Jordan emerges as key CIA counterterrorism ally
Monday, January 4, 2010
Hours after last week's deadly attack on a CIA base in Afghanistan, a revision was made in official accounts of the number of intelligence operatives killed in the suicide bombing. Instead of eight deaths, as initially reported, the CIA acknowledged only seven.
The eighth victim resurfaced over the weekend when his flag-draped coffin arrived in his native country, Jordan. The man, a captain in the Jordanian intelligence service, was given full military honors at a ceremony that referred only to his "humanitarian work" in war-torn Afghanistan.
In fact, the man's death offered a rare window into a partnership that U.S. officials describe as crucial to their counterterrorism strategy. Although its participation is rarely acknowledged publicly, Jordan is playing an increasingly vital role in the fight against al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups, sometimes in countries far beyond the Middle East, according to current and former government officials from both countries.
Traditionally close ties between the CIA and the Jordanian spy agency -- known as the General Intelligence Department -- strengthened after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, occasionally prompting allegations by human rights groups that Jordan was serving as a surrogate jailer and interrogator for the U.S. intelligence agency. In the past two years, in the face of new threats in Afghanistan and Yemen, the United States has again called on its ally for help, current and former officials from both countries said.
"They know the bad guy's . . . culture, his associates, and more [than anyone] about the network to which he belongs," said Jamie Smith, a former CIA officer who worked in the border region in the years immediately after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan. Jordanians were particularly prized for their skill in both in interrogating captives and cultivating informants, owing to an unrivaled "expertise with radicalized militant groups and Shia/Sunni culture," said Smith, who now heads a private security company known as SCG International.
Yet, despite Jordan's critical role, officials from both countries have insisted that its participation remain virtually invisible, in part to avoid damaging Amman's standing among other Muslim nations in the region, former intelligence officials said.
U.S. intelligence officials declined to comment on the death of the Jordanian officer or to specify the role GID agents were playing in the region. "We have a close partnership with the Jordanians on counterterrorism matters," acknowledged a U.S. counterterrorism official, who agreed to discuss the sensitive relationship on the condition of anonymity. "Having suffered serious losses from terrorist attacks on their own soil, they are keenly aware of the significant threat posed by extremists."
The slain officer, identified in Jordanian press accounts as Sharif Ali bin Zeid, was on one of the CIA's most sensitive listening posts in eastern Afghanistan, Forward Operating Base Chapman, when a suicide attacker exploded a bomb in the middle of a group of CIA officers and contractors. The blast killed seven Americans, including the base chief
The base, in Afghanistan's eastern province, is at the heart of the CIA's operations along the Afghan-Pakistan border. It provides critical intelligence for strikes against al-Qaeda and Taliban positions, including targeting information for CIA unmanned aircraft, which carried out more than 50 strikes in Pakistan's autonomous tribal region in the past year. The base also is frequently a setting for debriefing of informants, current and former officials said.
Jordan's official news agency, Petra, said bin Zeid was killed "on Wednesday evening as a martyr while performing the sacred duty of the Jordanian forces in Afghanistan" and provided no further details about his death. Local news reports quoted family members as saying bin Zeid had been in Afghanistan for 20 days and had been scheduled to travel home on the day of the bombing.
His coffin's arrival in Amman on Saturday was handled with unusual pomp, with Jordan's King Abdullah II and his wife, Rania, personally presiding over a funeral and burial in a military cemetery.
Current and former U.S. intelligence officials said the special relationship with Jordan dates back at least three decades and has recently progressed to the point that the CIA liaison officer in Amman enjoys full, unescorted access to the GID's fortress-like headquarters. The close ties helped disrupt several known terrorist plots, including the thwarted 2000 "millennium" conspiracy to attack tourists at hotels and other sites. Jordanians also provided U.S. officials with communications intercepts in summer 2001 that warned of terrorist plans to carry out a major attack on the United States.