Gary Schroen, the man who led the CIA’s first incursion into Afghanistan after the 9/11 terrorist attack, has died, the CIA announced on Monday.
The CIA commemorated Schroen, famous for the mission that laid the groundwork for a full-fledged invasion more than two decades ago, and argued that his work will serve as an inspiration for its officers for years to come.
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“Today, CIA mourns the passing of Gary Schroen, a legend and inspiration to every Agency officer. In Afghanistan more than two decades ago and in every other role he served at CIA, Gary embodied the very best of our organization. We will never forget his unwavering dedication, loyalty, and perseverance to protect and defend our country,” CIA Director William Burns said in a statement.
The statement did not say when or where Schroen died, nor did it mention a cause of death.
The news came shortly after President Joe Biden delivered an address to the country, announcing that a drone strike killed al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri, one of the 9/11 masterminds.
Schroen had worked as the chief of station in Islamabad, Pakistan, between 1996 and 1999, and he oversaw CIA initiatives aimed at capturing Osama bin Laden. He had been poised to retire when the planes crashed into the World Trade Center and elsewhere on Sept. 11, 2001, in a series of attacks that killed nearly 3,000. Outraged by the attack, he opted to table his retirement plans and offered to spearhead the first CIA incursion into the war-torn country after the attacks, according to the agency.
His team of roughly seven members flew to Afghanistan about 15 days after 9/11, he told PBS. Schroen was given direct orders “to capture Bin Laden, kill him & bring his head back in a box on dry ice,” he recalled to NPR. His mission was code-named Operation JAWBREAKER.
“Gary delayed his retirement to lead an exceptional team of CIA officers — the first Americans into Afghanistan — on a mission against al-Qa’ida and its Taliban supporters. That mission, Operation JAWBREAKER, will forever stand as a tribute to Gary’s courage and leadership. We are fortunate to have the Mi-17 helicopter that Gary and his team used to carry out this daring mission dedicated on CIA’s grounds, where it will serve for generations to come as a reminder of Gary’s extraordinary place in CIA history,” Burns said in his statement.
Operation JAWBREAKER was one of several early missions conducted by the United States in the region to undermine al Qaeda and sympathetic Taliban fighters. A core component of the mission entailed reaching out to the Northern Alliance, a group in Afghanistan that resisted Taliban rule, to coordinate military action against the Taliban and al Qaeda.
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Schroen managed to befriend Northern Alliance commander Gen. Ahmad Shah Massoud during his mission and helped win over their support in the war effort, according to his book about the mission. The invasion formally commenced in October 2001.
“Gary will be greatly missed, but never forgotten,” Burns said.