Three weeks before a man claiming to be an al-Qaida turncoat blew himself up at an Afghanistan base, killing seven CIA agents, the agency was warned that he might still have been plotting against the US, an investigation has revealed.
Humam Khalil Abu Mulal al-Balawi, a 36-year-old doctor who had been recruited by Jordanian intelligence officials, blew himself up in December after being taken to a CIA base at Khost, Afghanistan.
Balawi had been taken to the base to be “assessed” regarding information he had on a CIA target, but upon arrival he detonated a bomb hidden under his clothing, killing seven CIA agents a Jordanian intelligence officer and an Afghan driver. Six other officers were wounded.
“He had confirmed access within extremist circles, making a covert relationship with him – if he was acting in good faith – potentially very productive,” the director of the CIA, Leon Panetta, said yesterday in a letter to employees.
“But he had not rejected his terrorist roots. He was, in fact, a brutal murderer.”
Panetta said that separate internal reviews had found that critical warnings about Balawi were not shared with other officials, security measures on the base were insufficient and it was unclear who was in charge of the operation.
One of the biggest mistakes may have been the failure of a CIA officer in Jordan to pass along concerns raised by Jordanian intelligence about Balawi’s ties to al-Qaida.
Panetta said that the Jordanian intelligence service had raised questions about Balawi’s loyalties with an American CIA officer in Jordan 25 days before the bombing.
Jordanian officials’ suspicions arose after he had made repeated entreaties to the CIA officers in Afghanistan to visit him in the insurgent stronghold of Miram Shah in Pakistan’s North Waziristan province, a place too dangerous for agency staff to operate.
The Jordanians felt Balawi was trying to lure the Americans into an ambush. But those suspicions were dismissed by the American intelligence officer in Jordan as bureaucratic manoeuvring inside the Jordanian intelligence agency, and the warnings were not passed on to Kabul, Khost or Washington.
Balawi was subsequently brought to the CIA’s base to be “assessed” as to whether he was as close as he claimed to his militant target, al-Qaida number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Panetta said.
Intelligence officials also planned to give Balawi training in “tradecraft” and how to communicate Zawahiri’s location back to his handlers.
Panetta has previously denied suggestions that security lapses were to blame for the attack, but in his letter yesterday he said he had approved in recent months 23 actions, including tightened security procedures and creating a counter-intelligence vetting cell that would focus on “high-risk/high-gain” informants, such as Balawi.
However, the CIA director said the shortcomings within the agency were too broad to isolate blame.
“These missteps occurred because of shortcomings across several agency components in areas including communications, documentation and management oversight,” he said.
“Responsibility cannot be assigned to any particular individual or group.”
Panetta noted that counterterrorism work still required working with “dangerous people in situations involving a high degree of ambiguity and risk”.
One of the unanswered questions in the aftermath of Balawi’s death related to why so many agents were around the bomber when he detonated. Panetta said the officers on the base were eager to see Balawi, having waited about 10 days for him to arrive. His Jordanian intelligence handler had recommended that the CIA officers all come out to greet Balawi in deference to his high value to the agency, so more than dozen were waiting outside the building.
In an interview made public after his death, Balawi said he knew in advance he was meeting “an entire CIA team”. He said he had been planning to kidnap or kill his Jordanian intelligence contact, but the chance to kill CIA officers was too tempting.
“We planned for something, but got a bigger gift. A gift from Allah, who brought us, through his accompaniment, a valuable prey: Americans from the CIA,” Balawi said. “That’s when I became certain that the best way to teach Jordanian intelligence and the CIA a lesson is with the martyrdom belt.”
The Snooper Report.
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