January 10, 2010
The Dec. 30 suicide bombing that killed seven CIA personnel and contractors at Forward Operating Base Chapman in Khost, Afghanistan, is still under investigation. Here is the sequence of events, according to government officials who have been briefed on the attack.
By R. Jeffrey Smith, Joby Warrick and Ellen Nakashima
January 10, 2010
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 [link added], 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. …
New video released of CIA bomber (MSNBC, Jan. 9, 2009) – New video released to Pakistani TV shows the Jordanian doctor who killed seven CIA employees in a suicide attack in Afghanistan saying all jihadists must attack U.S. targets. NBC’s Jim Maceda reports. (02:43)
Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, shown in a 2008 photo, was killed in a U.S. strike in August 2009. (Photo credit: The Washington Post / Associated Press)
By Pamela Constable and Haq Nawaz Khan
January 10, 2010
ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — When a missile from an unmanned U.S. aircraft in August killed Baitullah Mehsud, leader of a violent crusade for radical Islam in Pakistan’s tribal northwest, U.S. and Pakistani officials thought they had scored a major blow against the forces of jihad.
But Mehsud’s death served as the apparent source of inspiration for the Jordanian suicide bomber and al-Qaeda double agent whose Dec. 30 attack at an American base in eastern Afghanistan killed seven CIA officers and contractors.
In a chilling videotape released posthumously Saturday by the Pakistani Taliban and broadcast on regional TV channels, bomber Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi [link added], 32, called on Muslim holy warriors worldwide to avenge Mehsud’s death by attacking U.S. targets.
“We will never forget the blood of our emir Baitullah Mehsud,” Balawi said on the tape, using the title that means leader of the Muslim faithful. “We will always demand revenge for him inside America and outside.”
The videotape confirmed the Pakistani Taliban’s central role in the bombing and exposed its close links with al-Qaeda and with the Afghan Taliban. It suggested an unexpected degree of coordination, capability and shared ambition among the three movements that some experts here said may force the United States to reassess its regional and even global counterterrorism strategy.
The tape also indicated that Mehsud’s successor, Hakimullah Mehsud, a man in his 20s who was shown on the tape with Balawi in an undisclosed location, has matured into a full-fledged terrorist operative in his own right. …
‘To kill Americans’
It was not clear how or why the Jordanian Balawi, an Arabic-speaking doctor whose family lives in Turkey, came to identify so strongly with Baitullah Mehsud, a reclusive tribal leader from a remote area of Pakistan.
A Taliban official reached by telephone Saturday in the conflicted tribal area of North Waziristan said Balawi had first come to the region eight months ago and approached “our Arab friends,” meaning al-Qaeda operatives based in the Taliban sanctuary, who the official said were initially suspicious.
Later, the official said, Balawi met with local Taliban leaders and was taken to their trainer, Qari Hussain, to learn how to detonate a suicide bomb. He said the Jordanian was “desperate to kill Americans to take revenge for his Arab freedom fighters,” as well as for Mehsud. “He was a great asset for us.”
Experts on the Taliban and security issues in Pakistan said the U.S. assassination of Mehsud had helped raise the Pakistani’s profile in the international Islamist terrorist movement and possibly inspired Balawi to focus on Pakistan and Afghanistan as a target area.
Mehsud, who had a reputation for ruthlessness, emerged from a tribal leadership struggle to lead a fanatical Islamist militant movement in northwestern Pakistan several years ago. In 2007, he formed an alliance of five pro-Taliban groups and was said to command about 5,000 fighters.
Pakistani and U.S. officials say Mehsud was behind several major terrorist attacks in Pakistan, including the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto in Rawalpindi in December 2007 and the suicide bombing of a Marriott hotel in Islamabad [link added] in September 2008. …
Growing al-Qaeda ties
Mehsud reportedly broke with some of his key aides over the use of suicide bombings and had one of them shot dead. At the same time, his growing reputation made him a hero among young militants, and he was accorded iconic status in some segments of the Pakistani media.
Still, Pakistani experts said, the United States was slow to grasp Mehsud’s growing ties with al-Qaeda and its global ambitions. It was not until early 2009 that U.S. intelligence officials began launching drone attacks against Mehsud’s tribal sanctuary in South Waziristan. …
When Hakimullah Mehsud emerged as the militants’ new leader, some Pakistani experts described him as even more ruthless than the elder Mehsud, but his apparent role in helping Balawi still came as a surprise. Experts in Pakistan said the Jordanian also received logistical help from the Haqqani network, an independent Afghan Taliban group with close ties to al-Qaeda that operates in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area.
“This was a sophisticated operation that took a lot of long-term planning and coordination,” said Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani general and security analyst. “Look at these links between the Taliban and al-Qaeda. This is becoming globalized in a dangerous way, and it may mean that the Americans have to rethink their entire anti-terrorism policy.”
‘Desperation’ led CIA, Jordan to trust bomber
Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi killed seven CIA officers and contractors, a Jordanian intelligence officer, and a driver when he blew himself up at a CIA facility in Afghanistan, on Dec. 30, 2009. (Photo credit: The Associated Press)
By Peter Finn and Joby Warrick
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.
“If you read his articles, you understand he is a Salafi jihadi since birth,” said Hasan Hanieh, an author and former Islamic radical, referring to a purist strain of Islam known as Salafism. “They go to the core of his beliefs. Over years, I could see this type of person moderate, but such a person does not become an agent. Never.”
The Jordanian official with an intelligence background, who has studied Balawi’s writings since the attack, reached the same conclusion.
“If you read him in Arabic, there is a texture and a spirit that says he is a true believer,” the official said. “I would have tested this man 20 times to believe him once.” …
He began to produce credible and compelling information about extremists, and the GID turned over the operation’s management and the resulting intelligence to the CIA while allowing its officer, Capt. Sharif Ali bin Zeid, to remain as a conduit to Balawi, officials said.
As the information continued to flow, the agency was able to exploit it for operations in Pakistan, officials said. Belief in Balawi grew.
“First, the guy had extremist credentials, including proven access to senior figures,” the U.S. intelligence official said. “Second, you had a sound liaison service that believed they’d turned him and that had been working with him since. And third, the asset supplied intelligence that was independently verified. You don’t ignore those kinds of things, but you don’t trust the guy, either.”
In September, six months after Balawi’s arrival in Pakistan, U.S. and international intelligence officials described what they said was their growing success in penetrating al-Qaeda’s senior ranks, which allowed improved targeting of insurgent locations in Pakistan. …
Al-Qaeda ‘dangle’ operation
Balawi appears to have been what in espionage terms is called a “dangle” held out by al-Qaeda.
“This is a very well-thought-out al-Qaeda operation,” said a former senior U.S. intelligence officer. “Every dangle operation is a judgment call. It has to be significant enough so that the Jordanians and, in this case, the CIA knows it’s real. . . . That’s always the key in running a dangle operation: How much do you give to establish bona fides without giving up the family jewels?”
Indeed, tactical successes made possible by Balawi’s information appear in retrospect to have been sacrifices by al-Qaeda to get closer to its ultimate target: the CIA.
“They would give up a lot to get at the CIA,” said a former Jordanian intelligence officer.
After the attack, the Pakistani Taliban released a video of Balawi accompanied by its leader, but officials suspect al-Qaeda directed the bombing.
Case officers’ qualms
Both American and Jordanian case officers raised questions last year about the speed with which Balawi appeared to have inserted himself into a position where he could obtain such intelligence, according to the former U.S. official familiar with Balawi’s detention.
Al-Qaeda is deeply suspicious of new volunteers, and especially so of Jordanians because of repeated attempts by GID to penetrate the organization, according to former Jordanian intelligence officials. There are no Jordanians in bin Laden’s inner circle, and some who have risen to prominence, such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the slain leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, were given assignments far from the leadership.
Al-Qaeda security and intelligence officers rigorously vet new arrivals and subject them to a host of tests before they reach “even the third circle around the leadership,” as a former Jordanian intelligence official put it.
“Their first instinct is to suspect,” this former official said. “They check and double-check his background. They watch him eat and sleep and pray, for signs. They analyze everything. That’s how they have survived since 9/11. And after all that, if they believe him, he won’t get near the inner circle.”
Balawi, however, appeared to have done just that, offering information on Zawahiri. The Jordanian provided “irrefutable proof,” including “photograph-type evidence,” that he had been in the presence of al-Qaeda’s leaders, according to a senior intelligence official. Some Jordanian and U.S. officials now question whether such an encounter ever occurred. But they say that if it did, it was an elaborate piece of staging by Balawi’s true handler.
“It was briefed to the White House and to Centcom,” a U.S. official said, referring to U.S. Central Command. “This was a high profile. The Bush and Obama White Houses had vowed to kill him [bin Laden]. What a political victory it would be.” …
“There was desperation to get the fruit,” [a Jordanian] official said. …
WASHINGTON – Since the suicide bombing that took the lives of seven Americans in Afghanistan on Dec. 30, the Central Intelligence Agency has struck back against militants in Pakistan with the most intensive series of missile strikes from drone aircraft since the covert program began.
Beginning the day after the attack on a C.I.A. base in Khost, Afghanistan, the agency has carried out 11 strikes that have killed about 90 people suspected of being militants, according to Pakistani news reports, which make almost no mention of civilian casualties. The assault has included strikes on a mud fortress in North Waziristan on Jan. 6 that killed 17 people and a volley of missiles [link added] on a compound in South Waziristan last Sunday that killed at least 20.
“For the C.I.A., there is certainly an element of wanting to show that they can hit back,” said Bill Roggio, editor of The Long War Journal, an online publication that tracks the C.I.A.s drone campaign. Mr. Roggio, as well as Pakistani and American intelligence officials, said many of the recent strikes had focused on the Pakistani Taliban and its leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, who claimed responsibility for the Khost bombing.
The Khost attack cost the agency dearly, taking the lives of the most experienced analysts of Al Qaeda whose intelligence helped guide the drone attacks. Yet the agency has responded by redoubling its assault. Drone strikes have come roughly every other day this month, up from about once a week last year and the most furious pace since the drone campaign began in earnest in the summer of 2008.
Pakistan’s announcement on Thursday that its army would delay any new offensives against militants in North Waziristan for 6 to 12 months is likely to increase American reliance on the drone strikes, administration and counterterrorism officials said. By next year, the C.I.A. is expected to more than double its fleet of the latest Reaper aircraft – bigger, faster and more heavily armed than the older Predators – to 14 from 6, an Obama administration official said. [...]
[Concerns about the threat from Al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban] only heightened after the attempted Dec. 25 bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner. While that plot involved a Nigerian man sent by a Qaeda offshoot in Yemen, intelligence officials say they believe that Al Qaeda’s top leaders in Pakistan have called on affiliates to carry out attacks against the West. [...]
After the Khost bombing, intelligence officials vowed that they would retaliate. One angry senior American intelligence official said the C.I.A. would “avenge” the Khost attack. “Some very bad people will eventually have a very bad day,” the official said at the time, speaking on the condition he not be identified describing a classified program.
Today, officials deny that vengeance is driving the increased attacks, though one called the drone strikes “the purest form of self-defense.”
[Comment: It would be bad policy if CIA operations were driven by vengeance rather than strategic and tactical objectives to advance vital U.S. national security interests.]
Officials point to other factors. For one, Pakistan recently dropped restrictions on the drone program it had requested last fall to accompany a ground offensive against militants in South Waziristan. And tips on the whereabouts of extremists ebb and flow unpredictably. [...]
The strikes, carried out from a secret base in Pakistan and controlled by satellite link from C.I.A. headquarters in Virginia, have been expanded by President Obama and praised by both parties in Congress as a potent weapon against terrorism that puts no American lives at risk. That calculation must be revised in light of the Khost bombing, which revealed the critical presence of C.I.A. officers in dangerous territory to direct the strikes. [...]
Critics have contended that collateral civilian deaths are too high a price to pay. Pakistani officials have periodically denounced the strikes as a violation of their nations sovereignty, even as they have provided a launching base for the drones.
The increase in drone attacks has caused panic among rank-and-file militants, particularly in North Waziristan, where some now avoid using private vehicles, according to Pakistani intelligence and security officials. Fewer foreign extremists are now in Miram Shah, North Waziristan’s capital, which was previously awash with them, said local tribesmen and security officials.
Despite the consensus in Washington behind the drone program, some experts are dissenters. John Arquilla, a professor of defense analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School who frequently advises the military, said, “The more the drone campaign works, the more it fails – as increased attacks only make the Pakistanis angrier at the collateral damage and sustained violation of their sovereignty. [...]
Hasan Askari Rizvi, a military analyst in Lahore, said public opposition had been declining because the campaign was viewed as a success. Yet one Pakistani general, who supports the drone strikes as a tactic for keeping militants off balance, questioned the long-term impact.
“Has the situation stabilized in the past two years?” asked the general, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Are the tribal areas more stable?” Yes, he said, Baitullah Mehsud, founder of the Pakistani Taliban, was killed by a missile last August. “But he’s been replaced and the number of fighters is increasing,” the general said.
Related reports on this site
Missiles Pound bin Laden Refuge (Jan. 17, 2010)
Balawi Fit Suicide Bomber Profile (Jan. 5, 2010)
CIA Zawahiri Team Decimated (Jan. 4, 2010)
Afghan War Expands to Region (Oct. 8, 2009)
Taliban Leader Vows Revenge (Oct. 5, 2009)
White House Attack Will “Amaze” (March 31, 2009)
Taliban, al-Qaida Up the Ante (Sept. 21, 2008)
Al-Qaida Threatens New Attacks (Sept. 20, 2008)
FROM THE ARCHIVES: One Year Ago — January 10, 2009
President-elect Barack Obama on Friday, Jan. 9, 2009 nominated Leon Panetta, left, as CIA director, and retired Adm. Dennis Blair, right, as National Intelligence director. (Photo credit: Mandel Ngan / AFP – Getty Images)
One-year retrospective: One year ago today, I reported that President-elect Barack Obama, in announcing his nomination of Leon Panetta as CIA director and Adm. Dennis Blair as national intelligence director, said his administration would not compromise its ideals to fight terrorism and that he had instructed his nominees to honor the Geneva Conventions.
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