CIA told to deliver bin Laden's head on ice
WASHINGTON - The CIA officer who led the first American unit into Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks said on Wednesday that his orders included an unusual assignment: bring back Osama bin Laden's head on ice.
Gary Schroen and his six-member CIA team arrived in Afghanistan's Panjshir Valley two weeks after bin Laden's al Qaeda network orchestrated the attacks on Washington and New York that killed 3,000 people, prompting the Bush administration's war on terrorism.
A 32-year CIA veteran with long experience in South Asia and the Middle East, Schroen's prime task was to build up Northern Alliance forces so they could join U.S. troops in the overthrow of the Taliban.
But in the days that followed the worst terror attack on U.S. soil, Schroen said his boss at the CIA also told him and his deputy in no uncertain terms to kill the al Qaeda leadership.
"What he said (was), 'I would like to see the head of bin Laden delivered back to me in a heavy cardboard box filled with dry ice, and I will take that down and show the president. And the rest of the lieutenants, you can put their heads on pikes'," Schroen told Reuters in an interview.
He was quoting Cofer Black, a prominent U.S. intelligence figure who was then the director of the CIA's counterterrorist center.
"I don't think he meant that in detail ... I think he meant to impress upon me and my deputy that this was very serious business and he wanted to get our adrenaline charged," Schroen added.
Black was not immediately available for comment.
Schroen recounts his post-Sept. 11 Afghan experience in the book, "First In: An Insider's Account of How the CIA Spearheaded the War on Terror in Afghanistan," which will be published next week.
Schroen, 63, who is officially retired but continues to work for the CIA as a contractor, said the conversation was a turning point.
"Other than in paramilitary operations, I have never in 32 years heard of an order to kill anyone. And in fact up to that day, my orders and the orders the CIA was operating under were primarily to try and capture bin Laden alive," he said.
Bin Laden's trail grew cold after the Bush administration withdrew its most highly trained special operations and intelligence units from Afghanistan in preparation for the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, Schroen said.
But he was encouraged by news on Wednesday that Pakistani security forces had arrested senior al Qaeda operative Abu Faraj Farj al Liby, reportedly in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province, a rugged tribal region where he believes bin Laden is hiding.
"Bin Laden is almost a Robin Hood among certain elements of the Islamic world," said Schroen, who believes bin Laden's popularity is so great that Pakistan may not want to risk a potentially devastating political backlash by capturing him.
"Going after al Liby is much easier than going after bin Laden. He's by name a Libyan and he has no standing within the community," he said.
As the war in Afghanistan unfolded, Schroen never got close enough to strike at bin Laden himself. But he worked on a plan to use Northern Alliance fighters to kill bin Laden's top lieutenant, Ayman al Zawahri.
"He was supposedly hiding out in the eastern part of Kabul. We paid for assets the Northern Alliance said they were running within the Taliban to go after him," he said.
The effort failed, however. "It was far-fetched," Schroen said. "It was like
to do something long-range while blind-folded."