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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Attacker in Afghanistan Was a Double Agent
Published: January 4, 2010
This article is by Richard A. Oppel Jr., Mark Mazzetti and Souad Mekhennet.
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The suicide bomber who killed seven C.I.A. officers and a Jordanian spy last week was a double agent who was taken onto the base in Afghanistan because the Americans hoped he might be able to deliver top members of Al Qaeda’s network, according to Western government officials.
The bomber had been recruited by the Jordanian intelligence service and taken to Afghanistan to infiltrate Al Qaeda by posing as a foreign jihadi, the officials said.
But in a deadly turnabout, the supposed informant strapped explosives to his body and blew himself up at a meeting Wednesday at the C.I.A.’s Forward Operating Base Chapman in the southeastern province of Khost.
The attack at the C.I.A. base dealt a devastating blow to the spy agency’s operations against militants in the remote mountains of Afghanistan, eliminating an elite team using an informant with strong jihadi credentials. The attack further delayed hope of penetrating Al Qaeda’s upper ranks, and also seemed potent evidence of militants’ ability to strike back against their American pursuers.
It could also jeopardize relations between the C.I.A. and the Jordanian spy service, which officials said had vouched for the would-be informant.
The Jordanian service, called the General Intelligence Directorate, for years has been one of the C.I.A.’s closest and most useful allies in the Middle East.
The bomber was not closely searched because of his perceived value as someone who could lead American forces to senior Qaeda leaders, and because the Jordanian intelligence officer had identified him as a potentially valuable informant, the Western officials said.
Jordanian intelligence officials were deeply embarrassed by the attacks because they had taken the informant to the Americans, said one American government official briefed on the events.
The official said that the Jordanians had such a good reputation with American intelligence officials that the informant was not screened before entering the compound.
The attack was also embarrassing for Jordan’s government, which did not want the depths of its cooperation with the C.I.A. revealed to its own citizens or other Arabs in the region.
A statement by the official Jordanian news agency said Captain Zeid was killed in Afghanistan on Wednesday “as he performed his humanitarian duty with the Jordanian contingent of the U.N. peacekeeping forces.”
The United States, and the C.I.A. in particular, are deeply unpopular in Jordan, where at least half the population is of Palestinian origin and where Washington’s support for Israel is roundly condemned.
King Abdullah II and his government, while working closely with Washington in counterterrorism operations and providing strategic support for operations in Iraq, try to keep that work secret.
The General Intelligence Directorate has received millions of dollars from the C.I.A. since the American invasion of Iraq, where the Jordanian spy agency played a central role in the campaign against Iraqi insurgents.
“If the Jordanian intelligence officer had been vouching for this guy, the C.I.A. would definitely have wanted him on the base,” said the former officer.