Gary Schroen, Who Led the C.I.A. Into Afghanistan, Dies at 80

Gary C. Schroen, a veteran CIA agent who, just weeks after the September 11, 2001 attacks, led the first group of agents to Afghanistan to prepare for an invasion and begin tracking looking for Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenant colonels, died at his home in Alexandria, Va., on August 1, a day after an American missile killed one of the last. among those people, Ayman al-Zawahri. He was 80 years old.

His wife, Anne McFadden, said the cause was complications from a fall.

Mr. Schroen spent more than 30 years working for the CIA, running spies and espionage operations across the Middle East. At the age of 59, he was 11 days into the mandatory transition program during his three-month retirement when terrorists under bin Laden’s command attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

He spent the next few days brooding, frustrated that the skills and knowledge he had spent decades acquiring would not be used when they were most valuable.

Then, late at night on September 13, he received word that Cofer Black, the director of the agency’s counterterrorism center, wanted to see him the next morning.

“Gary, I want you to bring a small group of CIA officers to Afghanistan,” Mr. Black told him, in a conversation Schroen recalled in a 2005 book, First In: An Insider’s Account of How CIA Spearheaded the War on Terror in Afghanistan,” and in multiple interviews. They had to connect with the Northern Alliance, an anti-Taliban organization, and convince them to cooperate with the Americans.

“You are,” continued Mr. Black, “the best qualified officer to lead this team.”

Mr. Schroen selected seven men and collected the weapons, outdoor equipment and food they needed. The mission is codenamed Jawbreaker. At least one representative of the military was supposed to join them, but the Pentagon pulled out of the mission at the last minute, claiming it was too dangerous.

“There was no rescue force,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer who frequently worked with Mr. Schroen, in a phone interview. “If they’re in trouble, there’s no US military coming to their rescue.”

Before Mr. Schroen went on a mission, Mr. Black took him aside.

“I want to make it clear what your real job is,” Mr. Schroen recalls Mr. Black telling him. “Once the Taliban are broken, your mission is to find bin Laden, kill him and put his head back on dry ice.”

They arrived in Afghanistan on September 26, bringing laptops, satellite phones, instant coffee and $3 million in cash. For the next few weeks, until detachments from Army Delta Force began to arrive, they were the only Americans operating in the country.

Mr. Schroen has a long personal relationship with the Northern Alliance, dating back to his time as head of the CIA station in Islamabad, Pakistan. He distributed the money freely to show the seriousness of the upcoming attack by the Americans.

Within days, he had won the Northern Alliance. By the time more American troops began arriving, the ground began to turn against the Taliban.

In a statement after Mr. Schroen’s death, CIA director William J. Burns called him “a legend and inspiration to every Agency officer.”

Gary Charles Schroen was born on November 6, 1941 in East St. Louis, Ill. His father, Emil, is a union electrician and his mother, Fern (Finch) Schroen, is a homemaker.

Mr. Schroen was married and divorced twice before marrying Ms. McFadden in 2009. In addition to her, he lives with his daughters, Kate Cowell and Jennifer Schroen. His son, Christopher, died in 2017. His sister, Donna Naylor, passed away in 2020.

Schroen joined the army after graduating from high school and served with the Army Security Service, an intelligence unit, for three years. He later attended Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville, in the suburb of St. Louis, where he learned English and where the CIA first approached him. He graduated in 1968 and became a case officer a year later.

He spent his entire career on the Operations Directorate, juggling between missions in the Middle East and at CIA headquarters in Virginia.

He then describes, in general, the thrill of working in covert operations during the Cold War – and specifically, the wave of negative publicity that followed the revelations in the mid-1990s. 1970 on the CIA’s role in assassinations, coups, and other nefarious acts. action for decades.

“I spent two weeks just reading files about Middle Eastern history, looking for the bad things that happened,” he said in an interview with the PBS show “Frontline“In 2006.“ We were all really shaken by the feeling that so many people saw us as a rogue organization. “

By the late 1980s, Mr. Schroen had risen to the forefront of the Middle East agency’s activities. He was once the stationmaster of Kabul, although for security reasons he had to work outside of Pakistan. Despite frequent warnings not to, he regularly travels to Afghanistan to meet with mujahedeen insurgents, who at a time are under attack by hostile forces.

He is fluent in Persian and Dari, a dialect of the Persians spoken in Afghanistan, and is considered by many to be the agency’s top expert on the country – “one of the frontrunners in the region.” “, Milton Bearden, who served as CIA station chief in Pakistan, said in an interview.

Mr. Schroen returned to the region in the mid-1990s as station chief in Islamabad, considered one of the agency’s most important positions. Concern about bin Laden and Al Qaeda grew, and it accelerated after bin Laden orchestrated attacks on two US embassies in East Africa in 1998.

Mr. Schroen was one of the loudest in the agency calling for the government to capture or better kill bin Laden as quickly as possible. However, a cruise missile attack on his compound in Afghanistan missed him by an hour, and two other planned attacks were called off at the last minute.

Mr. Schroen returned to Washington in 1999 to become deputy director for the Near East in the General Administration. He announced his retirement in mid-2001, shortly before being brought back after September 11.

He stayed in Afghanistan for a few weeks after the American invasion began in earnest, in mid-October. He restarted his retirement process and officially left the company at the end of the year.

In retirement, he was one of the most decorated figures in CIA history.

Mr. Schroen continues to advise the agency as a contractor. He is one of the few former CIA officials to publicly criticize the decision to invade Iraq, which he feels has dwindled attention and resources from the fight against Al Qaeda.

“When I came back and heard that Iraq was being referred to in the earliest moments after 9/11 as something we should attack, I thought, ‘Oh, my God. That can’t be true,” he told “Fronline. ‘ ‘ ‘Obviously bin Laden and his accomplices are sitting in Afghanistan; that’s where we have to go. Don’t mess with Iraq; This has nothing to do with them. ‘”

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