Jan. 5, 2010— -- The suicide bomber that killed some of the CIA's top al Qaeda hunters lured the agents to the meeting by claiming he had just met with Ayman al Zawahiri, this country's most wanted terrorist after Osama bin Laden, sources told ABC News today.
Zawahiri founded al Qaeda with bin Laden and the two men have been at the top of the CIA's hit list since Sept. 11, 2001. The U.S. has posted a $25 million reward for each of them.
The informant-turned-bomber, a 36-year-old Jordanian doctor named Humam Khalil Muhammed Abu Mulal al-Balawi, told officials he had just met with al Zawahiri and had intelligence to share. Al-Balawi had been recruited by Jordanian intelligence to get information on al Zawahiri, sources told ABC News.
The promise of getting a bead on Zawahiri prompted one of the CIA's top analysts to travel last week from Kabul to the remote CIA listening post at Forward Operating Base Chapman in the middle of Taliban country near the Afghan-Pakistan border.
Al Balawi had been to Chapman previously and because of the information he was promising, CIA officers told Afghan guards to allow him past the first of three checkpoints without searching him. They also told the guards to vacate the area, sources told ABC News.
When al Balawi detonated his bomb, he assassinated seven CIA operatives and the Jordanian intelligence officer who recruited him out of a Jordanian prison cell.
While the U.S. and Jordan mourned their deaths, a Web site from al-Balawi's tribe described him today as a hero and said it was the most devastating attack against the CIA in the last 30 years.
The explosion tragically demonstrated the dangers inherent in battling terrorists and recruiting informers while behind the lines and surrounded by the enemy.
"Any double agent operation is only as good as the double agent," Reuel Gerecht, a former CIA officer who spent nine years in the clandestine service in the region, told ABCNews.com.
Mistakes, he said come with a lethal price tag.
"The biggest danger... is if you're working against a target whose objective is to kill you, then you pay a very high price for failure," Gerecht said.
Double Agent Attack Show Taliban 'Sophistication'
Referring to the informant who attacked the CIA team, Gerecht said, "Mr. Mohammed [as al-Balawi has also been identified] played his role to perfection."
"The contact is always a risk. After all, you're dealing with the devil and the only way to get inside the devil's circle is another devil," said Harry Humphries, a former Navy SEAL who has also worked with the CIA as a contractor. Humphries also runs the Global Study Group and does some training of law enforcement and military personnel.
Gerecht said that running double agents is something that is "not an American forte," and the U.S. relies heavily on its Jordanian allies to help penetrate the world of Islamic jihadists. He added that running double agents is something that Islamic militants are obviously getting better at.
"Al Qaeda has been plagued in many of its major operations with bungling. This shows none of that," Gerecht said.
The former CIA official said that the double agent operation showed an unprecendented level of sophistication.
In his early life al-Balawi lived in a refugee camp near Zarqa, Jordan, the same town that spawned infamous insurgent leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi. Al-Balawi studied medicine in Turkey at the expense of the Jordanian government and was a straight-A student, sources said.
Al-Balawi, who became a doctor and worked at a clinic in a Palestinian refugee camp near Zarqa, was extremely active online and in jihadist chat rooms and was arrested several times by the Jordanian authorities.
He was last arrested over a year ago by Jordanian intelligence, and was thought to have been flipped by the Jordanians while in prison to support U.S. and Jordanian efforts against al Qaeda and al Zawahiri specifically.
CIA Mantra Is 'No Trust'
"Once you put them in prison, you let them see the light," Gerecht said. "Then you use them, maybe operationally."
The problem, he said, is that it's unlikely al-Balawi was ever really turned.
"Jihadists usually aren't that fickle about the issues of God," Gerecht said.
The Taliban has bragged that they were able to turn al-Balawi into their own agent to attack the CIA.
"Obviously there are many questions to ask. The answers so far are not ideal," Gerecht said. "It certainly appears that the GID did a rather bad job of proving bona fides, or Mr. Muhammed did a sublimely good job of duping his masters."
Humphries said that in a war against terrorists building an intelligence network is "done with a lot of money and a lot of time and a lot of trial and error."
The doomed meeting last week "had a very, very high reward potential" with the offer promise of intel on al-Zawahiri. "They were taking great risks to get in touch with somebody that had actionable intelligence," he said.
Some precautions were obviously taken, like having the Jordanian official handling the informant be present for the meeting, essentially vouching for his reliability.
The Jordanian officer, Sharif Ali bin Zeid, was a member of the royal family. He was buried with a royal funeral that was attended by the king and queen of Jordan.
"The breakdown here came with the security," Humphries said. "The protocols of security within that physical location obviously allowed this guy to get through with the demolition pack strapped to his body. Everybody gets subject to a particular kind of search. Any guest is treated equally. There is no special treatment or lack of treatment."
Gerecht said that in the wake of the bombing, some questions have to be asked of the Jordanians, who in the past have been key U.S. allies in the covert war against the Taliban and al Qaeda.
"I suspect again, because the Jordanians were involved, as a general rule of thumb when that happens, I suspect it's because the agency was being less vigilant than they should be," he said.
Gerecht said the disaster reminded the agency of its golden rule in running covert operations.
"The best safeguard, and it's not full-proof, is deep, profound lasting suspicion. No trust," he said.