Suicide bomber who attacked CIA post in Afghanistan was trusted informant from Jordan

By Joby Warrick and Peter Finn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 5, 2010; A01

The suicide bomber who killed seven CIA operatives in Afghanistan last week was a Jordanian informant who lured intelligence officers into a trap by promising new information about al-Qaeda's top leadership, former U.S. government officials said Monday.

The attacker, a physician-turned-mole, had been recruited to infiltrate al-Qaeda's senior circles and had gained the trust of his CIA and Jordanian handlers with a stream of useful intelligence leads, according to two former senior officials briefed on the agency's internal investigation. His track record as an informant apparently allowed him to enter a key CIA post without a thorough search, the sources said.

The bomber, identified as Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, was standing just outside an agency building on the base Wednesday when he exploded a bomb hidden under his clothes, killing the seven Americans along with a Jordanian officer who had been assigned to work with him. Six CIA operatives were wounded.

The agency has declined to publicly identify the victims, a mix of career officers and contractors with backgrounds ranging from law enforcement to military Special Forces.

Details about the suicide bomber's identity provided jarring insight into how a vital intelligence post in eastern Afghanistan was penetrated in the deadliest attack on the CIA in more than 25 years. Initial reports suggested that the bomber was an Afghan soldier or perhaps a local informant who had been brought onto the base for debriefing.

Instead, the new evidence points to a carefully planned act of deception by a trusted operative from a country closely allied with the United States in the fight against al-Qaeda. U.S. and Jordanian officials had come to regard Balawi as trustworthy, former officials said, despite a history of support for Islamist extremism -- a point of view he appeared to endorse in an interview with an al-Qaeda-affiliated publication as recently as this past fall.

"He was someone who had already worked with us," said a former U.S. counterterrorism officer who discussed the ongoing investigation on the condition of anonymity. The official said Balawi had been jointly managed by U.S. and Jordanian agencies and had provided "actionable intelligence" over several weeks of undercover work along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

The CIA declined to comment on reports identifying Balawi as the bomber, first posted by al-Jazeera television on its Web site. A U.S. intelligence official said only that the agency is "looking closely at every aspect" of the attack on the facility known as Forward Operating Base Chapman, in the province of Khost near Afghanistan's border with Pakistan.

"The agency is determined to continue pursuing aggressive counterterrorism operations," the official said. "Last week's attack will be avenged. Some very bad people will eventually have a very bad day."

Al-Jazeera described Balawi as a 36-year-old physician from Zarqa, a Jordanian town that also was the home of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the slain leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq. It said Balawi had been recruited to help track down Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian physician and second in command of al-Qaeda, who U.S. intelligence officials believe is hiding in the lawless border region.

Balawi had a history of supporting jihadist causes and had been arrested in late 2007, according to SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors extremist Web sites. He was detained by Jordan's intelligence agency, which sought to turn him into an informant, the former government officials said.

Before his arrest, Balawi, who used the online name Abu Dujana al-Khorasani, was a well-known contributor to al-Hesbah, a once-prominent jihadist forum, according to SITE. He eventually became an administrator of the Web site.

In September of last year, Balawi gave an interview to Vanguards of Khorasan, a magazine associated with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, according to SITE. His handlers presumably were aware of the interview but may have regarded it as part of his cover.

Balawi nonetheless spoke at length and in sometimes overwrought language about his devotion to jihad and martyrdom.

"I have had a predisposition for love of jihad and martyrdom since I was little," he told the magazine, according to a translation by SITE. "If love of jihad enters a man's heart, it will not leave him even if he wants to do so."

He also expressed his admiration for the stoicism of the mujaheddin with whom he was encamped.

"If the name of a martyr they knew is mentioned in front of them, you find that blood has frozen in their veins as though it were a dew drop on the mouth of a beautiful flower," Balawi said. "You find that the weeping in their straying looks is more eloquent than screams."

The role of Jordanian intelligence at the CIA's base was tacitly acknowledged over the weekend when the body of the Jordanian intelligence operative was flown home for a military burial in the capital city of Amman. The man, identified in Jordanian news accounts as Sharif Ali bin Zeid, was assigned to work as a handler for Balawi, the former U.S. counterterrorism official said.

Jordan is a key ally in the U.S. fight against al-Qaeda, and its intelligence operatives have been integrated into missions in the Middle East and beyond, current and former U.S. intelligence officials say. Yet, despite its critical role, officials from both countries have insisted that its participation remain virtually invisible, in part to avoid damaging Jordan's standing among other Muslim nations in the region, former intelligence officials said.

Bin Zeid was honored with a military funeral when his body arrived in the capital. The ceremony was attended by Jordan's King Abdullah II and his wife, Rania, but official news reports said only that the intelligence captain had died while performing humanitarian service in Afghanistan.

Bin Zeid, who had married about a year ago, was described by a former Jordanian intelligence officer who knew him as a modest but highly effective officer who never traded on his royal status as a cousin to the king. His family ties nonetheless made him ideally suited for the most sensitive missions, the former officer said. "He loved his work; it was his life."

CIA Director Leon E. Panetta, other agency and national security officials, and friends and family members of the seven CIA employees attended a private ceremony Monday at Dover Air Force Base, Del., where the bodies were returned, agency spokesman George Little said.

"These patriots courageously served their nation," he said.

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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