THE TRIPLE AGENT: THE AL-QAEDA MOLE WHO INFILTRATED THE CIA
By Joby Warrick
Doubleday, $26.95, 272 pages
Overcoming the “insider” threat is one of the most bedeviling challenges in counterterrorism. This is especially the case when, in the attempt to penetrate an adversary terrorist organization, a decision has to be made about who will be deployed as a double agent. Can he be trusted? How is it possible to know if he has a hidden agenda that will lead to him turning against his unsuspecting handlers? These are the questions at the heart of Joby Warrick’s insightful and riveting “The Triple Agent: The Al-Qaeda Mole Who Infiltrated the CIA.”
The basic facts surrounding the subject triple agent’s vengeful plot are well known. On Dec. 30, 2009, at a CIA operations base in Khost, Afghanistan, close to the Pakistani border, Humam Khalil al-Balawi, a 32-year old Jordanian triple agent, a pediatrician and supposedly “reformed” Islamist Internet blogger, detonated his explosive vest. In a spectacular suicide operation, he blew up himself and his unsuspecting, high-ranking Jordanian counterterrorism handler, Capt. Ali bin Zeid, along with four CIA officers and their three contracted bodyguards. This is the essence of what turned out to be a deceptive al Qaeda counterintelligence operation.
Mr. Warrick, a Pulitzer Prize-winning national security reporter for The Washington Post, adds a wealth of new detail to a narrative that reads like the best spy fiction. It is based on more than a year of interviews with those who knew many of the persons involved in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Jordan and America.
Why was the Jordanian Mukhabarat (General Intelligence Bureau) involved in nominating al-Balawi for the dangerous mission of penetrating al Qaeda? It had a history of long and trusted association with American intelligence services in going after terrorist leaders. As revealed by Mr. Warrick, it supplied the crucial evidence that led to the fatal missile attack against Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, in early June 2006.
The Mukhabarat also was helpful to Israel when one of its spies had uncovered the whereabouts of former Hezbollah security chief Imad Mughniyeh, leading to his alleged assassination by the Israeli Mossad in February 2008 by a bomb hidden in the headrest of his car in Damascus. Mr. Warrick also claims - although this cannot be verified independently - that the Mukhabarat also was behind the killing by a remote-control bomb in Peshawar, Pakistan, in late November 1989 of Abdullah Azzam, an extremist Palestinian cleric who had been one of Osama bin Laden’s mentors but had later clashed with him.
That operation, Mr. Warrick writes, was especially significant because it allegedly was carried out by Ali Burjak, Capt. bin Zeid’s boss, who stated that “If you go and kill any leader of the Mujahideen, you’ll become the top man in Jordan, like my chief.” So the ambitious bin Zeid, who also was one of the Jordanian monarch’s cousins, found his own spectacular counterterrorism operation, one that would propel him to the top of his counterterrorism organization.
He found his operative in Dr. Human al-Balawi, a Jordanian son of Palestinian refugees, who was a quiet and unassuming pediatrician by day but, in his spare time beginning around 2007, using the pseudonym Abu Dujana al-Khorasani, became a “cyberwarrior for Islam and scourge of the Americans and their Arab lackeys around the world.” As described by Mr. Warrick, Abu Dujana “raged against all the usual targets - Israel, the West, and U.S.-friendly Arab governments - but his writings also reflected an understanding of Western culture and a knack for appealing to younger Muslims who grew up with instant messaging and social networks.”
Abu Dujana’s virulently inciting postings in extremist Islamist websites, such as al-Hesbah, soon gained wide followings. According to Mr. Warrick, he soon came to the attention of the American National Security Agency (NSA), which worked with the Jordanian Mukhabarat to identify his true identity and arrest him. As al-Balawi, in the course of his harsh interrogation sessions, began to reveal names of figures inside al-Hesbah and other jihadi websites, including information about networks of jihadist bloggers and their funding, he began to backtrack from his previous extremism, stating that “in his heart of hearts, he opposed terrorism in all its forms.”
Despite the hidden reality that al-Balawi may have been far more committed to jihadism than he admitted to his interrogators (including the fact that his Turkish wife had shared his militant sentiments) bin Zeid had decided to place his trust in his new operative, who by now was released from prison. With the CIA eager to “rush to find and deploy scores of new informants and operatives throughout the Middle East and around the world,” al-Balawi was chosen for the dangerous mission of penetrating al Qaeda in Pakistan’s tribal regions in order to locate the whereabouts of its top leaders, especially Ayman al Zawahri.
What follows is Mr. Warrick’s compelling tale of the clash between high expectations and deceit. Set against the backdrop of the inner workings of al Qaeda and its Taliban affiliate and their monitoring and countermeasures by America’s intelligence services, the book provides a remarkable window into the complex and harrowing challenges facing U.S. counterterrorism efforts.
In a touching epilogue, Mr. Warrick quotes former CIA Director Leon Panetta’s words following the brilliantly successful killing of Osama bin Laden last May: “Our heroes at Khost are with us, in memory and spirit, at this joyful moment.”
Joshua Sinai is an associate professor, specializing in counter-terrorism, at Virginia Tech.