U.S. agencies are conducting a review of intelligence supplied by an al Qaeda double agent, including a list of senior al Qaeda and Taliban operatives reported killed in the drone strikes since January 2009.
The review is examining whether the double agent, Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, supplied false information about U.S. successes amid valid data used to establish his credibility, U.S. officials said.
Al-Balawi was a key source on whether targets of the CIA-operated drone strike program were indeed killed as well as what U.S. spies thought was inside information on the effect of these targeted killings on al Qaeda’s leadership. Until now, the U.S. intelligence community concluded that the drone strikes had eroded al Qaeda’s senior leadership.
Senior U.S. intelligence officials have stated in speeches, interviews and congressional testimony that U.S. attacks on al Qaeda leaders had severely damaged the group responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The review is being conducted in the aftermath of al-Balawi’s deadly suicide bombing outside a CIA station last month in Khost, Afghanistan, that killed seven CIA employees. The counterintelligence review of his information is being conducted by the CIA and FBI, three U.S. intelligence officials said.
Meanwhile, the National Counterterrorism Center is conducting its own review of the intelligence al-Balawi provided, two officials said.
“When something like this happens, it’s logical — and indeed prudent — to review information associated with an intelligence asset, especially one who wasn’t trusted completely to begin with,” one intelligence official told The Washington Times on Monday.
This official added, “Various agencies — primarily the CIA and the FBI — are in the process of doing precisely that. The asset had provided information that was independently confirmed through other means. And certainly no one relied exclusively on what he provided to reach any conclusions about the fate of senior terrorists who have recently died.”
The CIA operates the drone program, which includes both armed and surveillance unmanned aerial vehicles, that focuses on senior al Qaeda and Taliban leaders in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan near the border with Afghanistan. That area, which includes Quetta and Waziristan, is thought to host al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri.
The CIA estimates that 15 senior al Qaeda and Taliban operatives have been killed since August 2008, when the drone attacks began in earnest. Among those killed are Khalid Habib, a veteran combat leader and operations chief; Rashid Rauf, considered the mastermind of a 2006 plot to bring down trans-Atlantic jets; Abu Khabab al-Masri, an expert on explosives, and chemical and biological weapons; and Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the Pakistani Taliban affiliated with al Qaeda.
However, some previous reports that leaders had been killed were false. The U.S. and international media reported on Sept. 7, 2009, that drones had felled Mohammad Ilyas Kashmiri, a senior al Qaeda military planner. Within a month, Kashmiri had emerged to give an interview to the Asia Times, where he mocked the premature reports of his death. Also, early reports that a drone strike killed Saad bin Laden, a son of the al Qaeda leader who migrated from Iran to Pakistan in 2008, have been disputed.
One counterterrorism official said that the reviews of the intelligence provided by al-Balawi have not led anyone in the U.S. government to conclude that an al Qaeda leader thought to be dead was now alive.
“Nothing in the reviews that have occurred to date have reversed any conclusions about the deaths of senior terrorists,” this official said.
Another intelligence official added, “If someone is suggesting that one of these bad guys is still alive, I challenge them to trot out Baitullah Mehsud and put him on TV.” Mehsud was a major Afghan Taliban leader based in Pakistan.
Anthony Cordesman, who holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the U.S. intelligence community would never rely on a single source such as al-Balawi alone for the proof of deaths of the targets of drone strikes.
“The U.S. relies on multiple sourcing because it is so embarrassing to find out that the dead are still alive,” he said. Mr. Cordesman has served as director of intelligence assessment at the Pentagon.
A U.S. official with knowledge of CIA operations in Afghanistan said the bomber “was the holy grail to CIA officers trying to infiltrate al Qaeda.”
The official added, “He was naming al Qaeda members who had been targeted by the U.S. and confirming their deaths. His information was solid and that’s why they trusted him too much. It is one of the most difficult organizations to penetrate and the CIA believed they had the right man to make inroads. Unfortunately, it was the wrong assessment.”
Fred Kagan, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said the CIA’s drone strikes “have unquestionably degraded the al Qaeda senior leadership significantly. We have unquestionably changed the behavior patterns of the insurgent networks we care about. There is open source reporting that senior Quetta Taliban leaders have relocated to Karachi. The movement of leaders in the theater has become much harder for these groups. That is all solidly established stuff. It is pretty clear that the drone strikes are a big part of that.”
But Mr. Kagan added, “That said, you don’t want to build a strategy around killing senior terrorist leaders alone because it is uncertain, episodic and highly dependent on intelligence that is inevitably going to be questionable.”
Mr. Cordesman said there were limits to the drone war against al Qaeda.
“There is always a replacement,” he said. “You may end up with a radical replacement. It is always a matter of disrupt, not defeat.”
• Sara A. Carter contributed to this report.