Even after leaving the CIA, Michele Rigby Assad helped organize the dramatic evacuation of Christians from Iraq in a larger-than-life rescue operation.
About a year after Michele Rigby Assad arrived at her first posting in the Middle East, she jumped into her SUV for the 20-minute drive to the CIA compound on the edge of town. Only seven months earlier, American diplomat Laurence Foley had been shot dead outside his home in Amman, Jordan in 2002. Michele knew she was a likely target as well that morning - a female US intelligence officer driving solo in a hostile foreign city known for its carjackings and al-Qaeda kidnappings.
Michele had been trained at the CIA Farm though. During paramilitary exercises, she'd practiced dodging explosives and scrambling out of a vehicle while four masked men fired AK-47s at the side of her car. “You’ve got this,” Michele told herself on the drive into work. She hadn’t trained for what happened next though.
As Michele rolled up to a red traffic light, a man jumped in front of her SUV and made an obscene gesture. With Michele trapped between the man and a beat-up sedan idling behind her, a zombie-like movie began unfolding before her eyes. Local men carrying glinting weapons - mostly ceremonial knives - approached from all directions to see what the commotion was all about. The SUV would soon be surrounded: “I suddenly realized it wasn’t an embarrassing situation, now it’s turning into a security threat,” she recalled.
It was time to 'Get off the X', CIA-speak for a site where attackers control the environment and have the greatest advantage. Michele took her foot off of the brake and tapped the gas pedal, hitting the man in front of her - softly at first, then again with force until he fell back several steps and threw his hands in the air. Michele floored it, leaving the shocked crowd in her rear-view mirror while she sped to the Agency compound. Her training had kicked in; Michele had reacted rather than become paralyzed with fear and risk being kidnapped.
“You just don’t get taken,” Michele said matter-of-factly. “Die trying to get away but don’t get taken because no one ever comes back from it.”
If Michele Rigby Assad sounds like a badass, that’s because she is. Ten years dodging bombs in war zones and running Middle East terrorists as agents does that to you. The former Florida homecoming queen and southern belle graduated with a Master’s Degree in Contemporary Arab Studies from Georgetown University and became an international spy.
She fought her way to the top. Michele learned Arabic and traveled extensively in the Middle East before joining the CIA in 2002, just months after 9/11. She imagined a life as Sydney Bristow (Julie Garner) from the spy series Alias but instead of enemies, Michele found herself battling sexism. ‘Jim’, a seasoned CIA officer and her appointed mentor, initially refused to look at Michele when he spoke, preferring to focus on her male training partner. "Fine," Michele thought. "Underestimate me. But in the process, I will learn everything I can from you."
During the next year, Michele excelled at HUMINT (human intelligence) and learned how to spot, assess, develop, and recruit an agent, execute high-threat meetings, and conduct dead drops. She also signed up for paramilitary training and was certified on M4 weapons and Glock semi-automatics. Michele’s husband, Joseph Assad, a counterterrorism expert and native Arabic speaker, had joined the Agency a few months before Michele, so they were excited to hear they’d be stationed together in the Middle East.
The cold, hard truth hit Michele when they arrived at their first posting (she still isn’t authorized to name the location). Her new station chief couldn’t understand why Michele would want to recruit or handle Arabic intelligence sources - even though Michele had studied Arabic and trained for a year at the CIA for that exact role. Instead, she was assigned to work as a CMO - collection management officer - with her new boss adding: "It's better if you stay in the office and do the work here."
Michele Rigby Assad: dodging bombs in Baghdad
Michele isn’t the type of woman who takes no for an answer. She was biding her time for an opportunity to arise.
Although the Assads had no intention of serving in Iraq, by the fall of 2005 the country was going down in flames - fueled by sectarian violence, the US's failing experiment in democracy, and outside intervention from Iran.
The CIA needed Michele and Joseph in Baghdad so they packed their bags and headed to the Green Zone, the sprawling compound where the Coalition Provisional Authority and CIA had their HQs. As the months passed, the insurgents got better at aiming rockets into the 10-kilometer (3.9 square mile) complex. Before long, the militants were hammering the Green Zone with a 'shoot and scoot' strategy, firing several times a day then disappearing.
“I had colleagues that acted like it was totally normal - and they would just walk to the bunkers - but I take this seriously. They [the rockets] are falling all around us. People are being injured and killed,” Michele said. “I’m going to run.”
Although Michele’s life was in danger, there was still a job to do and she was determined to put her training to work when an American NGO was killed in an ambush. The CIA wanted to know who was behind it.
Michele ran traces to see if any other CIA sources had provided reporting on Yarmouk, the Baghdad neighborhood where the ambush took place. Michele made a list of possible sources, drew up a long list of questions, then approached other case officers and told them about her high-priority collection requirement. She debriefed their sources and worked with the operations officers to verify the intelligence before disseminating it to a wider audience.