The CIA believed he was a “golden source,” a top-secret informant who had penetrated al-Qaeda and brought the agency within striking distance of the terrorist group’s senior leadership. But Humam al-Balawi, a Jordanian pediatrician turned spy, was not what he seemed.
In late 2009, several months before the CIA learned of Osama bin Laden’s Pakistani hideout, Balawi appeared to offer the agency the best chance in a decade to find and kill al-Qaeda’s then-No. 2 leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri. But his stunning reports from inside the terrorists’ camp were part of an elaborate trap that culminated in the deaths of nine intelligence operatives, including seven Americans, at a CIA base in eastern Afghanistan. The strike was the deadliest blow against the agency in a quarter-century.
In this excerpt from his forthcoming book, “The Triple Agent,” Washington Post reporter Joby Warrick traces Balawi’s treacherous final days as he first avoids, and then commits to, the sacrifice of his own life to kill his enemies.
The Pashtun tribesman known as al-Qaeda’s tailor lived in a house near the village of Datta Khel in the Pakistani tribal region of North Waziristan, where he made a living making suicide vests. One morning in mid-December, he sat at his antique sewing machine to fill yet another order, this one very different from the vests he usually made.
The man was celebrated for his ingeniously simple designs that were both reliable and cheap. He started with a sturdy cotton vest, often surplus military gear from the local bazaar, and attached thick straps so it could be secured snugly against the torso. He added fabric pouches and stuffed them with packets of white acetone peroxide powder, an explosive that can be cooked up at home using common ingredients. Next came the shrapnel layer, which consisted of hundreds of nails or other bits of metal glued to sheets of thick, adhesive-backed paper or cloth. Finally, he inserted blasting caps in the powder and attached them to wires that ran to a small nine-volt battery and a cheap detonator switch. The latter item he sewed into a separate pouch that closed with a zipper. That, he explained, was to prevent excitable young martyrs-to-be from blowing themselves up too quickly. An extra second or two of fumbling with the zipper would remind the bomber to move in closer to his target to ensure the maximum possible carnage.
On this day a group of young Pakistani recruits, some of them tapped as future suicide bombers, gathered to admire the vestmaker as he worked. One of them took photos with his cellphone as the man reached into his explosives chest and pulled out a surprise: not the usual bags of powder, but doughy sticks of a far more powerful military explosive called C4. He kneaded the sticks to flatten them and began to pack them into a row of 13 fabric pouches he had sewn onto the outside of the vest. Next he dipped a paintbrush into a bucket of industrial adhesive and slathered the white goo over a large square of sturdy cotton. The man then patiently studded the sheet with metal bits, piece by piece and row by row, alternating marble-size steel ball bearings with nails and scrap and, finally, some children’s jacks.