CIA chief Tenet declared war on
Osama bin Laden.[1](pp4367;646,n.42)[2](p357) Early in 1999
Tenet Ordered the CTC to begin a 'baseline' review of
the CIAs operational strategy against bin Laden. In the
spring he demanded 'a new, comprehensive plan of attack' against bin Laden and his allies.

Al Qaeda operated as an organization in


more than sixty countries, the CIAs Counterterrorist Center calculated by late 1999. Its
formal, sworn, hard-core membership might
number in the hundreds. Thousands more
joined allied militias such as the [Afghan]
Taliban or the Chechen rebel groups or Abu
Sayyaf in the Philippines or the Islamic movement of Uzbekistan.[1](p474)

First capture plan and US embassy attacks, 199798

In May 1996 bin Laden moved from Sudan to


Afghanistan. Scheuer saw the move as a (further) stroke
of luck. Though the CIA had virtually abandoned
Afghanistan after the fall of the Soviet puppet regime
in 1991, case ocers had re-established some contacts
while tracking down Kasi, the Pakistani gunman who
had murdered two CIA employees in 1993. One of
the contacts was a group associated with particular tribes
among Afghanistans ethnic Pashtun community. The
team, dubbed TRODPINT by the CIA, was provisioned with arms, equipment and cash by the CTC, and
set up residence around Kandahar. Kasi was captured in
June 1997. CTC chief Je O'Connell then approved a
plan to transfer the Afghans agent teams from the [CIAs]
Kasi cell to the bin Laden unit.

J. Cofer Black, CTC Director 19992002

As an evident part of the new strategy, Tenet removed Mike Scheuer from the leadership of the Bin
Laden Station. (Later that year Scheuer resigned from
the CIA.) Tenet appointed Richard Blee, a fast-track
executive assistant who came directly from Tenets
leadership group, to have authority over the Station. Tenet quickly followed this appointment with an-

4.1

The core 9/11 hijackers emerge

other: He named Cofer Black as director of the entire Tenet testied that by September 11, 2001, a map would
CTC.[1](pp4512;4556)[2](pp14;142;204)
show that these collection programs and human networks
[5](p17)
The CTC produced a comprehensive plan of attack nearly covered Afghanistan.
against bin Laden and previewed the new strategy to senior CIA management by the end of July 1999. By midSeptember, it had been briefed to CIA operational level 4.1 The core 9/11 hijackers emerge
personnel, and to [the] NSA [National Security Agency],
the FBI, and other partners. The strategy was called Beginning in September 1999 the CTC picked up multisimply, 'the Plan'.
ple signs that bin Laden had set in motion major terrorist
attacks for the turn of the year. The CIA set in motion the
largest collection and disruption activity in the history of
[Cofer] Black and his new bin Laden unit
mankind (as Cofer Black later put it). The CTC focused
wanted to project into Afghanistan, to penein particular on three groups of Qaeda personnel: those
trate bin Ladens sanctuaries. They described
known to have been involved in terrorist attacks; and
their plan as military ocers might. They
senior personnel both outside and inside Afghanistan
sought to surround Afghanistan with secure
e.g. operational planner Abu Zubaydah and Bin Ladin
covert bases for CIA operationsas many bases
deputy Muhammad Atef.[1](pp4956)[2](pp17480)
as they could arrange. Then they would mount
Amid this activity, in NovemberDecember 1999
operations from each of the platforms, trying
Mohamed Atta, Marwan al-Shehhi, Ziad Jarrah and
to move inside Afghanistan and as close to bin
Nawaf al-Hazmi visited Afghanistan, where they were
Laden as they could get to recruit agents and to
[1](p457)
selected for the "planes operation" that was to become
attempt capture operations.
known as 9/11. Al-Hazmi undertook guerrilla training at
Qaedas Mes Aynak camp (along with two Yemenis who
Black also arranged for a CIA team, headed by Alec
were unable to get US entry visas). The camp was located
Station chief Blee, to visit Northern Alliance leader
in an abandoned Russian copper mine near Kabul, and
Ahmad Shah Massoud to discuss operations against bin
was for a time in 1999 the only such training camp in opLaden. The mission was codenamed JAWBREAKEReration. Atta, al-Shehhi and Jarrah met Muhammad Atef
5, the fth in a series of such missions since autumn
and bin Laden in Kandahar, and were instructed to go
1997.[1](p466) The team went in late October 1999. After
back to Germany to undertake pilot training.[2](pp1558;168)
the meeting, Alec Station believed that Massoud would
be a second source of information on bin Laden.[2](p142) At about this time the SOCOM-DIA operation Able Danger also identied a potential Qaeda unit, consisting of the
future leading 9/11 hijackers Atta, al-Shehhi, al-Mihdhar
[T]he CIA considered the possibility of
and Nawaf al-Hazmi. It termed them the Brooklyn cell,
putting U.S. personnel on the ground in
because of some associations with the New York district.
Afghanistan. The CIA had been discussing
Evidently at least some of the men were physically and
this option with Special Operations Command
legally present in the United States, since there was an enand found enthusiasm on the working level but
suing legal tussle over the right of quasi-citizens not
reluctance at higher levels. CIA saw a 95
to be spied on.[8][9]
percent chance of Special Operations ComIn late 1999 the National Security Agency (NSA), folmand forces capturing Bin Ladin if deployed
lowing up information from the FBIs investigation of the
but less than a 5 percent chance of such a
1998 US embassy attacks, picked up traces of an operdeployment.[2](p143)
ational cadre, consisting of Nawaf al-Hazmi, his companion Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawafs younger brother
Once Cofer Black had nalized his operSalem, who were planning to go to Kuala Lumpur,
ational plan in the fall of 1999 to go after
Malaysia, in January 2000. Seeing a connection with the
al-Qa'ida, Allen [the associate deputy direcattacks, a CTC ocer sought permission to surveil the
tor of central intelligence for collection] cremen.[1](pp4878)[2](p181)
ated a dedicated al-Qa'ida cell with ocers
The CIA tracked al-Hazmi and al-Mihdhar as they travfrom across the intelligence community. This
eled to and attended the al-Qaeda summit in Kuala
cell met daily, brought focus to penetrating the
Lumpur during the rst week of January 2000. The
Afghan sanctuary, and ensured that collection
Counterterrorist Center had briefed the CIA leadership
initiatives were synchronized with operational
on the gathering in Kuala Lumpur ... The head of the Bin
plans. Allen met with [Tenet] on a weekly baLadin unit [Richard] kept providing updates, unaware at
sis to review initiatives under way. His eorts
rst that the information was out-of-date.
were enabling operations and pursuing longerWhen two FBI agents assigned to the station, Mark
range, innovative initiatives around the world
Rossini and Doug Miller, learned that al-Hazmi and alagainst al-Qa'ida.[7]

7 AFTER 9/11

Mihdhar had entry visas to the United States, they at- for reconnaissance missions only, since the host nation
tempted to alert the FBI. CIA ocials in management (presumably Uzbekistan) had not agreed to allow ights
positions over the FBI agents denied their request to pass by weapons-carrying aircraft.
along this information to FBI headquarters.[10] Michael
Scheuer would later deny this, instead blaming the FBI
Subsequent to 9/11, approval was quickly
for not having a useable computer system.[11]
granted to ship the missiles, and the Predator aircraft and missiles reached their overIn March 2000, it was learned that al-Hazmi had own
seas location on September 16, 2001. The
to Los Angeles. The men were not registered with
rst mission was own over Kabul and
the State Departments TIPOFF list, nor was the FBI
[Kandahar] on September 18 without carrytold.[2](pp1812;3834)
ing weapons. Subsequent host nation apThere are also allegations that the CIA surveiled Moproval was granted on October 7 and the
hamed Atta in Germany from the time he returned there
rst armed mission was own on the same
in January/February 2000, until he left for the US in June
day.[1](pp5801)[2](pp21014;513,n.258)[5](pp156)[13]
[12]
2000.

Predator drone, 20002001

In spring 2000, ocers from the Bin Laden Station


joined others in pressing for Afghan Eyes, the Predator
reconnaissance drone program for locating bin Laden in
Afghanistan. In the summer, The bin Laden unit drew
up maps and plans for fteen Predator ights, each lasting
just under twenty-four hours. The ights were scheduled
to begin in September. In autumn 2000, ocers from the
Station were present at Predator ight control in the CIAs
Langley headquarters, alongside other ocers from the
CTC, and US Air Force drone pilots. Several possible sightings of bin Laden were obtained as drones ew
over his Tarnak-Farms residence near Kandahar. Late
in the year, the program was suspended because of bad
weather.[1](pp527;532)[2](pp18990)
Resumption of ights in 2001 was delayed by arguments
over an armed Predator. A drone equipped with adapted
Hellre anti-tank missiles could be used to try to kill
bin Laden and other Qaeda leaders. Cofer Black and the
bin Laden unit were among the advocates. But there were
both legal and technical issues. In the summer the CIA
conducted classied war games at Langley ... to see how
its chain of command might responsibly oversee a ying
robot that could shoot missiles at suspected terrorists";
a series of live-re tests in the Nevada desert (involving a mockup of bin Ladens Tarnak residence) produced
mixed results.

6 Strategic branch, 2001


Despite increases in sta, even into 2001 the Bin Ladin
unit knew it needed more peopleparticularly experienced Headquarters desk ocers and targetersto meet
the HUMINT [human-intelligence] challenge. In [an]
early Spring 2001 brieng to the DCI (George Tenet),
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 brieng
emphasized that the unit needed people, not money.[14]
The brieng was apparently in response to an initiative
from Tenet, who in late 2000 had recognized the deciency of strategic analysis against al Qaeda. To tackle
this problem within the CTC he appointed a senior manager, who briefed him in March 2001 on 'creating a strategic assessment capability.'"

6.1 A strategic analyst on 9/11


On the morning of September 11, 2001, [John] Fulton and his team at the CIA were running a pre-planned
simulation to explore the emergency response issues that
would be created if a plane were to strike a building. So
said an advance-publicity pamphlet for a security conference held in 2002.

The Strategic Assessments Branch was created in July


2001. The decision to add about ten analysts to this
Tenet advised cautiously on the matter at a meeting of eort was seen as a major bureaucratic victory, but the
the Cabinet-level Principals Committee on September 4, CTC labored to nd them. The new chief of this branch
2001. If the Cabinet wanted to empower the CIA to eld reported for duty on September 10, 2001.[2](p342)
a lethal drone, Tenet 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 Secu- 7 After 9/11
rity Adviser Condoleezza Rice concluded that the armed
Predator was required, but evidently not ready. It was
to the Staagreed to recommend to the CIA to resume reconnais- Shortly after 9/11, Michael Scheuer came back
[15]
tion
as
special
adviser.
He
stayed
until
2004.
sance ights. The previously reluctant Tenet then ordered the Agency to do so. The CIA was now authorized After the September 11 attacks, sta numbers at the Stato deploy the system with weapons-capable aircraft, but tion were expanded into the hundreds. Scheuer claimed

5
the expansion was a shell game played with temporary [9] http://washingtontimes.com/functions/print.php?
StoryID=20050930-120552-9502r
(and inexperienced) sta, and that the core personnel remained at under 30, the size it was when Scheuer left
[10] Bamford, James; Willis, Scott (February 3, 2009). The
oce in 1999.[16] (As we have seen, professional sta
Spy Factory. PBS. Retrieved July 2, 2013.
numbers grew to 40 to 50 by the eve of 9/11.)
After 9/11, Hendrik V., and later Marty M., were
chiefs of Alec Stations Bin Laden Unit.[17]
The Bin Laden Station was disbanded in late 2005.[18]
In 2011, Ray Nowosielski and John Duy (who had
previously made the documentary lm "9/11: Press
for Truth"), published the documentary Who is Rich
Blee". They focused on the CIA preventing information from reaching the FBI before 9/11, and the lmmakers deduced the identities of several CIA agents inside the Bin Laden Issue Station using open source research they found in public publications. Before they released their documentary, the CIA threatened them under the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. Their documentary was posted with the names redacted. But they
claim their webmaster accidentally posted some emails
that contained the identities, which were later spread to
the wider internet.[19][20]

See also
MQ-1 Predator
Location of Osama bin Laden

References

[1] Coll, Steve (2004). Ghost Wars. Penguin Books.


[2] 9/11 Commission (July 22, 2004). 9/11 Commission Report. New York: W.W. Norton. ISBN 0-393-32671-3.
9/11 Commission website
[3] Inside Able Danger (Shaer interview), Government Security News, August 2005 (Link is to a mirror of the original
GSN article which is no longer available).
[4] Mayer, Jane (2008). The Dark Side. New York: Anchor
Books. p. 116. ISBN 978-0307456298.
[5] Tenet, George (March 24, 2004). Written Statement for
the Record of the Director of Central Intelligence. 9/11
Commission.
[6] Marshall, Andrew (November 1, 1998). Terror 'blowback' burns CIA. Independent (UK).
[7] Tenet, George (2007). At the Center of the Storm:
My Years at the CIA. HarperCollins. p. 120. ISBN
9780061147784.
[8] http://cryptome.org/0005/shaffer-gsn.pdf Inside Able
Danger (Shaer interview)], Government Security News,
August 2005

[11] Bill and Dick, Osama and Sandy, Michael Scheuer, Washington Times, 2006, July 4
[12] JanuaryMay 2000: CIA Has Atta Under Surveillance,
Able Danger, from Complete 9/11 Timeline, Center for
Cooperative Research
[13] Gellman, Barton (January 20, 2002). A Strategys Cautious Evolution. Washington Post.
[14] Joint Inquiry Final Report, Part Three, p. 387
[15] Dana Priest, "Former Chief of CIAs Bin Laden Unit
Leaves", Washington Post, November 12, 2004, p. A04
[16] Julian Borger, "We could have stopped him", The
Guardian (UK), August 20, 2004.
[17] Tenet, At The Center Of The Storm, p. 232.
[18] Mazzetti, Mark (July 4, 2006). C.I.A. Closes Unit Focused on Capture of bin Laden.. New York Times. Retrieved 2007-08-21. The Central Intelligence Agency has
closed a unit that for a decade had the mission of hunting Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants, intelligence
ocials conrmed Monday. The unit, known as Alec Station, was disbanded late last year and its analysts reassigned within the C.I.A. Counterterrorist Center, the ocials said.
[19] Boiling Frogs podcast, Sibel Edmonds, 2011
[20] Insiders voice doubts about CIAs 9/11 story, Rory
O'Connor and Ray Nowosielski, Oct 2011, salon.com

10 Further reading
Steve Coll, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the
CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, From the Soviet
Invasion to September 10, 2001, Penguin, 2005.
(This is an updated version of the original, Penguin,
2004.)
9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the
United States, July 2004
A Review of the FBIs Handling of Intelligence Information Related to the September 11 Attacks: Department of Justice Oce of the Inspector General,
Special Report, November 2004, Released Publicly
June 2006
Jack Cloonan interview, PBS, July 13, 2005
Michael Scheuer interview, PBS, July 21, 2005
Bin Laden Trail 'Stone Cold' Washington Post
September 10, 2006

10 FURTHER READING
After a Decade at War With West, Al-Qaeda Still
Impervious to Spies Washington Post March 20,
2008
How Osama bin Laden Slipped from our Grasp: The
Denitive Account by Peter Bergen, The New Republic, December 22, 2009

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11.1

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portrait_cropped.jpg License: CC BY-SA 3.0 Contributors: http://www.canadafreepress.com/2007/mir090907.htm Original artist: Abdul Rahman bin Laden (son of Osama bin Laden) took the photo and released it to Hamid Mir, a Pakistani news reporter at the time.
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