Inside the CIA’s hunt for a terrorist mastermind in pre-invasion Iraq

Dina Temple-Raston

THE WASHINGTON POST – For years, CIA analyst Nada Bakos had an obsession with a nearsighted Jordanian named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Once known as the ‘Prince of al-Qaeda’, Zarqawi was responsible for some of the most brutal attacks of the Iraq War; he differentiated himself from Osama bin Laden’s operation by fomenting violence in Iraq while declaring that al-Qaeda wasn’t brutal enough.

Zarqawi personally beheaded Iraqi Shiites and defied al-Qaeda by vowing to set up a caliphate in Iraq as soon as American and Western crusaders were driven out.

That was back in the early 2000s. If all this sounds reminiscent of a terrorist group we’re fighting now, there’s good reason: The Islamic State (IS) picked up where Zarqawi, the godfather of terrorism in Iraq, left off.

In her new book, The Targeter: My Life in the CIA, Hunting Terrorists and Challenging the White House, Bakos makes the case that had the George W Bush administration set its sights on Zarqawi earlier, the IS (and all the violence that accompanied it) might never have happened.

In her telling, she and her team of analysts at the CIA had discovered that Zarqawi was moving from Afghanistan to a terrorist camp in northern Iraq before the war.

They were so alarmed, they sent a fast-tracked strike plan to the White House. Bush administration officials demurred, saying that if they bombed the camp, they would be declaring war before the United States (US) had officially done so. Another opportunity to kill Zarqawi didn’t present itself until three years later.

Part Zero Dark Thirty, part memoir, The Targeter provides a rare inside look at the CIA’s analysis shop at a particularly difficult time: the run-up to the American invasion of Iraq and the early years of the war. The Bush administration cited two reasons for going to war: concern about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and a connection between the regime of Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda.

As a targetter, Bakos’s job was to act as a bridge between analysis and operations at the CIA, and she was asked to find evidence of both. We know now that the weapons of mass destruction didn’t exist, and Bakos explains how she came to the conclusion, early on, that the connection to the terrorist group didn’t, either. This is all ground that has been covered before, though her front-line perspective adds a twist.

She witnessed and sometimes participated in key moments in that era of US intelligence history. She was, for example, part of the team at Langley asked to help draft a portion of then-Secretary of State Colin Powell’s infamous address before the United Nations (UN) in 2003. It was there that the Bush administration first claimed that Zarqawi had ties to the Iraqi regime.

She describes how the UN speech had gone through the usual interagency process and how her team was told that the address would centre on Zarqawi. There was the typical back and forth so the CIA could provide its best analysis in the run-up to the address. “Everyone in our unit clutched a copy of the speech in our hands as we crowded into an office to watch it on TV,” Bakos writes. But when Powell suggested in the speech that Zarqawi was an associate and collaborator of bin Laden, the group was dumbfounded. “That was the first time most Americans had heard Zarqawi’s name. In the Iraq unit, it was the first time we’d heard that line.”

They were so surprised because the analysis suggested just the opposite. Zarqawi had been hiding out for years in northern Iraq with the Kurds, the same group Hussein had targetted with chemical weapons in 1988. “That area would have been the last place for an ally of Hussein’s to set up shop,” she concluded. She believed Zarqawi had gone to that part of Iraq to start his own extremist movement – separate and apart from al-Qaeda – which is, unfortunately, precisely what happened.

Bakos has an interesting backstory. She travelled to Washington in the aftermath of a divorce and joined the CIA’s human resources division. Eventually, she was asked to become an analyst after the 9/11 attacks.

She writes about the grueling hours and personal sacrifices that come with that kind of job, and seems mostly excited after being posted in Baghdad to watch the insurgency unfold before her eyes.

Her elation wore off after she spent months searching in vain for traces of Zarqawi and his network, interviewing detainees and seeing interrogations that flew in the face of everything she had learnt about getting people to talk.

“The detainees who lied, or whom the task force thought sufficiently uncooperative, got dragged into the ‘black room,’ a garage-sized cell lacquered from floor to ceiling in black paint,” she writes.

“There was a table in the centre, which held a boom box and a computer, and behind it a token chair or two. Everyone knew those chairs weren’t for sitting.” They were, she made clear, for the rough interrogations that were to follow.

In the summer of 2003, Bakos was in a passageway eavesdropping on the interrogation of a burly Iraqi intelligence officer nicknamed Evil Hagrid. He “repeatedly told other Agency questioners just what he’d told us: he had no knowledge of any relationship between Iraq and al-Qaeda or of WMD stockpiles,” she writes. “Those answers continually contradicted the narrative being put forth by the White House, apparently frustrating the administration no end.”

Bakos returned to CIA headquarters in 2004, and it is here that the book loses a bit of its momentum. She describes the inner workings of the department, sexism in the workplace and her frustration with what she saw as military solutions to the largely social problem of extremism.

She retired before Zarqawi was killed by a US airstrike in 2006, depriving her account of the kind of insider details that characterise the early chapters of the book.

While Bakos claims she challenged the White House , the book lacks specifics about her questioning of the Bush administration’s flawed justification for the war. It makes one wonder what might have been left out or deleted during the CIA’s approval process for publication. Even so, the narrative will appeal to those who want to learn about the events that presaged the rise of the IS and are curious about the CIA’s inner workings.