The last word: A jihadist hits America’s A-team
Behind the fatal double-cross that stunned the CIA and hobbled the agency’s hunt for al Qaida’s leaders
JUST OVER A year ago, a Jordanian doctor named Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi posted a comment on an Islamic website next to a photograph of two Muslim women lying in pools of blood. “Anyone who sees such a painful picture and does not rush to fight should consider his manhood and masculinity dead,” the message read.
Drawing on a well of patience, subterfuge, and ultimately self-sacrifice, al-Balawi stayed true to his word. On Dec. 30, having convinced some of the top al Qaida experts in the CIA that he might be able to track down the terrorist group’s leaders, he was welcomed into their base in Afghanistan without being searched, waited until his victims had gathered, then detonated his explosives-laden vest. The resulting deaths of seven CIA personnel, including the woman who ran the base, represented a propaganda coup for al Qaida, allowing the network to claim to have outwitted its most implacable foe.
The story of how the 32-year-old Jordanian won a complex game of espionage against vastly more experienced people reveals the level of sophistication attained by al Qaida. “To be blunt, this was a brilliant operation,” said Fred Burton, a former U.S. counterterrorism agent and now vice president of intelligence at Stratfor, the global intelligence company. “They will be able to use this for recruitment, for fundraising, to tout their success.”
LIKE THE SUICIDE hijackers who led the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, al-Balawi was a highly educated, migratory radical. Born in Kuwait to a middle-class Jordanian family of Palestinian origin, he studied medicine in Istanbul, where he met his wife, Defne Bayrak. “We had a routine life there; he was not someone who would go out often,” she told Turkey’s Dogan news agency. “But I knew his inclinations.” Al-Balawi contributed to radical websites before returning to Jordan. A little over a year ago, he began practicing medicine at a clinic in a Palestinian refugee camp near the town of Zarqa.
By late 2007, al-Balawi, who used the online name Abu Dujana al-Khorasani, was a well-known contributor to al-Hesbah, a once-prominent jihadist forum, according to SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors extremist websites. He eventually became an administrator of the website. In September of last year, he gave an interview to Vanguards of Khorasan, a magazine associated with al Qaida in Afghanistan, according to SITE. He spoke at length about his devotion to jihad and martyrdom.
“I have had a predisposition for love of jihad and martyrdom since I was little,” he told the magazine. “If love of jihad enters a man’s heart, it will not leave him even if he wants to do so.”
At the apartment in Amman, Jordan, where al-Balawi’s parents live, a brother who answered the door last week told The New York Times that the family had known nothing of al-Balawi’s writings for jihadist websites. He said, however, that his brother had been “changed” by last year’s three-week-long Israeli offensive in Gaza, which killed about 1,300 Palestinians. He said that Jordanian authorities arrested his brother after he began volunteering with medical organizations to treat wounded Palestinians. The brother voiced no criticism of al-Balawi’s subsequent actions, instead blaming unnamed people who he felt had pushed him to act. He said al-Balawi felt under “huge pressure” after his arrest, had immediately “disposed” of his computer, stopped using e-mail, and disappeared altogether shortly afterward.
Mideast counterterrorism officials have since told the Associated Press that Jordanian intelligence briefly jailed al-Balawi last March to coerce him to track down al Qaida’s No. 2 leader, Ayman al-Zawahri. Shortly after al-Balawi’s release, he secretly left Jordan for Afghanistan, they said, suggesting he had agreed to take on the mission. One of al-Balawi’s high school friends, Mohammed Yousef, said the doctor had deceived even his family, telling them he was going to Turkey for medical studies and to be with his wife, Bayrak.
A Jordanian official described a different sequence to the London Times, saying that al-Balawi was released after his initial interrogation because Jordanian intelligence officials had found “nothing relevant.” However, said the official, “Months later, he contacted us via e-mail and provided information about ill intentions against Jordan, and allowed us to foil terrorist operations targeting the Kingdom. So we decided to pursue our contacts with him on a friendly basis.”
Former and current U.S. officials said al-Balawi eventually provided “actionable intelligence” to Jordanian and American operatives that led to lethal strikes against Taliban or al Qaida targets. CBS News has reported that some of those strikes involved the CIA’s unmanned aircraft, which staged more than 50 attacks during the past year.
Top CIA leaders in Washington, who were receiving updates on al-Balawi’s reports, were impressed by “irrefutable proof,” one Jordanian official said, that the young doctor had been in the presence of al Qaida’s leadership. The official said that the proof included “photograph-type evidence.” Ultimately, agency officials decided that a face-to-face meeting was necessary.
Leading up to the Dec. 30 meeting, al-Balawi was considered by American spy agencies to be the most promising informant in years about the whereabouts of al Qaida’s top leaders. American intelligence officers say they were so hopeful about what the Jordanian might deliver to officers in Khost that top officials at the agency and the White House had been informed that the gathering would take place.
THE CIA BASE at Khost is one of two in Afghanistan that the agency controls directly; the others are all located within larger military bases that provide more layered security under American control. Its strength—and also its vulnerability—stems from its location less than 10 miles from the Pakistani border and the tribal region of North Waziristan. Current and former officials who have visited the base describe it as a targeting center for Predator strikes and other operations inside Pakistan.
The woman who ran the base, a 45-year-old mother of three, was a veteran of the hunt for al Qaida’s leaders. She had been part of the small cadre of counterterrorism officers focused on the growth of al Qaida even before the September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington. One former officer recalls that the woman had a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of al Qaida’s top leadership and was so familiar with the different permutations of the leaders’ names that she could take fragments of intelligence and build them into a mosaic of al Qaida’s operations.
The base chief, who had traveled to Afghanistan last year as part of the CIA’s effort to augment its ranks in the war zone, was not the only al Qaida expert inside the camp. Michael Scheuer, the former head of the CIA unit that tracked bin Laden before 2001, has stated publicly that “several” of America’s top five experts on al Qaida were at the Khost base when al-Balawi arrived.
THE OUTER GATE at the Khost base is presumed to be closely watched by Taliban spies, so the car carrying al-Balawi to the base from Pakistan did not stop there. The driver of the red station wagon was directed to a relatively empty corner of the compound, away from the main CIA buildings, to a makeshift interrogation center. Outside stood the base chief, ready to greet the doctor. She expected to hear him describe a way to kill al-Zawahri.
Al-Balawi exited the car with one hand in his pocket, according to the accounts of several U.S. officials briefed on the incident. An American security guard approached him to conduct a pat-down search and asked him to remove his hand. Instead, al-Balawi triggered a switch.
A sharp “CLMMMP” sound coincided with a brief flash and a small puff of smoke as thousands of steel pellets shredded glass, metal, cement, and flesh in every direction. Virtually everyone within sight of the suicide blast died immediately, including the base chief, a 30-year-old analyst, and three other CIA officers. Also killed were two American security guards contracted by the agency, a Jordanian intelligence officer, and the car’s driver. At least six others standing in the carport and nearby, including the CIA’s second in command in Afghanistan, were wounded.
THE ROLE OF Jordanian intelligence at the CIA’s base was tacitly acknowledged days after the explosion, when the body of the Jordanian intelligence operative was flown home for a military burial in Amman, the country’s capital. The man, identified in Jordanian news accounts as Sharif Ali bin Zeid, had been assigned to work as a handler for al-Balawi, said a former U.S. counterterrorism official.
Bin Zeid was described by a former Jordanian intelligence officer who knew him as a modest but highly effective officer who never traded on his royal status as a cousin to Jordan’s king. His family ties nonetheless made him ideally suited for the most sensitive missions, the former officer said. “He loved his work; it was his life.”
The Americans who died in the bombing came from all corners of the United States. Despite the secretive nature of their work, details of their lives have begun to trickle out.
Several of the victims had military backgrounds. One of the fallen CIA employees, a security officer named Scott Roberson, had worked undercover as a narcotics detective in the Atlanta Police Department, according to an obituary, and had spent time in Kosovo for the United Nations. Postings on an online memorial site describe a hard-charging motorcyclist with a remarkable recall of episodes of The Benny Hill Show. Another, Harold Brown Jr., was a former Army reservist and father of three who several months earlier helped his family move into a new home in the Northern Virginia suburbs.
CIA analyst Elizabeth Hanson would have turned 31 next month. In a telephone interview, her father, Duane Hanson Jr., said he knew little of her work, other than that she had been in Afghanistan. “I begged her not to go,” he recalled. “I said, ‘Do you know how dangerous that is? That’s for soldiers.’”
One day after the bombing, the telephone at the home of al-Balawi’s parents rang at 7 a.m. When al-Balawi’s father answered, the heavily accented voice of a stranger—possibly an Afghan—told him what had happened to the son who had disappeared a year earlier. “They said that Humam had made a big operation against the CIA,” al-Balawi’s brother told The New York Times. According to the brother, the caller also said, “He is a hero.”
Several days after the bombing, the operational leader of al Qaida in Afghanistan, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, issued a statement praising the work of the suicide bomber, saying that the Khost bombing was revenge for the killings of a number of top militant leaders in CIA drone attacks. In a video released to Al Jazeera, al-Balawi was seen describing the operation as revenge for the killing of Pakistani Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud.
By then, one top U.S. intelligence official had already told The Washington Post anonymously that the bombing would not go unanswered. “The agency is determined to continue pursuing aggressive counterterrorism operations,” he said. “[The] attack will be avenged. Some very bad people will eventually have a very bad day.”
This story was compiled from published stories written by Matthew Green of the Financial Times, Joby Warrick, Peter Finn, R. Jeffrey Smith, and Ellen Nakashima of The Washington Post, Jamal Halaby of the Associated Press, Rana Sabbagh-Gargourin of the London Times, and Stephen Farrell, Sheryl Gay Stolberg, and Mark Mazzetti of The New York Times. Original material used with permission.