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CIA's al Qaeda hunter is an Islamic convert

world Updated: Mar 27, 2012 02:29 IST

For every cloud of smoke that follows a CIA drone strike in Pakistan, dozens of smaller plumes can be traced to a gaunt figure standing in a courtyard near the centre of the agency’s Langley campus in Virginia.

The man with the nicotine habit is in his late 50s, with stubble on his face and the dark-suited wardrobe of an undertaker. As chief of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Centre for the past six years, he has functioned in a funereal capacity for al Qaeda.

Roger, which is the first name of his cover identity, is the principal architect of the CIA’s drone campaign and the leader of the hunt for Osama bin Laden. His colleagues describe him as a collection of contradictions. For instance, the man who presides over a campaign that has killed thousands of Islamist militants and angered millions of Muslims is himself a convert to Islam.

His defenders don’t even try to make him sound likable. Instead, they emphasise his operational talents, encyclopaedic understanding of the enemy and tireless work ethic.

“Irascible is the nicest way I would describe him,” said a former high-ranking CIA official who supervised the counterterrorism chief. “But his range of experience and relationships have made him about as close to indispensable as you could think.”

Since becoming chief, Roger has worked for two presidents, four CIA directors and four directors of national intelligence. In the top echelons of national security, only Robert S Mueller III, who became FBI director shortly before the 9/11 attacks, has been in place longer.

Roger’s longevity is all the more remarkable, current and former CIA officials said, because the CTC job is one of the agency’s most stressful and grueling, with the constant knowledge that the CTC director will be among the first to face blame if there is another attack on US soil.

Most of Roger’s predecessors, including Cofer Black and Robert Grenier, lasted less than three years.

A native of suburban Virginia, Roger grew up in a family where several members, across two generations, have worked at the agency.

From the outset, Roger seemed completely absorbed by the job — arriving for work before dawn to read operational cables from overseas and staying well into the night, if he left at all. His once-pudgy physique became almost cadaverous. Although he had quit smoking a decade earlier, his habit returned full strength.

Roger was responsible for increasing drone strikes against al Qaeda. He argued that the CIA needed to mount an air campaign against al Qaeda “at a pace they could not absorb”.

Current and former senior US intelligence officials said it is no accident that Roger’s tenure has coincided with a remarkably rapid disintegration of al Qaeda — and the killing of bin Laden last year.

Roger, though, does not appear in any of the pictures taken inside the White House situation room when bin Laden was killed last May. When the operation concluded, he had stepped outside to smoke.

In exclusive partnership with The Washington Post