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Obama's War

Obama's War

Combating Extremism in Afghanistan and Pakistan | Full Coverage

CIA bomber struck just before search

In a videotape released Saturday, the suicide bomber called on Muslims to avenge the death of a Taliban leader.
In a videotape released Saturday, the suicide bomber called on Muslims to avenge the death of a Taliban leader. (Associated Press)
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By R. Jeffrey Smith, Joby Warrick and Ellen Nakashima
Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Jordanian had been "heralded as a superstar asset." Until Dec. 30, none of the Americans at the base had laid eyes on him.

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The Jordanian doctor arrived in a red station wagon that came directly from Pakistan and sped through checkpoints at a CIA base in Afghanistan before stopping abruptly at an improvised interrogation center. Outside stood one of the CIA's top experts on al-Qaeda, ready to greet the doctor and hear him describe a way to kill Ayman al-Zawahiri, the organization's No. 2 and a man long at the top of U.S. target lists.

The Jordanian exited the car with one hand in his pocket, according to the accounts of several U.S. officials briefed on the incident. An American security guard approached him to conduct a pat-down search and asked him to remove his hand. Instead, the Jordanian triggered a switch.

A sharp "CLMMMP" sound coincided with a brief flash and a small puff of smoke as thousands of steel pellets shredded glass, metal, cement and flesh in every direction.

A moment that CIA officials in Washington and Afghanistan had hoped would lead to a significant breakthrough in the fight against al-Qaeda instead became the most grievous single blow against the agency in the counterterror war.

Virtually everyone within sight of the suicide blast died immediately, including the al-Qaeda expert, who led the CIA team at the base; a 30-year-old analyst; and three other officers. Also killed were two American security guards contracted by the agency, a Jordanian intelligence officer and the car's driver. At least six others standing in the carport and nearby, including the CIA's second in command in Afghanistan, were wounded by pellets that had first perforated the vehicle.

Those at the scene on Dec. 30 had been trying to strike a balance between respect for their informant -- best demonstrated, in the regional tradition, by direct personal contact -- and caution, illustrated by the attentiveness of the security guards, according to CIA officials.

But more than a dozen current and former government officials interviewed for this article said they could not account in full for what they called a breach of operational security at the base in Afghanistan's Khost province. Advance pat-downs and other precautions are common in an age of suicide bombers, and meetings are kept small and remote. None of these sources would agree to be identified by name, in many cases because of their former or current work as covert operatives.

Several intelligence sources said the principal mistake was in trusting the bona fides of the Jordanian doctor, Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, who had never previously been invited to the base. The meeting was arranged with help from the Jordanian officer, who was among those waiting at the site for Balawi to arrive and was killed.

"You get somebody who has helped you and is incredibly important for the information he's going to potentially provide -- these are prize possessions," said a former CIA field officer. "Somebody comes, and it's like a celebration that they're coming. It's good to make them feel welcome. It's good to make them feel important."

The man who would prove to be a deadly attacker, the former officer said, "was heralded as a superstar asset. . . . So you get an important visitor coming. So you go out and meet him. . . . Is it bad tradecraft? Of course."

In a videotape released Saturday, Balawi called on Muslims to avenge the death of a Taliban leader killed by a U.S. drone strike in August. "We will always demand revenge for him inside America and outside," Balawi said.


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