all a carefully planned set-up, extending over months, in which the Jordanian agent, Humam Khalil Mohammed, fed the CIA such promising information about lower ranking al Qaeda personnel that when he told them he had gotten leads on the location of al Qaeda number two Ayman al-Zawahiri, the CIA officers (who included the second ranking CIA officer in Afghanistan) rushed to meet the agent at the Khost base, allowing him to kill them.
January 6, 2010
U.S. Saw a Path to Qaeda Chiefs Before Bombing
By MARK MAZZETTI
WASHINGTON—Before detonating a suicide bomb in Afghanistan last week, a Jordanian militant was considered by American spy agencies to be the most promising informant in years about the whereabouts of Al Qaeda’s top leaders, including Ayman al-Zawahri, the terrorist group’s second-ranking operative.
American intelligence officials said Tuesday they had been so hopeful about what the Jordanian might deliver during a meeting with C.I.A. officials last Wednesday at a remote base in Khost that top officials at the agency and the White House had been informed that the gathering would take place.
Instead, the discovery that the man, Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, also known as Humam Khalil Mohammed, was a double agent and the killing of seven C.I.A. operatives in the blast were major setbacks to a spy agency that has struggled to gather even the most ephemeral intelligence about the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden and Mr. Zawahri.
New details about the Khost attack emerged Tuesday as the Obama administration took steps to strengthen security measures after failing to detect a Christmas Day airline bombing plot. The two episodes illuminate the problems the United States still faces in understanding the intentions of Al Qaeda and its affiliates.
With the Jordanian double agent, American intelligence officials proved to be overly optimistic about someone they had hoped could help them penetrate Al Qaeda’s inner circle. In the other case, spy agencies were too lax in piecing together information about a young Nigerian man who officials say tried to blow up an American jetliner as it descended into Detroit.
The Jordanian militant for months had been feeding a stream of information about lower-ranking Qaeda operatives to his Jordanian supervisor, Capt. Sharif Ali bin Zeid, to establish his credibility and apparently to help broker a meeting with C.I.A. operatives in Afghanistan.
“He had provided information that checked out, about people in Al Qaeda whom he had access to,” said a senior intelligence official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the C.I.A.’s contacts with the Jordanian are classified. “This was one of the agency’s most promising efforts.”
American officials said that Mr. Balawi had strengthened his bona fides in recent months by posting strident, anti-American essays in jihadi Web forums under the name Abu Dujana al-Khorasani. Officials now concede that those essays represented his true beliefs.
Mr. Balawi proved to be one of the oddest double agents in the history of espionage, choosing to kill his American contacts at their first meeting, rather than establish regular communication to glean what the C.I.A. did—and did not—know about Al Qaeda and then report back to the network’s leaders.
In the deadly aftermath, American intelligence officials pledged retribution. The C.I.A. has already carried out three missile strikes in Pakistan’s tribal belt since the Khost bombing, an unusually high weekly number. Captain Zeid, an officer in Jordan’s General Intelligence Directorate, also died in the Khost attack.
Mr. Balawi had spent time in a Jordanian prison for radical, anti-Western views he had expressed on the Internet, but Jordanian intelligence operatives believed that they had persuaded Mr. Balawi, a 32-year-old physician, to turn on his militant brethren.
In the past, former C.I.A. officials said, the Jordanian spy service had pressed potential recruits by suggesting that their families’ safety depended on their cooperation. American officials did not say Tuesday whether Mr. Balawi had been coerced into spying for the Jordanians.
The C.I.A. had been so optimistic about Mr. Balawi’s potential as an informant that it sent the spy agency’s second-ranking officer in Afghanistan to Khost to meet with him.
The agency is facing criticism for security lapses that allowed the Jordanian to detonate an explosives belt in the middle of Forward Operating Base Chapman. He apparently was not checked at the entrance of the base, American intelligence officials have acknowledged.
At the same time, few criticized the agency’s impulse to chase any credible lead about the locations of Al Qaeda’s top leaders.
“This is the C.I.A’s top priority, and when I was in Afghanistan, if any intelligence came about the possible whereabouts of Zawahri or bin Laden, you dropped everything to run it to ground,” said a former senior C.I.A. officer. “Everyone would have wanted to be on the team that caught Zawahri. That’s the kind of thing that makes careers.”
The White House and the C.I.A. declined to comment for this article.
The failed operation with the Jordanian agent comes amid new criticism about the quality of American intelligence collection in Afghanistan.
On Monday, the top American military intelligence officer in Afghanistan published a report calling the information gathered in the country “only marginally relevant” to counterinsurgency efforts and concluding that little of the information gathered in the field is useful for analysts working in Washington and Kabul.
“The problem is that these analysts—the core of them bright, enthusiastic and hungry—are starved for information from the field, so starved, in fact, that many say their jobs feel more like fortune-telling than serious detective work,” concludes the report, written partly by Maj. Gen. Michael T. Flynn.
General Flynn reserved the bulk of his criticism for military intelligence officers. However, the report raises overall questions about the quality of the intelligence collection and analysis in Afghanistan by America’s military and civilian spy agencies.
The general has ordered an overhaul to the American military’s intelligence apparatus in the country. For its part, the C.I.A. is expanding its network of remote firebases in the southern and eastern parts of the country and expects to bolster its ranks in Afghanistan by 25 percent over the next 18 months.