Gary Schroen, who led the CIA into Afghanistan, dies at 80
Gary C. Schroen, a veteran CIA operative who, just weeks after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, led the first team of agents into Afghanistan to prepare for an invasion and begin the hunt for Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants, died at his home in Alexandria, Virginia, on Aug. 1, one day after a U.S. missile killed one of the last of those men, Ayman al-Zawahri. He was 80.
His wife, Anne McFadden, said the cause was complications of a fall.
Schroen spent more than 30 years with the CIA, running agents and espionage operations across the Middle East. At 59, he was 11 days into the agency’s mandatory three-month retirement transition program when terrorists under bin Laden’s command attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
He spent the next few days stewing, frustrated that the skills and knowledge he had spent decades acquiring would go unused at the moment they were most valuable.
Then, late on the night of Sept. 13, he got word that Cofer Black, director of the agency’s counterterrorist center, wanted to see him the next morning.
“Gary, I want you to take a small team of CIA officers into Afghanistan,” Black told him, in a conversation that Schroen recalled in a 2005 book, “First In: An Insider’s Account of How the CIA Spearheaded the War on Terror in Afghanistan,” and in multiple interviews. They were to connect with members of the Northern Alliance, an organization opposed to the Taliban, and convince them to cooperate with the Americans.
“You are,” Black continued, “the best-qualified officer to lead this team.”
Schroen selected seven men and gathered the weapons, outdoor gear and food they would need. The mission was code-named Jawbreaker. At least one representative from the military was supposed to join them, but the Pentagon pulled out of the mission at the last minute, declaring it too dangerous.
“There was no rescue force,” Bruce Riedel, a former CIA case officer who worked frequently with Schroen, said in a phone interview. “If they got in trouble, there were no American troops to come rescue them.”
Before Schroen left for the mission, Black took him aside.
“I want to make it clear what your real job is,” Schroen recalled Black telling him. “Once the Taliban are broken, your job is to find bin Laden, kill him and bring his head back on dry ice.”
They got to Afghanistan on Sept. 26, carrying laptops, satellite phones, instant coffee and $3 million in cash. For the next several weeks, until detachments from the Army’s Delta Force began to arrive, they were the only Americans operating in the country.
Schroen had long-standing personal ties with the Northern Alliance, going back to his time as the CIA station chief in Islamabad, Pakistan. He distributed money freely to show the seriousness of the coming U.S. assault.
Within days, he had won over the Northern Alliance. By the time more American troops began to arrive, the ground was beginning to shift against the Taliban.
In a statement after Schroen’s death, William J. Burns, director of the CIA, called him “a legend and inspiration to every Agency officer.”
Gary Charles Schroen was born Nov. 6, 1941, in East St. Louis, Illinois. His father, Emil, was a union electrician, and his mother, Fern (Finch) Schroen, was a homemaker.
Schroen was married and divorced twice before marrying McFadden in 2009. In addition to her, he is survived by his daughters, Kate Cowell and Jennifer Schroen. His son, Christopher, died in 2017. His sister, Donna Naylor, died in 2020.
Schroen joined the military after high school and served with the Army Security Agency, an intelligence unit, for three years. He later attended Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, in the St. Louis suburbs, where he studied 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 in the Directorate of Operations, shuffling between assignments in the Middle East and at CIA headquarters in Virginia.
He later described, in general terms, the thrill of working in covert operations during the Cold War — and, in specific terms, the wave of negative publicity that followed revelations in the mid-1970s about the CIA’s role in assassinations, coups and other nefarious deeds over the decades.
“I spent two weeks just reading files on the Middle East historical stuff, looking for bad things that had happened,” he said in an interview with PBS program “Frontline” in 2006. “We all came away really shaken by just this feeling that a lot of people looked at us as a rogue organization.”
By the late 1980s, Schroen had risen to the top ranks of the agency’s Middle East operations. He served as station chief for Kabul, though for security reasons he had to work out of Pakistan. Although he was often warned not to, he crossed regularly into Afghanistan to meet with mujahedeen rebels, at one point coming under fire from hostile forces.
He spoke fluent Persian and Dari, a dialect of Persian spoken in Afghanistan, and was widely considered the agency’s leading expert on the country — “one of the go-to guys for the region,” Milton Bearden, who served as CIA station chief in Pakistan, said in an interview.
Schroen returned to the region in the mid-1990s as the station chief in Islamabad, considered one of the agency’s most important postings. Concern about bin Laden and al-Qaida was growing, and it grew faster after bin Laden orchestrated the attacks on two U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998.
Schroen was among the loudest voices within the agency calling for the government to capture or, better yet, kill bin Laden as quickly as possible. Yet 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.
Schroen came back to Washington in 1999 to become the deputy chief for the Near East in the Directorate of Operations. He announced his retirement in mid-2001, shortly before being brought back after Sept. 11.
He remained in Afghanistan for a few weeks after the U.S. invasion began in earnest, in mid-October. He restarted his retirement process and formally left the agency at the end of the year.
At his retirement, he was among the most decorated figures in CIA history.
Schroen continued to advise the agency as a contractor. He was one of a handful of former CIA officials to openly criticize the decision to invade Iraq, which he felt detracted attention and resources from the fight against al-Qaida.
“When I came back and heard that Iraq was being mentioned in the earliest moments after 9/11 as what we should attack, I thought, ‘Oh, my God. That can’t be true,’ ” he told “Frontline.”
“Clearly bin Laden and his guys are sitting in Afghanistan; that’s where we’ve got to go. Don’t mess with Iraq; this has nothing to do with them.”