How a Double Agent Lured Seven CIA Operatives to Their Deaths

Suicide Bomber Al-Balawi Convinced Americans He Was the 'Golden Goose'


Jan. 5, 2010 —

As the CIA mourns its dead from a devastating suicide bombing in Afghanistan, the questions grow about how professional spies could have been so taken in, failing to spot a double agent and letting a bomber into their midst.

Some 13 CIA operatives, including private contractors from the company once known as Blackwater, had gathered to hear the informant's report when the bomb went off. Among the nine people killed were seven CIA operatives, the informant, and a Jordanian intelligence officer, a cousin of Jordan's King Abdullah, who had been the liaison between the informant and the CIA.

The suicide bomber, who 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.

The informant-turned-bomber, a 32-year-old Jordanian doctor named Humam Khalil Muhammed Abu Mulal al-Balawi, had been recruited by Jordanian intelligence to get information on Zawahiri.

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. The CIA outpost at Camp Chapman is the nerve center in the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

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. The bomber was actually escorted around the checkpoints, and the officers also told the guards to vacate the area, sources told ABC News.

When al-Balawi detonated his bomb, he assassinated seven CIA operatives and wounded six others. He also killed the Jordanian intelligence officer who recruited him out of a Jordanian prison cell.

Said Bob Baer, a former CIA case officer, "It is sort of a grim calculation but normally when you meet an asset like this you have one, maybe two people. So I think people are going to point out inside the agency that they shouldn't have 13 people there."

The Life of a Double Agent

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.

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 double agent doctor played his role to the hilt, telling the CIA he needed to attack the U.S. on al Qaeda websites so he could establish his credibility with other terrorists.

Some precautions were obviously taken, like having the Jordanian official handling the informant be present for the meeting, essentially vouching for his reliability.

Said Bob Baer, "They are outsourcing intelligence and they are having to go to the Jordanians and ask them for help getting into al Qaeda because we simply cannot, as blond haired blue eyed Americans, cannot get into these camps."

In reality, al-Balawi was sincere about the extreme messages he posted on al Qaeda websites. "He demanded violence against the United States in the most brutal way," said Jarret Brachman, the author of "Global Jihadism: Theory and Practice." "He was rabidly pro al Qaeda."

Al-Balawi was a constant presence on on-line jihadist forums, said Brachman, and was widely respected. "Within the most elite forums he was on the most elite list of authors."

For U.S. intelligence, said Brachman, he was a "golden goose," a "trophy asset."

The death of so many officers, and the failure to identify a double agent, said Bob Baer, is likely to make the CIA gun-shy for quite some time. "They are going to look at every walk-in, as we call it, as a potential suicide bomber. Everybody is going to be vetted 10, 20 times."

"It's going to be impossible to get outside the wire," said Baer. "It has been a huge setback for intelligence collection in Afghanistan."

The Jordanian intelligence officer who handled al-Balawi, 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.

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.

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