CIA Sister

June 2013
Written By: 
Ashley Burkholder
Photographs by: 
Corey Tenold

Cynthia Storer on her personal war with al-Qaida and her new life on the Grand Strand




It’s safe to say that everyone loves a good story, especially when “The End” closes the book on the life of Osama bin Laden.

That’s the story that made history on May Day 2011—the one when a 40-minute helicopter assault by American military and intelligence operatives on a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, ended one of the most intense manhunts for the most wanted al-Qaida leader.

But that day of infamy was two decades in the making. Cynthia Storer knows this all too well, having worked 20-plus years tracking al-Qaida as a CIA analyst. Today, she’s talking about her former life in her third floor office on the campus of Coastal Carolina University (CCU). The transplant from our nation’s capitol is now a lecturer in the new Intelligence and National Security program at CCU.

Storer, 48, is also sharing how storytelling in general has been a lifeline for her, sparked at an early age, through her time with the CIA “sisterhood,” and today as an academic lecturer.

“My family was very military—my grandfather and my dad were in the Army,” she says. “My parents met overseas in Thailand, actually, like one of those crazy-romantic stories on a bridge under a full moon, so I grew up on all of these stories.”

These tales are what inspired young Cynthia to follow in her forefather’s footsteps and apply to West Point. Unfortunately, she was turned down for health reasons. Marching onward, she graduated from the College of William & Mary in 1986 with a degree in history and politics, and in 1992 she received a master’s degree in international relations from Catholic University.

“My studies really increased my interest in the world,” says Storer. “It was during the Reagan administration, when they were doing these show-and-tell tours on campus with Afghan commanders—I had read all of the James Michener books—and I thought that this was really fascinating. I developed a real interest in places in the world where government is not working right. … My ‘thing’ became figuring out why did this go so terribly wrong and can it be fixed? That’s why I applied to the CIA.”

From 1986 to 2007, Storer served our country as a CIA analyst, a vital member of “The Sisterhood,” the name coined for the group of female CIA analysts who bonded in “The Bay” (another coined name) of cubicles in the agency working on all things al-Qaida through the 1990s and on through the post-9/11 era. This wasn’t your social sorority—the team was wild about identifying potential terrorist threats, which began with warnings about bin Laden in 1993.

“That was my biggest challenge: al-Qaida,” says Storer, “and convincing people that it mattered. It was a 15-year challenge, actually, and it didn’t start with me.” Storer and The Sisters dug up dirty details on bin Laden after the attacks in Yemen in 1992, as well as other incidents that followed.

In 1998, she was awarded the Intelligence Commendation Medal for her expertise on terrorist groups. Storer designed the “Ziggurat of Zealotry,” a model based on an ancient Mesopotamian structure that the CIA uses for identifying the levels of radicalization among terrorist groups. The model was featured on The New York Times Best Ideas of the Year list in 2006.

A CIA analyst’s job, Storer explains, is to inform policymakers on policy decisions: what is happening out there in the world, why it’s happening, what it means for us as the American people—both potential threats and opportunities—all in ample time to make am effective decision.

Here’s where storytelling comes back into play. “I was influenced by a teacher in a film school who understood that people remember things better when presented in story,” says Storer. “It’s why we like historical novels. I can’t memorize a bunch of dates, but I do with a story. I believe storytelling is key, based on my research on past intell and the relationships between policymakers and analysts. I’ll call it a growing hypothesis.”

So Storer would pour over historical background, then sift through what’s going on in the here and now to determine, essentially, what is continuous (a pattern) and what is not.

“It’s a combination between academics and journalism,” she says. “Senior intell are often developing models or showing academics, and sometimes you’re further out ahead and sometimes you’re not. The journalism part is focusing on things happening today, not 200 years ago, with very serious deadlines. People are making life-and-death decisions based on my input.”

Unfortunately, after myriad reports, Storer and The Sisterhood were unable to convince policymakers about the threat of al-Qaida before the attack on 9/11. After a two-year teaching stint in 2005 at the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland, Storer left the CIA in 2007.

“I left because they didn’t want to hear what I had to say,” she admits. “They went through a period after 9/11 when it was fashionable to say that the analysts screwed up. They thought they needed the bright, young people and the senior folks … then there’s the middle folks, who are failures. So we were always shoved aside, we felt, by newer people who only knew the last two years of reporting. The atmosphere was poisonous, so I’d had it.”

So much so that in 2008, she left D.C. and headed to Myrtle Beach, where her parents had just retired. She hadn’t even landed a job or secured an income.

“I was stressed and never saw anybody, so I thought it would be nice to spend time with my parents,” says Storer. “And I love the beach, having grown up a 10-minute drive from the beach in Hampton, Virginia.”

She’s pleased with her new nest in Murrells Inlet, where nowadays she prefers leisure reading, playing with her two dogs and academia at CCU. To have the chance to share her story with aspiring students who care about the world as much as she does is a new pleasure. The program, led by Jonathan Smith, a former Naval intelligence analyst and commander, aims to train students to be critical thinkers and analysts. Storer advises her students to piggyback their course load with theatre and English classes to hone their storytelling.

And, although she migrated 500 miles away from the CIA, it’s never been closer at hand, starting with the release of Zero Dark Thirty, the Oscar-nominated movie that’s centered around Maya, a composite character of the many female CIA analysts. Maya  obsessively pursues bin Laden for years up through the SEAL raid in 2011.

“I’m not thrilled about the way my colleague was portrayed,” says Storer. “She was a really good officer. But I was so pleased to see a female analyst as a lead in a Hollywood film.”

In sharp contrast, Storer is featured in an HBO documentary on the same topic. Manhunt: The Search for Bin Laden premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The film focuses more on truth behind the CIA analyst Sisterhood and their war against al-Qaida, the moral choices of war, details on their key breaks, and the controversial use of coercive interrogation techniques.

“With Manhunt, I’m so glad that Americans will see the hard work and dedication that goes on behind the scenes,” says Storer. “The hard part is reliving it all. … It’s getting easier, but it’s still not pleasant.

“And what’s great is that everywhere I go, I get young women coming up to me,” she says. “Like at the last screening, one woman came up to me and said ‘I’m going to make sure my 16-year-old daughter sees this.’ That was amazing.”