On Dec. 30, 2009, seven CIA operatives were killed at a U.S. base in Khost, Afghanistan, when a Jordanian double agent who claimed to have cracked al Qaeda’s inner circle proved instead to be a suicide bomber—in other words, a triple agent.
The warning signs, painfully obvious in hindsight, were obscured by two singular forces that collided at Khost on that late-December day.
One was the mind of the bomber, Humam al-Balawi, a man who flitted precariously between opposing camps. The other was the eagerness of war-weary intelligence operatives who saw a mirage and desperately wanted it to be real.
Balawi’s coup as a spy came in November 2009, when, just months after the pediatrician had been recruited by Jordanian intelligence, he announced he’d become the physician to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the man believed to be al Qaeda’s operational commander.
From Kabul to Amman to Langley, marble buildings seemed to shift on their foundations.
CIA Director Leon Panetta rushed to the White House, where he recounted the startling turn of events to the administration’s national-security team. Later he would repeat the briefing in a private audience with the president.
“If we can meet with him and give him the right technology, we have a chance to go after Zawahiri,” Panetta said of Balawi.
But as Panetta soon discovered, arranging a meeting with the CIA’s new star informant was more complicated than it had first seemed. As Panetta pressed for details, an uncomfortable truth emerged: No one from the CIA had ever laid eyes on the man.
Indeed, the CIA’s files on Balawi were distressingly thin. He had been recruited by Jordan’s intelligence service, the Mukhabarat, yet he lacked formal training as a spy.
No one had even heard of him until January 2009, when he had been picked up by the Jordanians for posting violently anti-Western screeds on the Internet. He had turned informant after only a few weeks in the Mukhabarat’s clutches, but nothing in his background suggested an aptitude for espionage.
A year earlier he had been a clean-living pediatrician. Yet in a few short months, he had managed to penetrate al Qaeda’s inner sanctum. Yes, Balawi’s stories seemed almost too good to be true. But they were also far too tantalising to ignore.
They decided to bring Balawi to a U.S. base in Afghanistan, just across the border with Pakistan. Balawi’s contact in the Mukhabarat, Ali bin Zeid, emailed him about meeting in Khost. It was time to pick things up a notch, he wrote.
Balawi balked. Yes, he replied, it would be good to see a friendly face from home, but not in Khost. The ideal meeting place was on the Pakistani side of the border, in Miran Shah. Bin Zeid pushed back. Balawi insisted.
Bin Zeid shared the emails with his friend and partner on the Balawi case, Darren LaBonte of the CIA. LaBonte was getting hammered with queries about Balawi, and the case was making him uneasy. How was it that this frightened mouse of a doctor had come up with something so spectacular? Balawi was smart, that was clear. But was he really this good?
LaBonte wrote memos saying that the CIA didn’t yet know enough about Balawi to trust him entirely.
“We need to go slow on this case,” he wrote.
The Jordanians were also growing suspicious. A Mukhabarat officer was struck by Balawi’s insistence on the meeting place, and called a CIA friend to warn him that, though it was just a hunch, Balawi could be leading them into a trap.
Weeks later, after an apprehensive LaBonte and bin Zeid had flown to Khost, LaBonte fired off a final warning to his station chief. There are three problems, he wrote. There are too many people involved. We’re moving too quickly. We’re giving up too much control by letting Balawi dictate events.
The station chief urged LaBonte to press ahead. Soon after, Balawi relented and agreed to meet at Khost.
The CIA prepared a formal reception for their new star agent. One of the CIA’s top experts on al Qaeda, Jennifer Matthews, eager to make Balawi feel welcome, had the base’s chef bake a birthday cake.
Scott Roberson, the base security chief, had been following the preparations with unease. When a colleague told him he wanted to witness the arrival of the informant who had caused all the commotion, Roberson replied, Stay far away from this.
Balawi had no sooner arrived at the base than he disappeared in a flash of unimaginable brightness.
A shockwave lifted the Subaru that had, without stopping for security checks, deposited him inside the compound. Roberson and two other security men were flung backward and died at once. LaBonte and bin Zeid were also killed instantly. Eight others standing on the far side of the Subaru were cut down by tiny steel missiles that passed over and under the car and sometimes through it. Matthews fell with mortal wounds.
Balawi’s head, blown skyward, bounced against the side of a building and landed in the gravel lot. It was the only recognisable piece of the triple agent that remained.
Read Joby Warrick’s full story, which appears in this week’s Newsweek.
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