The Great War of Our Time

The CIA's Fight Against Terrorism--From al Qa'ida to ISIS


By Michael Morell

With Bill Harlow

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Like See No Evil and At the Center of the Storm, this is a vivid and gripping account of the Central Intelligence Agency, a life of secrets, and a war in the shadows.

Called the “Bob Gates of his generation” by Politico, Michael Morell was a top CIA officer who played a critical role in the most important counterterrorism events of the past two decades. Morell was by President Bush’s side on 9/11/01 when terrorists struck America and in the White House Situation Room advising President Obama on 5/1/11 when America struck back-killing Usama bin Ladin. From the subway bombings in London to the terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Morell always seemed to find himself on the cusp of history.

A superb intelligence analyst and briefer, Morell now presents The Great War of Our Time, where he uses his talents to offer an unblinking and insightful assessment of CIA’s counterterrorism successes and failures of the past twenty years and, perhaps most important, shows readers that the threat of terrorism did not die with Bin Ladin in Abbottabad. Morell illuminates new, growing threats from terrorist groups that, if unaddressed, could leave the country vulnerable to attacks that would dwarf 9/11 in magnitude.

He writes of secret, back-channel negotiations he conducted with foreign spymasters and regime leaders in a desperate attempt to secure a peaceful outcome to unrest launched during the “Arab Spring.” Morell describes how efforts to throw off the shackles of oppression have too often resulted in broken nation states unable or unwilling to join the fight against terrorism.

Along the way Morell provides intimate portraits of the leadership styles of figures ranging from Presidents Bush and Obama, CIA directors Tenet, Goss, Hayden, Petraeus, Panetta, and Brennan, and a host of others.


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All statements of fact, opinion, or analysis expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official positions or views of the CIA or any other US government agency. Nothing in the contents should be construed as asserting or implying US government authentication of information or Agency endorsement of the author's views. This material has been reviewed by the CIA to prevent the disclosure of classified information.

Credit: Courtesy of the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism at the University of Chicago.

Introduction to the 2016 Edition

An ISIS affiliate in Egypt in October 2015 placed an explosive device aboard a Russian charter plane departing from the Egyptian resort city of Sharm al Sheikh, killing 224 people. It was only the third time that an aircraft had been brought down by a bomb in a quarter of a century. It was the largest loss of life in the downing of an airliner by a bomb since Pan Am 103 in 1988.

The ISIS leadership in Syria (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant or ISIL) conceived, planned, and directed an attack on the streets of Paris in November, killing 130. It was the largest terrorist attack in Western Europe since the Madrid bombings in 2004. It was the first ISIS-directed attack in the West ever.

Just a month later, two individuals inspired by ISIS went on a rampage in San Bernardino, California, that killed fourteen people. In terms of fatalities, this was the largest terrorist attack in the US since 9/11—bigger than the Boston Marathon bombings and slightly bigger than the 2009 shootings at Fort Hood, Texas.

And then, in March 2016, the terror network that ISIS has established in Europe struck again—this time in the Brussels airport and subway station, killing thirty-two. All told, ISIS is conducting attacks at a pace much faster than al-Qa'ida ever did.

As of this writing, a year has passed since the publication of the hardcover edition of this book. Unfortunately the predictions outlined in the penultimate chapter of the book are proving accurate—even faster than I anticipated. The terrorist threat to the United States and to US interests abroad is getting worse. The ISIS threat has grown significantly. And, with everyone's focus on ISIS, al Qa'ida is on the rebound.

* * *

As I wrote in Time magazine in the immediate aftermath of the Paris attacks, the nature and significance of the ISIS threat flows from the fact that it is—all at the same time—a terrorist group, a state, and a revolutionary political movement. We have not faced an adversary like it before.

As a terrorist group, ISIS poses a threat to the homeland. In mid-2015 that threat was largely indirect—ISIS's ability to radicalize young American men and women to conduct lone-wolf attacks here. That indirect threat remains today. There are thousands of ISIS sympathizers in the United States—more than al Qa'ida ever had. The FBI has roughly 1,000 open investigations into homegrown extremists—the vast majority radicalized by ISIS and a large number of whom may be plotting attacks here. Such attacks have already occurred in the United States, including the attack in San Bernardino. Other ISIS supporters have been arrested before they could act.

Today we face an additional threat from ISIS—a direct threat—stemming from ISIS's ability to plan and direct attacks in the homeland from the group's safe havens in Iraq and Syria. Just as it did in Paris. How would such an attack play out? Most likely by a group of European operatives taking advantage of the Visa Waiver Program, getting on a plane, and flying to the United States.

What is the difference between a direct and an indirect threat? A lone-wolf attack, while horrific, is likely to produce fairly limited casualties—on the order of the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 (three killed) or the shootings at Fort Hood in 2009 (thirteen killed). A directed attack, however, carries the potential to be more complex and sophisticated—multiple simultaneous attacks, for example—and therefore more deadly, again just as in Paris (130 killed), or in London in 2005 (fifty-six killed), or even on 9/11 itself.

The attacks in Paris and Brussels were the first manifestation of ISIS's effort to put together an attack capability in Europe—an effort that it had begun less than a year before. More attacks in Europe are a certainty. The head of the UK's domestic security agency has warned that ISIS is planning mass-casualty attacks in Britain. ISIS has said that it wants to conduct attacks in the United States. Now that it has an attack capability in Europe, it is almost certainly working to achieve the same here.

ISIS is also a quasi state—a state in every sense of the word, except one. It does not have foreign recognition or relations with other states. But it does have an executive, it has an army, it has a police force, it has a set of laws, it has a judiciary, it provides social services, it takes care of the poor, and it levies taxes.

Why does it matter that ISIS is a quasi state? It matters for two reasons. One is that, as a state, it can use all the resources—human and otherwise—within the area it controls in the pursuit of its aims. The best example? Using the chemistry labs at Mosul University to make bombs and chemical weapons. And two is that statehood will make it more difficult to dislodge them. Yes, we have successfully taken territory from them in Iraq and Syria, but ISIS is deeply rooted in the areas it controls.

As a state, ISIS also poses a threat to regional stability—a threat to the very territorial integrity of the current nation-states there, a threat of inflaming the entire region in sectarian war. All this in a part of the world that still provides almost a third of the world's oil supply; a region that is home to one of America's closest allies, Israel; and a region that is home to a set of close American allies—the Gulf Arab states—that are a bulwark against Iran's push for regional hegemony.

And, as a revolutionary political movement, ISIS is gaining affiliates among extremist groups around the world. They are signing up for what ISIS desires as its objective—a global caliphate in which day-to-day life is governed by extreme religious views. In the mind of ISIS, this global caliphate would extend to the US itself.

When they join ISIS, these affiliates evolve from focusing on local issues to focusing on establishing an extension of the caliphate themselves. And their targets evolve from local to international ones. This is the story of the bombing of a Russian airliner in the Egyptian Sinai by an ISIS group.

ISIS has gained affiliates faster than al Qa'ida ever did. From nothing two years ago, there are now militant groups in nearly twenty-five countries that have sworn allegiance to ISIS. They have conducted attacks that have already killed Americans, and they carry the potential to themselves grab large amounts of territory. Libya is the furthest along—ISIS has between 4,000 to 6,000 fighters there, it has training camps there, it has conducted attacks in North Africa, and it is plotting attacks in Europe.

To degrade and ultimately defeat ISIS will require both removing the leadership from the battlefield and shrinking and eventually eliminating the safe havens. The former will be easier than the latter. The former requires good intelligence and the military assets to turn that intelligence into action. The latter requires a complex military operation in both Syria and Iraq. And that requires a political solution in Syria to the problem of President Basher al-Assad and a political solution in Iraq to the problem of the disenfranchisement of the Sunnis. This is very complicated.

* * *

The attacks in Paris and Brussels and the bombing of a Russian airliner over the Sinai are news stories that have focused the world's attention on ISIS—and rightfully so. But there is another story that should also have our attention—but that does not as of the writing of this introduction. It is the story of the rebound of al Qa'ida, a story that the former under secretary of defense for intelligence, Mike Vickers, and I told in Politico late in 2015.

That story is twofold—involving the emerging rebirth of the al Qa'ida leadership in South Asia, so-called core al Qa'ida, as well as a significant rebound of the most important al Qa'ida affiliate, al Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the al Qa'ida entity in Yemen.

Intense US counterterrorism operations beginning in the fall of 2008 pushed core al Qa'ida to the brink of defeat. Only a few of core al Qa'ida's top leadership remain at large, namely the group's leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and its general manager, Abdul Rehman al-Maghribi, Zawahiri's only surviving son-in-law.

Since late 2010 the group has largely been in survival mode, hunkering down in its Pakistan safe haven in hopes of outlasting the US onslaught. Its ability to conduct attacks in the West has consequently been severely degraded.

While core al Qa'ida is down, it is not defeated. And, most significantly, it is beginning to stage a comeback. Why do I say this?

The group's senior leadership ranks were recently bolstered by Iran's release of three management council members: Abu Khayr al-Masri, Zawahiri's designated successor, Abu Mohammed al-Masri, and Saif al-Adel. All were held for over a decade in Iran. All are veteran jihadists, whose experience in the group dates back two decades.

The group's alliances with key safe haven providers—the Haqqani Network, which is under the protection of Pakistan's security forces, and the Pakistani Taliban—remain intact and have recently been strengthened. The new Afghan Taliban leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, recently affirmed his organization's alliance with al Qa'ida.

Perhaps most importantly, core al Qa'ida is expanding its presence in Afghanistan.

For several years al Qa'ida has maintained a small presence in eastern Afghanistan under the leadership of Farouq al-Qahtani, and that presence has been growing. Qahtani has made clear his intent to strike the West.

More significantly, al Qa'ida recently established training camps in Afghanistan's southeast—the group's first training camp in Afghanistan since it was pushed out of the country in the weeks after 9/11. US and Afghan forces recently struck some of these camps—because of concern about them.

Core al Qa'ida has also shifted its targets. Once focused exclusively on large, symbolic, 9/11-style targets, the group has become enamored of "Mumbai-style" attacks, akin to what ISIL just did in Paris. Core al Qa'ida sees itself in a competition with ISIL for leadership of the global jihad, and it knows it needs to stage some bold attacks if it is going to retain its position as the vanguard of global jihad.

Yemen lies some 1,500 miles south-southwest of Afghanistan, and it is home to AQAP, the most dangerous al Qa'ida group on the planet today. Its capabilities were degraded by US counterterrorism operations too, but nowhere near as much as those of core al Qa'ida.

Now AQAP is gaining considerable strength—thanks to the war between the legitimately elected government of Yemen and an insurgent group called the Houthis.

That war has created a vacuum that AQAP is filling. The group now has more territory under its control than at any other time. The group has more fighters under its banner than ever before—as it is drawing Sunni recruits motivated to fight the Shi'a Houthis. AQAP also has more money than ever before—thanks to its success in overrunning a branch of the Yemeni Central Bank.

AQAP, which already has the most sophisticated bomb technology of any extremist group in the world and has been trying to attack the United States since at least 2009, will use its newfound strength to enhance its capability to strike the West.

The bottom line: Do we need to worry about an ISIL-directed attack in the United States? Absolutely. Do we also need to worry about an al Qa'ida–directed attack here? Absolutely.

* * *

The reaction to the hardcover publication of The Great War of Our Time was very positive—it got strong reviews, became a New York Times best-seller, and, most importantly, the book has helped define the public debate about terrorism in a way that is very satisfying to me. One radio host, Hugh Hewitt, liked the book so much that he said he would send a copy to every candidate running for president.

The reaction to the very detailed chapter devoted to pushing back on those who criticize the CIA and me for our actions with regard to Benghazi was also positive and satisfying to me. For example, Ross Kaminsky, a respected journalist for the conservative magazine National Review, wrote that "Morell's explanation of his and the CIA's role in the Benghazi talking points offers a believable vindication of himself and senior officials at the agency." Kaminsky went on, "I find Morell's account [of Benghazi] credible and exculpatory despite picking up the book with pre-existing notions about this messy story."

In September 2015, five months after the publication of the book, I testified before Congress for the fifth time on Benghazi. On this occasion I appeared before the House Select Committee on Benghazi. I spent nine hours in private with the committee answering many questions from both Republicans and Democrats. In preparing for this session, I had reviewed many documents. In doing so I discovered additional facts that I have added to this version of the book. The bottom line remains the same—CIA as an organization and CIA officers, including me, in no way allowed politics to influence any of our actions or decisions with regard to Benghazi.

Most satisfying to me, though, were those readers who told me that the book provided unique insight into how important intelligence is to our national security, what it is like to be a CIA officer, the dedication and commitment of those officers, and the sacrifices those officers and their families make in defense of the nation. People told me that stories about the effect of my job on my own family were both enlightening and entertaining. To me the most important chapter of the book remains the last one.

While reactions to the book were almost universally positive, there were some significant critiques. Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, currently the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee and previously the committee's chairman, put out a public statement when the book was published saying that there was nothing new in my criticism of her committee's study on CIA's post-9/11 enhanced interrogation program, and that my arguments simply repeated those in the CIA's rebuttal to her staff's report.

Feinstein is a staunch advocate of national security, and she is not known for playing politics. Certainly I never saw her play politics. She truly believes that her staff's study on the CIA's detention and interrogation is accurate. I truly believe that it is not accurate.

In early May 2010, just after I was named deputy director of the Agency, I paid a courtesy call on Senator Feinstein. In that meeting she outlined her expectations of me. At the top of her list was to "always, always tell the committee exactly what you think. Do not spin, do not hold back, for any reason." That is exactly what I did throughout the book—including in the chapter on enhanced interrogation techniques.

Feinstein's public statement about the book was quickly followed by a fifty-four-page detailed rebuttal to my thirty-five-page chapter, drafted and made available to the public by her committee's staff—largely those who worked on the study. The staff made sixty-six separate critiques.

Because it is so important to me that I get my facts and analysis right, I studied the staff's rebuttal in detail. In doing so I made roughly twenty edits to the chapter, often only adding or deleting a word or two for accuracy. It is important to note that those edits, while making the book's discussion on enhanced interrogation techniques more accurate, do not, in any way, change my bottom line about the committee's study—that it is a deeply flawed document.

I should also note that I believe I made more changes to my thirty-five-page chapter based on the committee's critique of it than the committee made to its six-thousand-page study based on CIA's comments on it.

Two other reactions to the book are worth noting. The first came from Philip Zelikow, the executive director of the 9/11 Commission and professor of history at the University of Virginia. Philip, a leading thinker on many issues related to national security, questioned my criticism of the commission's finding that 9/11 was a "failure of imagination." He did not do so publicly, rather via private communications with me. After rereading the commission's report and discussing the issue with him, I concluded that Philip was correct, and the language has been adjusted.

The second came from a former senior CIA official. That critique had to do with my characterization of what occurred inside CIA, prior to the Iraq War, with regard to our understanding of the credibility of the key source for our judgment that Saddam Hussein had a mobile capability to produce biological weapons. Again, this officer was correct, and the language has been adjusted. As was the case with the hardcover, any remaining errors in the paperback are mine and mine alone.

* * *

In early December 2015, during a debate in the British House of Commons over whether Parliament should authorize British air strikes against ISIS in Syria, the Labor Party's shadow minister for foreign affairs, Hilary Benn, gave a remarkable speech. Some of his colleagues called it one of the greatest speeches in the history of the British House of Commons.

Benn, breaking with his own party leader and supporting the air strikes, said, "We are here faced by fascists—not just their calculated brutality but their belief that they are superior to every single one of us in this chamber tonight and all the people that we represent. They hold us in contempt. They hold our values in contempt. They hold our belief in tolerance and decency in contempt. They hold our democracy… in contempt."

He went on. "What we know about fascists is that they need to be defeated.… It's why this entire House stood up against Hitler and Mussolini.… We must now confront this evil."

It is very rare in the British House of Commons for a speech to receive applause. Benn's speech did. And it was very right that it did, because Benn's points are exactly correct.


Michael Morell

Washington, DC

April 2016


The drinks had not even arrived before the first phone call. It was August 4, 2013, and my wife, Mary Beth, and I had taken our daughter Sarah to dinner to celebrate her twentieth birthday. We were sitting outside in the garden of one of the D.C. area's finest restaurants. L'Auberge Chez Francois is located along the Potomac River in the rolling treelined hills of Great Falls, Virginia. It was a beautiful evening—low seventies and low humidity—and Sarah was beaming. She was with her mom and dad—the latter of whom also just happened to be the deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

In the span of the next two hours, senior officials from CIA's Counterterrorism Center (CTC) called my cell phone nine times. Each time, I would walk into a field adjacent to the garden for privacy. Several times I had to follow up a call from CTC with my own call—either to CIA Director John Brennan or to President Obama's White House Counterterrorism Advisor Lisa Monaco. At first Mary Beth and Sarah were frustrated with the calls, saying things like "Not tonight. Not during a birthday dinner." But as more and more calls came, it became comedic, and the frustration turned to laughter. I would sit down after talking on the phone for five minutes, and then thirty or sixty seconds later, the phone would ring again. Although my phone was on vibrate so as not to bother the other patrons, my frequent walks through an archway into the field garnered the attention of all. No one, not even Mary Beth and Sarah, knew that each phone call I received that evening related to the most serious terrorist threat to face the United States since al Qa'ida's plot in August 2006 to bring down multiple airliners over the Atlantic Ocean. We ordered the birthday cake to go.

* * *

The birthday dinner took place on the Sunday evening before my last week as deputy director. Five days later I would step down from my three-and-a-half-year assignment as the Agency's deputy director, enter CIA's Transition Program, and prepare to retire from the Agency after thirty-three years of service.

For the previous fifteen years, I had been obsessed with al Qa'ida and the threat it posed. In the late 1990s, I monitored increasingly worrisome intelligence coming in about the then-obscure terrorist group. At the time I was the executive assistant to Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet. Like Tenet, I was frightened by what I saw and concerned that few in or outside government shared our alarm.

Then, in early 2001, I began an assignment as the daily intelligence briefer for the newly elected president of the United States, George W. Bush. Again and again I would deliver warnings in the President's Daily Brief that were both ominous in their potential and frustrating in their lack of actionable specificity. You could not have lived through the day of 9/11 at the president's side and looked down from Air Force One at the smoldering ruins of the Pentagon, as I did, without becoming obsessed by the issue of terrorism or vowing to do everything possible to prevent the recurrence of such a tragedy.

In the decade that followed 9/11, the United States and its premier intelligence agency, CIA, had enormous successes in their fight against terrorism, and a few significant failures. I was part of both—from CIA's failure to correctly assess Iraq's capabilities regarding weapons of mass destruction to the operation that brought Usama bin Ladin to justice. I also had to deal with the political backlash that occurred against the aggressive counterterrorism programs put in place in the aftermath of 9/11. One issue in particular was CIA's use of harsh interrogation techniques to acquire information from captured senior al Qa'ida operatives. A second was the NSA's operations to ensure that terrorists could never again take advantage of the pre-9/11 seam that had existed between overseas intelligence collection and domestic law enforcement.

* * *

In early October 2013—just weeks after my retirement—I received a phone call from a good and trusted friend. He asked me to consider writing a book. I said, "No, that is not what professional intelligence officers do," but as I thought about the phone call, I changed my mind. Three things led me to this conclusion—and to this book. First, I wanted to tell the remarkable story of CIA's fight against the group that killed nearly three thousand people on that beautiful sunny morning in September 2001. No department or agency has done more to keep the country safe than CIA, and I wanted Americans to know that.

Second, without putting our operations at risk, I believed more can and should be shared with the American people about what the Agency does every day. This is important because popular culture creates many myths about the Agency. One is that the Agency is all-powerful—that there is no secret it cannot steal or discover, no threat it cannot disrupt, and no adversary it cannot defeat. This is the "Jack Ryan" myth from countless Tom Clancy novels. Then there is the opposite view, that the Agency is incompetent, made up of people who screw up everything they touch. This is the "Maxwell Smart" myth from the 1960s TV series Get Smart and the 2008 movie with the same title. Finally, and most perniciously, is the notion that CIA is a rogue agency—sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing, but always pursuing its own agenda, all without the authority, direction, or control of America's elected leaders. This is the "Jason Bourne" myth, from the wildly popular book and film series.

The truth is that all these myths are wrong. CIA gets many things right and a few things wrong. And in my experience CIA officers always did what they thought was best for the country, and they undertook operations only with the approval, authorization, and direction of our nation's elected leaders. Creating an accurate picture of CIA is important because the Agency is a secret organization operating in a democracy, and the American people need to have confidence that the Agency is functioning both effectively and within the Constitution and laws of the United States.

Third, and most important, I wanted to tell Americans how deeply concerned I am about the threat that remains to our country from al Qa'ida and various groups associated with it. The threat of terrorism has not gone away. It did not die in Abbottabad along with Bin Ladin. It is going to be with us for decades to come, and as a nation we must be prepared. If we are not, we will, with certainty, face another devastating attack on our homeland.

Taken together, these three reasons are why I decided to write a book and why I decided to focus it on the Agency's fight against terrorism—the great war of our time.

* * *

In July 2013, the threat reporting coming out of Yemen skyrocketed. The intelligence was clear—al Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the al Qa'ida franchise most closely tied to the al Qa'ida leadership in Pakistan and the one posing the greatest threat to the United States, was planning attacks against American interests. The reporting pointed to multiple targets and attacks of significance. But, as is almost always the case, the intelligence was frustratingly lacking in details—about targets, locations, and timing.

The hope of a quiet last few weeks on the job turned out to be wishful thinking. I had to cancel many of the visits I had planned throughout the Agency to say thank you to the women and men of CIA for all the hard work that they do for the country and all the work they had done for me as deputy director (and twice acting director). My days, evenings, and nights—including the birthday dinner—were now consumed with the new threat reporting.


  • "A remarkable narrative about the greatest national security threat America has faced since the Cold War and how the country's premier intelligence agency dealt with it. In THE GREAT WAR OF OUR TIME Michael Morell provides an astute look at key battles won and lost in the fight against al Qa'ida, and he offers invaluable insights for both intelligence and policy into battles yet to come. Anyone who wants to know how the CIA dealt with the al Qa'ida menace and how the country should address it going forward should read this book."—Robert Gates, former secretary of defense and CIA director
  • "Intelligence professionals are an unsung but absolutely critical part of our country's national security, and Michael Morell, who served 33 years at CIA, was one of the best intelligence officers our nation has ever had. His service at the senior ranks of CIA coincided with the Agency's fight against al Qa'ida, and in the THE GREAT WAR OF OUR TIME he recounts this history with honesty, insight, and poignancy. This is a very readable book in which you will learn a lot of things you didn't know before-including what it's like to work as an intelligence professional."—Joseph Lieberman, former US Senator
  • "Must-read for anyone thinking seriously about terrorism. An authoritative, insightful insider's account of the CIA's leadership in the War on Terror. Courageously ducks none of the thorny issues, from torture and Snowden to Usama bin Ladin."—Graham Allison, former dean, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, and author of Essence of Decision
  • "Michael Morell has written a compelling narrative about the fight against al Qa'ida and the terror it inspires and exports globally. He provides rare and thoughtful insight into the mystifying world of intelligence, to include the remarkable and patriotic Americans who serve there. Michael is the 'best of the best' and portrays the CIA at a sustained level of excellence during remarkably tough times."—Mike Mullen, ADM, USN (ret.), former chairman, US Joint Chiefs of Staff

On Sale
May 12, 2015
Page Count
352 pages

Michael Morell

About the Author

Michael Morell, the recently retired Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, is one of the country’s most prominent national security professionals with extensive experience in intelligence and foreign policy.

Bill Harlow is a writer, consultant and public relations specialist. He spent seven years as the top spokesman for the Central Intelligence Agency. He co-authored George Tenet’s #1 New York Times bestseller At the Center of the Storm.

Learn more about this author