Ann Marie's Reviews > The Triple Agent: The al-Qaeda Mole who Infiltrated the CIA

The Triple Agent by Joby Warrick
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Jan 02, 2012

really liked it

“Before December 30, 2009, no one at the CIA had dreamed that an informant would set up a meeting with his handlers just so he could kill them along with himself,” Warrick writes in his gripping and excellently organized account of the suicide bombing at the CIA’s Forward Operating Base Chapman in Khost, Afghanistan. Years earlier, the 9/11 Commission concluded that while there were many specific and individual errors which precipitated the intelligence community’s failure to prevent an al-Qaeda strike on U.S. soil that fall day in 2001, the primary weakness was their overall “inability to conceive the inconceivable.” Eight years later, a Jordanian physician strapped with a bomb and yelling “La ilaha Allah!”, “there is no God but God, walked onto the base in Khost and proved, once again, the deadly consequences of underestimating the extremes of our newest enemy.

The Triple Agent’s prologue opens with a cursory overview of December 30, 2009. The reader is instantly hooked and wants to understand what happened and who these people are. Warrick obliges and immediately backtracks into the year preceding the bombing, detailing the events leading up to that day and allowing you a window to view the lives of the individuals who died that day. Then he swings back to December 30, 2009 and picks up where the prologue left off. It is excellently organized and wonderfully told.
Unlike many of the al-Qaeda terrorists whose names dotted the CIA’s watch list for years and years, Humam Khalil al-Balawi came to their attention just a few months earlier. Their Jordanian counterparts in the Mukhabarat, Jordan’s General Intelligence Department, alerted the CIA to al-Balawi because of the radical anti-American rants he spewed from his blog under the alias Abu Dujuana Al-Khorasani. His blog was wildly popular among Islamic extremists and he used it as a platform to call the radicals, who viewed him with great authority, into action against the United States and their allies. A Mukhabarat agent, Ali bin Zeid, who was also a cousin to Jordan’s king and thus royalty, had captured and interrogated al-Balawi in Jordan.

Al-Balawi was meek and unassuming, completely different from the typical al-Qaeda threat. His background and activity revealed no obvious link to any al-Qaeda member or Islamic extremist. He divided his days between his job at a clinic and his home in Amman, Jordan. The only suspicious activity was the blog entries he wrote from the home he shared with his wife, two young daughters , and father-in-law. During the three days bin Zeid interrogated him, al-Balawi pleaded that his blog was merely a creative outlet and was not a true reflection of al-Balawi or his views. Al-Balawi convinced bin Zeid that he would assist the Mukhabarat and the CIA in attempting to infiltrate the Taliban in Pakistan.

The Americans knew next to nothing about the physician, but trusted bin Zeid’s judgment and knew that al-Balawi’s unique situation made this the closest chance they would have to infiltrate the impenetrable Taliban and perhaps the al-Qaeda network. First, al-Balawi’s rants were well known from his blog and a source of inspiration for many young Islamic extremists. That would give him great credibility with the terrorist organization. Secondly, he had something useful to offer them: medical care. As a physician, al-Balawi could persuade the terrorist group of his desire to aid the cause by treating the wounded soldiers and Taliban leaders who sorely lacked adequate medical care. The CIA and the Mukhabarat placed al-Balawi in Pakistan and waited anxiously to hear from their new informant code named “Wolf.”

No one anticipated, however, was just how quickly al-Balawi would prove himself useful. Within a couple of months, al-Balawi sent bin Zeid an email stating he had a new patient. It contained an amateur video of himself with Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s #2 commander, the man just under Osama bin Laden. Al-Balawi had done the impossible. He had infiltrated al-Qaeda’s inner circle. Al-Bawali explained that al-Zawahiri, learning about their new zealous doctor, came to the informant seeking help for his diabetes. Although al-Zawahiri was a physician himself, he was also a wanted man with a twenty-five million dollar on his head and, as such, wasn’t able to write himself prescriptions. Al-Balawi sent bin Zeid his notes and medical information on al-Zawahiri. It matched perfectly with what the CIA had on him. This was legitimate.

The CIA was thrilled, but mystified, and insisted they had to meet the informant before they could go further in this dangerous operation. The meeting would be tricky, however, as they had to have a secure location to protect the CIA agents, yet not raise al-Qaeda’s alarm with either al-Balawi’s absence or the location of his meeting. The only suitable place was the CIA’s base in Khost.

In December, the CIA officials in Langley, Maryland, alerted the Khost base chief, Jennifer Matthews, of the upcoming meeting. Matthews, who was serving the CIA for one year in Afghanistan in order to move up the ranks, had not been involved with the al-Balawi case which was being managed by the agents in Langley and Islamabad. Matthews, however, would be in charge of planning and executing this meeting with “Wolf.” Moreover, because of the importance of this informant, the CIA wanted some of its top Al-Qaeda experts, including thirty year old, Elizabeth Hanson, at top targeter, present.

To many people in the CIA and at Khost, particularly the war hardened veterans who now provided security to Khost as independent contractors with Blackwater , this was happening too fast. Informants were cultivated over years and years, not months. Yet here was a “golden informant” who had become a double agent after just three days of interrogation and within a couple of months of his mission had infiltrated al-Qaeda inner circle. Even some in the Mukhabarat, who had been dealing with jihadists for years, commented that true believers never switch sides and al Balawi had all the markings of a true believer. They also didn’t want bin Zeid, a member of the royal family, there. As details of the meeting began to be planned, those same people grew more anxious. Typically, an informant meets only with his direct handlers, but there were fourteen people who would be attending, maybe more. Too fast. Too many people. Too little information on al Balawi. Something wasn’t right and they knew it, but whatever concerns they voiced were pushed aside.

Matthews got to work on the details of the meeting. Al-Balawi would tell al-Qaeda members that we was going to the village Miranshah to pick up medical supplies for Zawahiri’s diabetes. The CIA would provide him with a bag of medical supplies for his return. A trusted driver, Arghawan, would pick up al-Balawi, later switch cars to avoid detection by the Taliban, navigate the roads keeping an eye out for upturned dirt which could mean hidden roadside bombs, and bring him safely to Khost.

Once there al-Balawi would be permitted to enter the outer perimeter without being searched to protect his identity from potential Taliban spies among the Afghan guards who patrolled the perimeter or those who simply loitered outside the gates looking for food, aid, and information. Bin Zeid had advised Matthews that given his exposure to danger, the double agent would expect to be treated with great respect. “He has to made to feel welcomed.” She and the others would see to it and the dozen or so Muchabarat and CIA agents, including bin Zeid, would be there to greet al-Balawi as he existed the car. Inside the walls of the base, there would be a birthday cake waiting for the Jordanian who, Matthews learned, had just had a birthday a few days earlier.

It was a brilliant plan and nearly ever detail thought of save for one, the potential that this was a setup. The Blackwater security guards, Dane Paresi and Jeremy Wise, were highly suspicious of this unusual plan and kept their guns on al-Balawi as he exited the car. Their instincts were right, but nothing could stop the man. As soon as he stepped out, he detonated the bomb strapped to his body, killing himself and ten others. The Mukhabarat’s bin Zeid was along with Matthews, Hanson, Paresi, and Wise. It was the deadliest day in CIA history.

After the bombing, video of al-Balawi and Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of Pakistan’s Tehrik-i Taliban since a U.S. drone attack killed his cousin, Baitulah Mehsud , surfaced. Al-Bawali had used his time with the CIA’s mission to ingratiate himself with the Taliban and train alongside them. The Taliban, in turn, had plans for al-Balawi. They wanted revenge for the death of Baitulla Mehsud. The death of bin Zeid, a member of Jordan’s royal family, would be it. The only thing the Taliban had to lose was a lowly informant. Al-Bawali wasn’t anxious to give his life, but he didn’t protest either and slowly, he resigned himself to his fate. It had been Sheikh Saeed al-Masri who had come up with the plan for the amateur video of Al-Bawali with al-Qaeda to bait the CIA and Jordanian intelligence. He had worked just as he wanted and not only did the Taliban get their prize, the death of bin Zeid, they achieved the death of some of the CIA’s best al-Qaeda experts.

Everything about this informant had been too good to be true. Those people, some whom lost their lives that day, who felt this was too soon, too many people, not enough information, were right. As with all tragedies, the aftermath leaves behind lessons to be learned. The CIA failed to follow standard protocol and search the double agent before he entered the secured compound. The CIA failed to keep the debriefing limited to 2-3 people which is typical both for the protection of the intelligence community and the informant. The CIA had moved too quickly, failing to slowly develop the informant whom, in hindsight, had all the markings of a true extremist.

There was “an eagerness of war-weary spies who saw a mirage and desperately wanted it to be real,” Warrick writes of the CIA’s desperation to believe in al-Balawi. And just like with 9/11, while there are specific mistakes which prevented the U.S. from protecting itself that day in Khost, the underlying flaw was the CIA’s inability to conceive the inconceivable.


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