Ambassador Dell Dailey served as the Coordinator for Counterterrorism for the U.S. Department of State from June 2007 to April 2009, charged with coordinating and supporting the development and implementation of U.S. government policies and programs aimed at countering terrorism overseas. As the principal advisor to the Secretary of State (Rice and Clinton) on international counterterrorism matters, he was responsible for taking a leading role in developing coordinated strategies to defeat terrorists abroad and in securing the cooperation of international partners to that end.
Dailey served over 36 years on active duty in the United States Army. He took command of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) in 2000 and led initial combat operations in Afghanistan during the Global War on Terror. He reached the rank of Lieutenant General as the Director of the Center for Special Operations (CSO), U.S. Special Operations Command, at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, between 2004 and 2007. Dailey graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1971. He currently serves as the Distinguished Chair at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.
Editor’s Note: The following is the transcript of an oral interview conducted ahead of the 20th anniversary of 9/11. It has been lightly edited by CTC Sentinel.
CTC: 9/11 shaped your service, and you would go on to play a key role in Operation Enduring Freedom with a former West Point Superintendent describing you as “the unsung hero of Afghanistan” and “pivotal in pulling together the campaign plan.”1 You would later serve as the coordinator for counterterrorism for the State Department. Can you talk us through how that day, 9/11, was for you, the sense of purpose it created in you and your colleagues, and the ways you were able to contribute to the counterterrorism mission in the months and years that followed? And when you reflect on the last 20 years and the range of actions that have transpired across that time, what are some of the key issues, themes, or moments that stand out to you personally? What were your most memorable high and low points?
Dailey: First, I’d like to express our condolences to the families of folks who died on 9/11 in the towers and in the Pentagon and on the hillside in Pennsylvania. Our hearts go out to them. And I’d like to express our gratitude to our fallen comrades. They helped defend our nation in a unique way. But they did not come home, so we should always remember them.
On the day of 9/11, [in my capacity as JSOC commander] I was in Budapest, Hungary, for (a) quarterly full command, joint staff, no notice exercise. Our scenario was to go through multiple countries chasing about a dozen or so terrorists, and we would go through the challenges of international coordination and whatnot. That day, we went to the sixth floor of the U.S. Embassy; I was met by a young major named Scott Miller, the four-star [general] who [in July 2021] turned Afghanistan back over to Central Command. Scott immediately started briefing, and he showed us a TV shot of the first aircraft going into the tower, and right after that, I said, “Hey, wait a second, that’s not part of our scenario.” At that point, he showed the second one hitting, and he said this was real.
And all of a sudden, things had changed dramatically in what we were doing and how we were thinking. With the first [plane hitting], we thought it might have been accidental. But when the second one hit, we knew for sure it was real. It was some kind of terrorism. We immediately realized that we, JSOC, would be the key response force, and most importantly, we were out of position. Our critical National Response Command team was split. We had some in the United States and some in Europe. The leadership team in the United States was not at Fort Bragg. They were up in Maine doing a briefing. I agreed to cancel the exercise. We notified the EUCOM commander to get his permission and redeploy it to the States. I did that personally. Then we started a redeployment for the exercise forces. We contacted the rear command of Fort Bragg, and they moved into a combat mode for planning, obtained intelligence and found out as much as they could. For sure we, JSOC, knew we were going to be a responding force in some size, way, or shape. Because this was a deliberate, planned, intentional, and international attack. JSOC was the primary U.S. military counterterrorism force. We were at war with someone or something. In the days that followed, we found out it was al-Qa`ida, supported by the Taliban, [and] bin Ladin, and they were located in Afghanistan.
I remained in JSOC for two more years after 9/11, and we’ve continued to deploy and deploy rapidly troops in a global fashion in search of terrorists and supporting countries going after the terrorists. We were successful in this effort in multiple different areas, in multiple different venues. After my time in JSOC, I went to SOCOM headquarters in Tampa, and there became the deputy commander for the operational arm of SOCOM. I held that position for three years, and during that time, we built the J2, the J3, and the J5 in a very, very integrated manner, so that we’d be more focused and laterally effective in fighting globally and combating the terrorists. And this supported the combatant commanders also. We prepared, presented, and defended a global CT plan for the U.S. DoD forces. It was approved by Secretary of Defense [Donald] Rumsfeld, presented to President Bush, and then we actually started to implement it as I left.
After retiring after 36 years in the army, I served as the Coordinator for Counterterrorism for the Department of State at their CT Bureau from 2007 to 2009, working directly for Secretary [of State Condoleezza] Rice for the first 18 months [or so] and then for Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton for the next six months [or so].
At the State Department, we accomplished four significant things. First was the enhancement of a newly started regional support program for like-minded countries. We became a driving factor for a regional CT program on a global basis. We had multiple regional meetings, provided ideas, and U.S. support in intelligence and communications and funding to those countries that were interested. In most cases, this was a modest effort because they too were not that interested in revealing the inside of their ops, but they all had—one way, shape, form, or another—some type of terrorist activity, so that drew them together, and it was a pretty well-worked, fast, stood-up regional CT program. Second, I traveled to 30 different countries and assisted with CT strategy and funding and intel.
Third, the foreign terrorist organization list—(FTO) belonged to the CT Bureau—and we started a process to take the [Iranian dissident group] MEK off that and put the Taliban onto it. Over time, the office succeeded in getting the MEK off,2 and over time, they put the Haqqani network of the Taliban onto the FTO list, but the irony is that, still today, the Taliban are not on the foreign terrorist organization list.
Fourth, we had a very, very good program at the State Department for combating terrorism operations in Somalia. Prior to that, the U.S. forces would be ready to hit a target, they’d have to get permission and go to the State Department, and it would take hours or days or even weeks for the political decision to be made. We facilitated the process by having myself, the ambassador to Kenya, the envoy to Somalia, who was also located in Kenya, the Assistant Secretary for Africa get on the phone, and we eventually sometimes had decisions made in as fast as 15 minutes. That really allowed the combating terrorism forces folks to move out and move rapidly on targets in and around Somalia.
CTC: When you reflect on the last 20 years and the range of actions that have transpired across that time, what are the key issues, themes, or moments that stand out to you personally? Your memorable high points and low points?
Dailey: Probably the most significant initial point with regards to Afghanistan that I recall was the initial opening [special forces] mission into Afghanistan, which was 18-19 October 2001. We needed to wait that long—from 9/11, almost six weeks to our first attack—because we had little information on Afghanistan. We had to plan, in our eyes, a significant, audacious, fast effort to go after who we thought were the perpetrators of the 9/11 [attacks]. So in that time frame, we planned and organized and rehearsed. The mission was, in fact, similar to Desert Onea where U.S. forces took off from an island in the western Indian Ocean, flew into Iran, flew over the mountains, flew over the plains, landed, reorganized, and were going to go into Tehran. The distances were the same, flying off of the aircraft carrier was the same, the nasty weather was the same. So we wanted to make sure none of the problems for [the Desert One mission] affected us. And frankly, none did. We had a weather entity out ahead of time to tell us if there was a haboob, which is a huge 6,000 to 10,000-foot dust storm coming, which happened in Desert One. It did not happen with us, but it had the potential to do so. We had an airborne operation into Kandahar that night, and that was done by our Special Forces folks.b They had no problems. They landed at Mullah Omar’s home, right in the backyard of Afghanistan, right in the backyard of the Taliban leader who allowed al-Qa`ida to [carry out] that mission against us. Our forces included the 75th Ranger Regiment, commanded by then-Colonel Joe Votel. We were in and out in one night. Tragically, one of our quick reaction force aircraft had a dust landing, lost control, and rolled over. The doors were open, two of the occupants fell out, and the aircraft rolled onto them. These were the only casualties for the entire operation.3
Several days later, we heard in a discourse between Taliban leaders, “Oh my God. Oh my God. The Americans have flown into our backyard, into our homes. If they can do that, what else can they do?” And words to the effect of ‘woe is us, woe is us.’ That mission that night was far more than going after individuals. That was a signal, and they read the signal perfectly. We can go anywhere and do anything. The United States is that powerful and that well organized and equipped. In those six weeks, we found multiple targets and had them bombed very fast. We knew we had to do something important. We knew we had to get boots on the ground into Mullah Omar’s home; [that] was absolutely the right thing to do.
What also stands out to me is that post 9/11, the United States developed and improved our relationships. The Five Eyes Intelligence alliance (United States, the U.K., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) came back into full activity. We dealt with Russia on a regular basis on matters related to combating terrorism. And with China ahead of the Beijing Olympics.
The SOCOM staff was reorganized to bolster their counterterrorism capacity. Increased training and funding and resources allowed the global TSOCs—Theater Special Operations Commands to become an extremely effective tool in the CT fight.
A high point was finding and killing bin Ladin, and then discovering in his files the following comment: “West Point Combating Terrorism Center,” he said, “everything they print, I want to see.”4 So that’s a pretty powerful statement that bin Ladin was looking at U.S. CT at the academic level, and he was intrigued.
The low moments for me have been every time an American soldier, sailor, airman, Marine, or official has fallen in the line of duty. We owe them an immense debt of gratitude.
CTC: This past May marked the 10th anniversary of the daring counterterrorism operation, which you just referenced, that ended up killing Usama bin Ladin in Pakistan. As you well know, there has been a considerable amount of debate about the state of al-Qa`ida and the broader al-Qa`ida network, especially its capabilities, status, and ability to endure. What is your assessment of the United States’ campaign to degrade and defeat al-Qa`ida and the nature of the threat posed by the group today?
Dailey: We have been successful in severely degrading al-Qa`ida. Al-Qa`ida is no longer an international, U.S., or allied threat today. So as a result of what we’ve done to them, we’ve pushed them around and they’re now sprinkled in other countries—but fundamentally, what they do today is only local. They don’t currently have the potential to take over a country or to come to the United States to carry out an attack. And their leader [Ayman al-Zawahiri] is clearly isolated and fundamentally ineffective.
I’m pretty confident that we’ve got the tools to continue keeping al-Qa`ida down in whatever location they are present. They’re currently not strong in Afghanistan, although we’ll need to remain vigilant given the U.S. troop withdrawal and recent gains made by the Taliban. Al-Qa`ida are present in some parts of Asia and Africa, but they have a local focus there. The U.S. and allies have degraded and limited the operations of al-Qa`ida and ISIS. And now despite whatever their aspirations might be, they are for the most part just local threats.
CTC: In what areas has the United States performed less well?
Dailey: In doing the kind of nation building necessary for true change in places like Afghanistan. When we have gone into one of these CT battlefields, we have brought in significant and sizable military forces to defeat that threat. We have trained the host nation military in that process, and we have been somewhat successful in this enterprise. But take Afghanistan. Despite all the efforts we made on the military side, we didn’t provide sufficient help with their education system, commerce, healthcare, agriculture, transportation, and other aspects of nation-building that were necessary for true change to take place. Like in Vietnam, the result was that our military efforts did not last.
I realize it’s expensive to do proper nation building. But that’s the only way lasting change will happen—to get that whole nation going the right direction and let them go on their own.
The lesson from Afghanistan may be that nation-building is too expensive and difficult. In the future, if our aim is to only carry out a military operation to degrade terrorist actors, then I think we need to set lower goals, go in, accomplish those goals, announce the due date, and move out. But if we’re going to do something that’s really powerful and meaningful over time, then more resources should be diverted to the nation-building side. If our goal was just to militarily degrade al-Qa`ida, we should probably have withdrawn from Afghanistan after the death of bin Ladin.
CTC: Given the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban takeover of Kabul, what is your level of concern that al-Qa`ida may bounce back as a threat to U.S. security?
Dailey: Al-Qa`ida is not coming back to Afghanistan, not in the size of the force that was [there] beforehand because the Taliban understand one thing: they understand the United States came in there and were present in their country for 20 years. If al-Qa`ida comes back and the Taliban hosts them, then they will have air strikes on an indefinite basis like we did in Iraq. So I don’t think the Taliban are going to let al`-Qa`ida come back in. But they will reimpose their values, their religion, and their culture. But I do not think they would allow or host another attack on the United States.
Here’s something that is ironic: Decades after our time in Vietnam, we have reengaged with [the government there]. I’m very comfortable that despite Afghanistan having been again taken over by the Taliban, decades from now or maybe sooner, we’ll reengage with them. They’ll possibly ask for some modest presence or assistance, and I suspect like we did for Vietnam, we’ll forgive and forget. And that’s probably the right direction to go. So I do not think al-Qa`ida will bounce back. It’s no longer a major terror threat to the United States. I just plain don’t see it. They may exist in very modest, discreet locations, but their extreme aspect of Islam, it just doesn’t sell for the [vast majority of Muslims], and I think they’ll be marginalized as a result of that.
CTC: Over the past 20 years, the United States has developed an impressive array of investigative expertise, new tools, methodologies, operational capabilities, and partnerships such as the global coalition to counter ISIS that have been integral to the CT fight. Over that same span of time, the United States has successfully prosecuted many terror offenders and also demonstrated its ability to deploy new or enhanced capabilities and tools tactically and operationally around the world in precise and impactful ways. How would you describe the evolution of U.S. CT over the past two decades? What stands out to you?
Dailey: Let me describe the four lessons learned that have been extremely helpful. The first is intelligence collection and verification on CT activities. We have to have intel, and we really have grown [our intel capabilities] dramatically. We’ve got [better] tools, processes, understanding [and intel has been better] distributed. You can’t use a force without good intelligence. It is absolutely the most important [element]. In the CT effort, unlike in many other government arenas, we have been able to build up horizontal connectivity between agencies, which is critical and invaluable. And since 9/11, we have gotten much better at sharing information between these agencies. The days of finding out that somebody knew this and someone else knew that and nobody knew this, those days are gone. Area number two is international cooperation through agencies and direct. International cooperation is absolutely essential because you don’t want to have to [interdict terrorists] when they’re in your country. You want to get them when they’re in another country.
Next we’ve got to keep our intellectual, scientific, and technical skillsets growing in leaps and bounds, like they do commercially, we need to be able to [achieve] that governmentally and what I’m looking at is collection techniques, information technology, machine learning, cutting-edge concept of verification, production, distribution, and then sharing. That mechanical tool set needs to stay on [the] cutting edge and relevant. Fourthly, to respond to unforeseen events, we also need to be able to quickly carry out operations that we have not planned or contemplated. To do that, you’ve got to maintain an exercise program and a rehearsal program. [You need to routinely] exercise [with] international partners. [Also crucial are] real-world prep and experiences, [and you need to] take those lessons learned and retain them, improve them, and integrate any new equipment on a routine basis.
CTC: What is the most important personal lesson that you’ve learned over your many years that you think would be helpful for the many men and women in the United States and partner countries around the world who will lead and take part in the next generation of counterterrorism efforts?
Dailey: I think we all have to demand that our country have the best information collection capability ever. I don’t want it to violate our Bill of Rights, our Constitution, our personal privacy and whatnot, but that doesn’t go to people outside the United States. So the most important personal lesson is that intelligence collection, intelligence analysis, and intelligence usage clearly, unequivocally are the most important things to [prevent] the next potential surprise attack on the United States. And if we are better than good in those three areas, we won’t have another surprise attack. So to sum it up: Intelligence.
CTC: In the face of competing strategic priorities, including the geopolitical rivalry with China and Russia, and rebuilding at home in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, how can the United States ensure that it maintains a long and sustained focus on the global jihadi terror threat?
Dailey: [We need to] keep SOCOM resourced, manned, and connected [to others involved in the U.S. and international CT enterprise] as best as possible, because for both detection on the intelligence side and [for] operational acts on the OPS side, SOCOM’s got the right culture now, the right access now, and clearly the right mission statement now.
So when the rest of the [U.S. military] is wrestling with the MDOs—major military domain operations—or whatnot [to be in a position to defeat a near peer adversary], SOCOM can stay focused 100 percent and fundamentally, at a modest price on terrorism [in the] international arena. So [we need to] keep SOCOM resourced, manned, and connected internationally and nationally as we can and let the major [U.S.] forces take on Big China and Big Russia. CTC
[a] Editor’s Note: In 1980, a Delta Force operation to rescue American hostages held in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran culminated in failure before the operators reached the embassy. For more, see Mark Bowden, “The Desert One Debacle,” Atlantic, May 2006. See also “‘Desert One’: Inside the failed 1980 hostage rescue in Iran,” CBS News, August 16, 2020.
[b] Editor’s Note: On October 19, 2001, “in the first acknowledged action by U.S. ground forces in Afghanistan, Army Rangers and Special Forces seized an airfield in the south and attacked Mullah Mohammed Omar’s headquarters near Kandahar. One helicopter on a supporting mission crashed in southern Pakistan, killing 2 soldiers. The Defense Department denied Taliban claims that the helicopter had been damaged over Afghanistan and that the U.S. raiders had been quickly driven off. [Chairman of the Joints Chief of Staff] Gen. Myers later said that there were no U.S. casualties, resistance had been light, Taliban losses were unknown, no Taliban leaders were on the premises, but potentially useful information had been captured.” “The United States and the Global Coalition Against Terrorism, September 2001-December 2003, Historical Background,” Office of the Historian, Bureau of Public Affairs, U.S. Department of State.
 Robin Wright, “Dell Dailey: Soldier, Counterterrorism Warrior,” Washington Post, August 24, 2007.
 Editor’s Note: See Scott Shane, “Iranian Dissidents Convince U.S. to Drop Terror Label,” New York Times, September 21, 2012.
 Editor’s Note: “Special Operations troops in commando raid,” CNN, October 19, 2001.
 Editor’s Note: For the quote (“Please send all that is issued from the combating terrorism center of the American military”), see “Request for Documents from CTC,” Declassified Material – May 20, 2015, Bin Laden’s Bookshelf, Office of the Director of National Intelligence.