US saw path to Al Qaeda chiefs before bombing

CIA attacker instead dealt major setback

Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi was a doctor in Zarqa, Jordan, before being recruited to work in intelligence. Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi was a doctor in Zarqa, Jordan, before being recruited to work in intelligence. (Nader Daoud/Associated Press)
By Mark Mazzetti
New York Times / January 6, 2010

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WASHINGTON - Before detonating a suicide bomb in Afghanistan last week, a Jordanian militant was considered by US 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.

US intelligence officials said yesterday they had been so hopeful about what the Jordanian might deliver during a meeting with CIA officials last Wednesday at a remote CIA 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 CIA operatives in the blast were a major setback to a spy agency that has struggled to gather even the most ephemeral intelligence about the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden and Zawahri.

New details about the Khost attack emerged yesterday as the Obama administration took steps to strengthen security measures after failing to detect a Christmas 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, US 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 Al Qaeda operatives to his Jordanian supervisor, Captain Sharif Ali bin Zeid, to establish his credibility and apparently to help broker a meeting with CIA 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 CIA’s contacts with the Jordanian are classified. “This was one of the agency’s most promising efforts.’’

US officials said that 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.

Balawi proved to be one of the most unusual double agents in the history of espionage, choosing to kill his American contacts at their first meeting, rather than establish regular contact to glean what the CIA did - and did not - know about Al Qaeda and then report back to the network’s leaders.

In the deadly aftermath, US intelligence officials pledged retribution. The CIA has already carried out three missile strikes in Pakistan’s tribal belt since the Khost bombing, an unusually high weekly number.

Zeid, an officer in Jordan’s General Intelligence Directorate, also died in the Khost attack.

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 convinced Balawi, a 32-year-old physician, to turn on his militant brethren.

In the past, former CIA officials said, the Jordanian spy service had pressed potential recruits by suggesting that their family’s safety depended on their cooperation. US officials did not say yesterday whether Balawi had been coerced into spying for the Jordanians. The CIA had been so optimistic about 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 White House and the CIA declined to comment for this article.