How a Jordanian jihadist turned CIA operative—and back again.
By Mark Hosenball, Sami Yousafzai and Adem Demir | NEWSWEEK
Published Jan 9, 2010
From the magazine issue dated Jan 18, 2010
At the CIA training facility in Virginia known as "The Farm," one of the standard courses is called "High Threat Meetings." All aspiring case officers spend the three-week class learning how to arrange a get-together with potentially dangerous informants. When meeting with such agents, "security is everything," recalls one graduate. "I remember being told very forcefully, 'It doesn't matter what you might get from an informant if you wind up dead.' " There are very rigorous protocols for such meetings, says another former agent who once taught the course: all informants should be searched carefully, the rendezvous location should be staked out ahead of time, and when the mole arrives, only one or two CIA officers should be present. "The protocol is for a case officer to meet an informant one-on-one, or maybe two—always, always, always," adds Robert Baer, a former CIA officer who spent years tracking terrorists in the Mideast. "The one thing you never do is meet an informant with a committee."
A committee of at least nine CIA officers and contractors was on hand to meet Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi at CIA Forward Operating Base Chapman in Khost, Afghanistan, on Dec. 30. Why the operatives apparently broke a fundamental rule of CIA tradecraft is unclear. Perhaps they were giddy with anticipation. Balawi had suggested he might be able to deliver something that every CIA officer desperately wants in order to protect the United States and advance their careers: the location of Al Qaeda's second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri. The meeting was considered so important that intelligence officials had informed the White House about it in advance, according to a U.S. counterterrorism officer briefed on the matter. According to two current U.S. intelligence officials, who would not be named discussing sensitive information, security officers were preparing to frisk Balawi after he arrived inside the base. As Balawi stepped from the vehicle, he had a hand in his pocket, according to this account. Someone asked him to remove it, and that's when the bomb exploded, killing five CIA operatives and two contractors, and wounding others.
This has been a season for intelligence fiascoes. Only days before the Balawi bombing, 23-year-old Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab managed to buy an airline ticket to the United States with cash, conceal a bomb in his underwear, and nearly blow up Northwest Flight 253 as it was approaching Detroit on Christmas Day. In that case, many key bits of intelligence were in hand—including a warning by Abdulmutallab's father that his son had come under the influence of extremists in Yemen—but U.S. intel agencies were unable to connect the dots in time. Within the same week, the senior intelligence officer in Afghanistan, Maj. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, coauthored a refreshingly candid and very public report that said, among other things, that the "U.S. intelligence community is only marginally relevant to the overall strategy" in Afghanistan. (Among his views: there's too much emphasis on intel for killing bad guys, and not nearly enough on information to help soldiers understand what's really going on in the society.)
Given all the tens of billions of dollars the United States spends on intelligence activities every year, and the high-profile reforms that were enacted after 9/11, a lot of people—including President Obama—were questioning why we can't do better at spying on enemies and analyzing threats.
The Balawi case raises a further question: how good is Al Qaeda at infiltrating our national-security agencies? That's been a fear in intelligence circles at least since 2003, when two Arabic translators working at Guantánamo were arrested on suspicion of terrorist sympathies. (One linguist pleaded guilty to minor charges of insubordination and mishandling secret information; charges against the other were all dropped.) The following year the CIA convened a special two-day conference to discuss the counterintelligence threat posed by Al Qaeda and other terror groups. The meeting took place at the headquarters of a European spy agency, and included representatives from 10 allied countries. At the time, the very notion that Al Qaeda could be clever enough to plant a mole in a Western spy organization "was a new concept to everybody," says a former security official who helped organize the event. But the meeting ended without an action plan. "This is the sort of thing that [the CIA's spy division, the Directorate of Operations] was always doing," says another former U.S. intelligence officer, who did not want to be named dissing his former colleagues. "They were always holding conferences."
Now, tragically, the CIA has a case study to examine. Exactly how Balawi came to be a double agent is still very murky. But interviews with Balawi’s wife and some of his jihadist colleagues, together with information from U.S. and Jordanian officials familiar with the case, reveal a successful doctor, with Palestinian roots, plagued by anger and guilt over the suffering of his people. It's an all-too-common story these days—of a successful, devout, socially alienated young man who becomes increasingly radicalized as he watches U.S. and other foreign militaries fight and kill in Muslim lands.
Balawi's Turkish wife, Defne Bayrak, says he was always conservative in his Muslim beliefs. The real turning point toward extremism came, she says, with the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. The U.S. occupation "caused a comprehensive transformation in my husband," she says. The following year Balawi started blogging about jihad on radical Web sites. "He was constantly reading and writing," she says. "He was crazy about online forums… He would cite verses from the Quran that talked about the need for jihad, and then write very tough comments based on those verses or on the sayings of the prophet." He yearned to do more, says Bayrak, but didn't see how. Sometime between 2004 and 2009, he attended two dinners sponsored by the mainstream, fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, but he wasn't impressed. He went to eat "their famous mansaf [rice with meat]," not to hear their ideas, he told his wife. He spoke openly of wanting to visit "places of jihad."
His pro-jihad postings on the Internet—under an alias, Abu Dujanah al-Khurasani—got widespread notice. He even became the Web administrator of al-Hesbah, a Qaeda-linked jihadi forum. This likely attracted the attention of a smart young officer at Jordanian intelligence, a distant cousin of King Abdullah II named Ali bin Zaid. According to a former colleague, bin Zaid had a real talent for ferreting out information about terrorist groups in Internet chat rooms and bulletin boards. But he was not known as a case officer skilled at managing agents face to face. He would become Balawi's handler, and die with him at FOB Chapman.
Balawi didn't make the leap to become a full-fledged jihadist until after he was arrested by Jordanian security agents in January of last year. Just prior to that, Balawi had signed up with a group of doctors to provide aid to Palestinians after the December 2008 Israeli incursion into Gaza. Perhaps that is why he was picked up, or maybe he had long been on Jordan's radar as a potential agent. Bayrak, who shares her husband's radical views, thought at the time that he would be in jail for a very long period. But he was out in three days. According to Bayrak's account to NEWSWEEK, the spies "might have offered him money" to work for them, and perhaps "he pretended to accept these offers just to be able to go" to jihadi-controlled areas of Pakistan. A source close to Bayrak claims that Jordan and the CIA both offered large sums of money. (The CIA would not comment on any alleged offers of money, and Bayrak says she could not confirm any specific amounts.) There also may have been coercion: "They pressured him so much," said Balawi's brother.
Bayrak believes that Balawi was using the Jordanians and the CIA, and never really intended to spy for them. But that isn't at all clear. What is known is that he went to Pakistan, telling his wife that he was studying there, but hinting of something more dangerous—perhaps working as a doctor in jihadi areas. "In all our conversations, he would say, 'God forbid, if something happens to me, what would you do without me?'" Bayrak recalls. She would respond: "God is generous, great; he is the one to provide." While he was away, Balawi's two young daughters would look up at airplanes and say, "Papa came." But he never did. "At the end, this is about belief," says the widow. "In my belief, it was his time for death."
At some point while he was in Pakistan, Balawi began offering his Jordanian handlers information that seemed valuable. "He contacted us by e-mail and said he had critical information on Al Qaeda," a senior Jordanian official told reporters in Amman on condition that he would not be named. "Naturally … we verified the information and shared that information with friendly services, including the U.S." Taliban who met Balawi in the Pakistani tribal areas last year describe him as very cautious. "He was not like other Qaeda operatives in the area," says a Taliban sub-commander who works with suicide bombers. "[He] had smooth, soft skin, unlike the other Arabs whose faces were more sun- and windburned." Balawi seemed important, and often had other Qaeda Arabs around him. But he also appeared extraordinarily nervous about possible drone attacks. "I found him to be one of the most nervous and careful mujahedin," says the Taliban subcommander. "He always said, 'It's not safe to stay here for long, so let's move.' "
Several Taliban militants, none of whom wanted to be named discussing their activities, say they were aware of many cases of infiltrators in their ranks. Some spies had been beheaded; others had been able to escape and hide before they were discovered. It could be that Balawi was discovered as a spy, and turned, or that he simply offered himself up to the other side. That's the version of one Taliban who met Balawi and says he drew suspicion by asking too many questions about bin Laden and his whereabouts. "This is a prohibited question and made him suspect," says this Taliban source, reached by phone in North Waziristan. After staying in the jihadi areas for some months, seeing conditions there and listening to his new colleagues, Balawi seems to have had a change of heart. "After a while, he exposed his plan and said, 'It's up to you guys: behead me or use me as bomber,' " says the Talib.
One of Balawi's last online appearances was in an interview with the online Taliban magazine, Vanguard of the Khurasan, in September. He appeared to hint at an internal, personal struggle over his commitment to jihad. "I was raised to love Jihad and martyrdom in my youth," he said. But at times he "used to wonder" whether he could maintain that commitment. He had come to see that "this love of Jihad is either going to kill you in repentance, should you choose to sit away from Jihad, or it will kill you as a martyr for the cause of Allah…And the human must choose between these two deaths."
Why weren't the CIA officers in the field more cautious in dealing with Balawi, who, after all, they had never met before, and who had a long history of pro-jihadist Web activity before he began cooperating? "The kind of people who can penetrate Al Qaeda are jihadis themselves," says one U.S. intel official. "That's how it works in the real world. The next Mother Teresa won't get in." As for why Balawi was invited onto a CIA base, the official, who would not be named discussing the case, says: "Bear in mind that this was a forward base in a combat zone. You don't exactly have an abundance of safe houses ideal for agent meetings… And you can't exactly do it in an open field, either, especially in hostile territory."
True enough. But that still leaves open the question of why so many CIA operatives were on hand when his vehicle arrived, and why Balawi wasn't searched earlier. Was the CIA depending on its Jordanian friends to handle that? Possibly: in a general sense, American agencies are very dependent on Jordanian and other allied spy agencies when it comes to enlisting and running human agents in the Muslim world. Whoever met with Balawi that day and drove him into the base may have felt the need to show him some confidence. Running spies is all about trust—making a spy feel like a trusted friend, so he'll be comfortable betraying his other friends. It's also worth remembering that Balawi's bombing was touted by Al Qaeda as a revenge attack for all the recent Predator strikes on some of its top people. The suicide attack "was to avenge our good martyrs," said a Qaeda statement. So it's not as if the other side isn't suffering as a result of good CIA intelligence, and action. But the terrorists are learning and adapting, perhaps more than the spooks had anticipated.
With Christopher Dickey in Paris, Michael Isikoff in Washington, and Ranya Kadri in Amman
*** Classic case of underestimating your opponent. MS ***