In Afghanistan attack, CIA fell victim to series of miscalculations about informant

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By Peter Finn and Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, January 16, 2010

AMMAN, JORDAN -- He was an ambitious young doctor from a large family who had a foreign wife and two children -- details that officers of Jordan's intelligence service viewed as exploitable vulnerabilities, not biography.

Early last year, the General Intelligence Department picked up Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi after his pseudonymous postings on extremist Web sites had become increasingly strident. During three days of questioning, GID officers threatened to have Balawi jailed and end his medical career, and they hinted they could cause problems for his family, according to a former U.S. official and a Jordanian official, both of whom have knowledge of Balawi's detention.

Balawi was told that if he traveled to Pakistan and infiltrated radical groups there, his slate would be wiped clean and his family left alone, said the former U.S. official, whose more detailed account of the GID's handling of Balawi was generally corroborated by the Jordanian official, as well as by two former Jordanian intelligence officers.

Balawi agreed, and as the relationship developed, GID officers began to think that he was indeed willing to work against al-Qaeda.

This belief was the first in a series of miscalculations that culminated Dec. 30 when Balawi stepped out of a car at a CIA facility in Afghanistan, near the border with Pakistan. CIA officers allowed Balawi, who was wearing a vest packed with explosives and metal, to enter the base without a search. Then he detonated his load, killing seven CIA officers and contractors, a Jordanian intelligence officer and a driver.

Jordanian and U.S. officials have since concluded that Balawi was a committed extremist whose beliefs had deep intellectual and religious roots and who had never intended to cooperate with them. In hindsight, they said, the excitement generated by his ability to produce verifiable intelligence should have been tempered by the recognition that his penetration of al-Qaeda's top echelon was too rapid to be true.

Senior CIA and GID officials were so beguiled by the prospect of a strike against al-Qaeda's inner sanctum that they discounted concerns raised by case officers in both services that Balawi might be a fraud, according to the former U.S. official and the Jordanian government official, who has an intelligence background.

The Americans took over the management of Balawi from the Jordanians sometime in the second half of 2009, dictating how and when the informant would meet his handlers, according to current and former U.S. intelligence officers. Agency field officers faced unusual pressures from top CIA and administration officials in Washington keyed up by Balawi's promise to deliver al-Qaeda's deputy leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current and former officers said.

But a U.S. intelligence official, speaking on the customary condition of anonymity, rejected assertions that the CIA had abandoned caution. "No one -- not in Washington, not in the field -- let excitement or anticipation run the show," the official said. The GID's approach was more subtle than simple blackmail, the official added. "Persuasion works better than coercion, and that's something the Jordanians understand completely," the official said. "The caricatures of clumsy, heavy-handed approaches just don't fit."

'A Salafi jihadi since birth'

Balawi, 32, trained as a physician at Istanbul University in Turkey and worked at a clinic in a Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan. He was married to a Turkish journalist, who has written admiringly of al-Qaeda's leader in a book titled "Osama bin Laden: Che Guevara of the East."

In the past four years, using the pseudonym Abu Dujana al-Khorasani, Balawi wrote on extremist Web sites and gained renown. He trumpeted calls for martyrdom.

"My words will drink of my blood," he wrote, one of a number of statements suggesting an ambition to move beyond rhetoric.


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