When the CIA thought it had a line on Ayman al-Zawahiri—al Qaeda’s new chief—almost any risk seemed worth it. But in the world of terrorism, no one’s loyalty is ever certain.
On Dec. 30, 2009, seven CIA operatives were killed at a U.S. base in Khost, Afghanistan, when a Jordanian double agent who claimed to have cracked Al Qaeda’s inner circle proved instead to be a suicide bomber—in other words, a triple agent.
The attack, the deadliest for the CIA in 25 years, was unlike any in the agency’s history. Over the decades, a multitude of CIA informants had lied, defrauded, betrayed, stolen money, or skipped town. But none had sought to lure his handlers into a trap with the aim of killing them, along with himself.
A 2010 internal CIA review identified a chain of failures that allowed 32-year-old physician Humam al-Balawi to gain access to the highly secure CIA base, breezing through checkpoints without a search until he came face to face with a large gathering of CIA officers anxious to meet him. Balawi had promised to deliver Ayman al-Zawahiri, deputy to Al Qaeda’s leader, Osama bin Laden. (Last week, in the wake of bin Laden’s death, Zawahiri emerged as the terrorist group’s new leader, though he was already in essence its operational commander.)
Balawi had backed his intelligence claims with evidence so electrifying that even President Obama had been briefed in advance. But the Jordanian was not what he seemed.
The warning signs, painfully obvious in hindsight, would be obscured by two singular forces that collided at Khost on that late-December day. One was the mind of Balawi, a man who flitted pre-cariously between opposing camps. The other was the eagerness of war-weary intelligence operatives who saw a mirage and desperately wanted it to be real.
Humam al-Balawi’s first big score as a spy—the one that would surely cement his reputation as the decade’s greatest—arrived at CIA headquarters in late August 2009. Attached to one of the Jordanian’s regular emails was a few seconds of digital video showing a gathering of men in Pashtun dress. In the foreground was Balawi himself. Seated near him was a slim, dark-bearded man whose face was instantly recognized by the agency’s counterterrorism experts. His name was Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, and he was one of the closest known associates of Osama bin Laden. The man had eluded capture for eight years; yet here he was, holding forth on video, with a CIA informant seated at his feet.
It was a stunning debut for the young spy, coming just five months after his arrival in Pakistan. But the video was a trifle compared with what came next.
Balawi’s medical skills had quickly earned the respect of his Taliban hosts, just as the CIA had hoped, and soon he was treating a widening circle of jihadi commanders. But in November, Balawi revealed in an email that he had become the physician to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the deputy commander of Al Qaeda, second only to bin Laden himself.
It had happened quite suddenly, as Balawi related the events. One day he learned that Zawahiri’s health was slipping, and soon afterward the bearded, bespectacled terrorist leader was standing in front of him. Zawahiri, himself a doctor, was suffering from a range of complications related to diabetes, and he needed advice and medicine.
Balawi happily consented, and within minutes he was checking the vital signs of the man who had helped dream up the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
In his email, Balawi supplied a summary of Zawahiri’s physical condition as well as his medical history, providing details that perfectly matched records the CIA had obtained years earlier from intelligence officials in Egypt, Zawahiri’s home country. Most important, Balawi wrote that he had scheduled a follow-up visit with his patient in a few weeks.
From Kabul to Amman to Langley, marble buildings seemed to shift on their foundations. The last time the CIA had caught a whiff of Zawahiri was in 2006, when the agency, acting on a tip, bombed a house in southwestern Pakistan where the Egyptian was believed to be staying. Next to bin Laden himself, there was no one the CIA wanted more. U.S. officials believed it was now Zawahiri, rather than the reclusive bin Laden, who steered Al Qaeda’s ship, but the trail for both men had gone ice cold. cia-spy-fe03-image2 U.S. Government
Al-Balawi entered the CIA base through this gate without being searched.
CIA Director Leon Panetta gathered all the details he could and hurried to the White House. In a secure briefing room he recounted the startling turn of events to members of the administration’s national-security team, including James Jones, the national-security adviser; Dennis Blair, the director of national intelligence; and Rahm Emanuel, Panetta’s old friend and White House chief of staff. Later Panetta would repeat the briefing in a private audience with the president.
“If we can meet with him and give him the right technology, we have a chance to go after Zawahiri,” Panetta said of Balawi.
But as Panetta soon discovered, arranging a meeting with the CIA’s new star informant was more complicated than it had first seemed. As Panetta pressed for details, an uncomfortable truth emerged: no one from the CIA had ever laid eyes on the man.
Indeed, the CIA’s files on Balawi were distressingly thin. He had been recruited by Jordan’s vaunted intelligence service, the Mukhabarat, yet he lacked formal training as a spy. No one had even heard of him until January 2009, when he had been picked up by the Jordanians for secretly posting violently anti-Western screeds on the Internet. He had flipped—turned informant—after only a few weeks in the Mukhabarat’s clutches, but nothing in his background suggested an aptitude for either militancy or espionage. A year earlier he had been a clean-living pediatrician, treating children’s fevers and infections at a United Nations refugee clinic and driving his young daughters to school in a banged-up Ford Escort. Yet in a few short months in Pakistan he had managed to penetrate Al Qaeda’s inner sanctum, and he had delivered solid proof to back his claims. Yes, Balawi’s stories seemed almost too good to be true. But they were also far too tantalizing to ignore.
The CIA had to finally confront this mysterious Jordanian, and fast.
In meetings and conference calls between Langley and Amman, a series of options was weighed. Under one proposal, Balawi would travel to a safe house in a Pakistani city—Islamabad or Karachi, perhaps—for an extensive debriefing. That was ruled out due to fears that his movements would attract the attention of Pakistan’s intelligence service, which was to be kept in the dark about the mission. A safer bet, it was decided, would be to meet Balawi in Afghanistan, presumably in a place near the border that would be accessible for him yet also firmly under the CIA’s control, with no possibility of detection by Taliban spies.
The CIA commanded at least six bases along the Afghan frontier, but only one of them sat on an asphalt highway that connected directly with Miran Shah, the town in North Waziristan, Pakistan, closest to Balawi’s last known position. Thus, by an accident of geography, the CIA’s choice for its much-anticipated first meeting with the Jordanian agent became the agency base known as Khost.
Until that point, Balawi’s sole contact was Ali bin Zeid, a 34-year-old Jordanian intelligence veteran, cousin to Jordan’s King Abdullah II, and the man who had first recruited the physician for spy work. Using the secret email account the two had established as their means of communicating, bin Zeid now broached the idea of a meeting in Khost. It was time to pick things up a notch, he wrote.
Balawi appeared to hesitate. Yes, he replied, it would be good to see a friendly face from home, but not in Khost. The ideal meeting place was on the Pakistani side of the border, in Miran Shah. The frontier town in northwestern Pakistan’s jagged hills had cafés and bazaars, shops and mosques, all of them crowded with people. The two Jordanians could meet discreetly, without attracting attention, and then Balawi could be on his way again.
Bin Zeid gently pushed back. Pakistan was too risky, he said. Khost, on the other hand, was a fortified military camp guarded by Special Forces commandos and attack helicopters. Both men would be safer there.
I’m the one who’s taking all the risks over here, Balawi protested. He repeated his plea: Come to Miran Shah.
Bin Zeid shared the emails with his close friend and partner on the Balawi case, Darren LaBonte. A veteran CIA case officer and former Army ranger now based in Amman, LaBonte was also getting hammered with queries about Balawi, and he was feeling queasy. The Atiyah video had turned the obscure pediatrician into the most sought-after informant in either intelligence service, yet much about the case was perplexing. How was it that this frightened mouse of a doctor had come up with something so spectacular? Balawi was smart, that was clear. But was he really this good? Or just a clever con artist?
LaBonte would later lay out his concerns in at least two internal memos. The bottom line, he wrote, was that the CIA didn’t yet know enough about the Jordanian agent to trust him entirely. “We need to go slow on this case,” he wrote.
Officials within the Jordanian service were also growing anxious. In early December, a senior Mukhabarat officer phoned an American friend at the Amman CIA station to chat about the case. We have serious concerns, he began. After studying Balawi’s emails, the man had been struck by the informant’s insistence on controlling the key details of the meeting, particularly the location. It was just a hunch, the Mukhabarat’s man said, but it was possible that the CIA was being led into an ambush.
He also suggested that another Jordanian officer replace bin Zeid as Balawi’s case officer. Perhaps over time bin Zeid had gotten too close to his recruit and lost his ability to make dispassionate judgments, he offered. Perhaps he was no longer the right officer for the case.
No longer the right officer. As the CIA official reflected on the conversation afterward, the warning suddenly made sense. The Mukhabarat, for all its strengths, was known to be constantly roiled by rivalries and turf battles, as different factions sought to gain advantage. Some of bin Zeid’s peers within the officer corps feared that the king’s cousin would use his royal heritage and CIA connections to leapfrog over them into senior management.
The Jordanians were worried, all right—worried that the mission would advance the career of Ali bin Zeid. The CIA officer filed away the contact mentally and mentioned it to no one outside Amman.
LaBonte’s wife, Racheal, sensed her husband’s apprehension, and it amplified her own. Though she knew few details, she had deduced that an informant meeting in Afghanistan was taking shape, and her husband was unusually anxious about the subject. “He could turn out to be a suicide bomber!” she finally blurted out one day. Often, Darren LaBonte would crack a joke to relieve his wife’s fears about his work. This time he did not. “You’re right, he could be,” he said. Then, gently, he tried to explain his conflicted feelings about the case. “If it’s successful, then I can stop. I can finally say that I’ve done what I came here to do. If I don’t go, and something happens?…” He paused. Racheal knew he was thinking of bin Zeid. “Well, I could never forgive myself,” he said finally.
Though Balawi had yet to agree to the location, it was decided that LaBonte and bin Zeid should go to Khost and continue working out arrangements from there.
At 5 a.m. on Dec. 6, bin Zeid and his wife, Fida Dawani, arrived at the LaBontes’ apartment, and the two couples sat with coffee on the balcony until it was time for the men to leave for the airport. The wives had decided beforehand to dispense with the usual weepy departure scene in favor of something more meaningful. Knowing that their husbands shared a fascination with ancient warrior culture, particularly the armies of Athens and Sparta, they now recited the words that mothers had once used in exhorting their sons to bravery in battle: “Return with your shields or on them.”
But as the two officers gathered their bags, Fida could not restrain herself. She pulled LaBonte aside. “Take care of Ali,” she implored.
Just after sunset on Christmas Day, Jennifer Matthews plopped down in front of her computer and switched on the small Web camera atop the screen. She clicked “Home” and waited for the Skype connection. In a few seconds a small video panel appeared, and Matthews was looking at the twinkling lights of a Christmas tree in her own family room in Fredericksburg, Va.
“Hi, Mommy,” came the chorus of greetings from her three children. She chatted and opened presents with them, her husband, and her visiting parents until the conversation was halted by a knock on her door. An aide announced that dinner was ready in the mess hall. After the goodbyes and blown kisses, Matthews was back on duty at Forward Operating Base Chapman in Khost, Afghanistan.
She was now three months and six days into her posting as base chief, her first war-zone assignment in a 30-year CIA career.
One of the CIA’s top experts on Al Qaeda, Matthews had become aware of Humam al-Balawi in the early fall of 2009, though until recently neither she nor Khost had had anything to do with him. Balawi was Amman’s recruit, and he was being managed by Langley and the CIA’s Islamabad station. But now it had been decided that Balawi would come to Afghanistan, and Matthews would play host.
Once he was on the base, the CIA would have about nine hours (any longer and he might be missed or spotted) to assess Balawi’s credibility and then interview him, give him special training and perhaps tools, and, most important, keep him motivated to carry out his intelligence-gathering mission.
Bin Zeid had told Matthews that Balawi would feel entitled to respect for the dangerous work he was doing in Pakistan, and she had planned a formal reception in his honor. As a personal gesture, he would be surprised with a birthday cake, a sheet cake with chocolate frosting, made by the base’s own chefs.
“He has to be made to feel welcomed,” Matthews repeatedly told her subordinates.
That is, if he ever showed up. The assessment team, including LaBonte and bin Zeid, had by now been at Khost for nearly two weeks, but Balawi kept delaying the meeting, citing one excuse after another. The long wait had left the Americans addled and anxious. Squabbles broke out between Matthews and her team.
LaBonte was the CIA’s case officer for Balawi, but his plans for interrogating the informant had been overruled. Fourteen intelligence operatives and a driver had been assigned to the debriefing, about a dozen too many, to his way of thinking. “It’s a gaggle,” he said after the team rehearsed in late December, a complaint echoed by some of the officers in the CIA’s security detail.
Finally, LaBonte appealed to his CIA supervisors, sending an email to the Amman station chief and copying several of the station’s other managers. There are three problems, he wrote, according to an officer who read the note. There are too many people involved. We’re moving too quickly. We’re giving up too much control by letting Balawi dictate events.
The email created a stir in Amman, but the station chief urged LaBonte to press ahead. Hanging in the balance was the CIA’s best chance in years to strike at the heart of Al Qaeda. The CIA had to confront Balawi to find out what he knew, and with all possible speed.
On Dec. 29, Balawi relented. He was due to arrive in Khost the next day.
Scott Roberson, the base security chief, had also been following the preparations with unease. He turned to a colleague who had decided to witness the arrival of the informant causing all the excitement.
Stay far away from this, Roberson advised.
In a fraction of a second, Humam al-Balawi disappeared in a flash of unimaginable brightness. The detonator caps sent a pulse of energy through the bars of C4 explosive until they ignited with a force powerful enough to snap steel girders. The Subaru that had, without stopping for security checks, deposited him inside the compound was lifted off the ground by a blast wave that slammed like a wall of concrete into the humans gathered around, blowing out eardrums and collapsing lungs.
Scott Roberson and two other security men closest to the bomber, Dale Paresi and Jeremy Wise, were flung backward and died at once. The car’s driver and the two other officers with an unobstructed view of the bomber, Darren LaBonte and Ali bin Zeid, were also killed instantly.
The eight others standing on the far side of the Subaru were cut down by tiny steel missiles that passed over and under the car and sometimes through it. Jennifer Matthews fell with mortal wounds.
The explosion shook buildings at the far end of the base, a half mile distant, and reverberated against the mountains through which Balawi had just passed. Then there was silence, broken only by the thud of falling debris.
His head, blown skyward at the instant of detonation, bounced against the side of a building and landed in the gravel lot. It was the only recognizable piece of the triple agent that remained.
Warrick is a Pulitzer prize–winning reporter for The Washington Post covering diplomacy, intelligence, and counterterrorism.
Excerpted from the forthcoming The Triple Agent by Joby Warrick. © 2011 By Joby Warrick. Printed with permission by Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All Rights Reserved.