x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Week in review: the CIA stumbles

The lowest point for the agency since the September 11 attacks on the United States eight years ago came a week ago when seven American intelligence officials along with a Jordanian counterpart were the target of a suicide bombing. Worse still was the revelation that the CIA had been infiltrated by an al Qa'eda double agent, a Jordanian doctor who up until the moment he detonated his suicide belt had been regarded as a prize asset.

As Craig Nelson noted in The National this week, "The fictional CIA is all-powerful; the real CIA has been in decline for years, not least for its performance in Afghanistan." The lowest point for the agency since the September 11 attacks on the United States eight years ago came last week when seven American intelligence officials along with a Jordanian counterpart were the target of a suicide bombing. Worse still was the revelation that the CIA had been infiltrated by an al Qa'eda double agent, a Jordanian doctor who up until the moment he detonated his suicide belt had been regarded as a prize asset. The New York Times reported: "American intelligence officials said Tuesday they had been so hopeful about what the Jordanian might deliver during a meeting with CIA officials last Wednesday at a remote base in Khost that top officials at the agency and the White House had been informed that the gathering would take place. "Instead, the discovery that the man, Humam Khalil Abu Mulal al Balawi, also known as Humam Khalil Mohammed, was a double agent and the killing of seven CIA operatives in the blast were major setbacks to a spy agency that has struggled to gather even the most ephemeral intelligence about the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden and [Ayman al] Zawahri." Few American intelligence officials criticised the agency's drive to chase every credible lead about the locations of al Qa'eda's top leaders. "This is the CIA's top priority, and when I was in Afghanistan, if any intelligence came about the possible whereabouts of Zawahri or bin Laden, you dropped everything to run it to ground," a former senior CIA officer told the newspaper. "Everyone would have wanted to be on the team that caught Zawahri. That's the kind of thing that makes careers." The Times in London said that as a moderator of an online radical Islamic forum, Hisbah.net, al Balawi said his ultimate dream was to die as a martyr in the holy war against the US and Israel. "To Jordanian intelligence, these jihadi credentials must have seemed the perfect cover. The GID checked al Balawi out and decided that he was genuine. The official said that al Balawi had been interrogated by officers from the GID in March 2009 because of suspicions about his activities. He had been released because the inquiry found 'nothing relevant'. " 'Months later he contacted us via e-mail and provided information about ill intentions against Jordan, and allowed us to foil terrorist operations targeting the kingdom. So we decided to pursue our contacts with him on a friendly basis to safeguard our country,' the official told The Times. The report said: "Mohammad Abu Rumman, a prominent Jordanian analyst of radical Islamic movements, said that al Balawi, a member of the younger generation of jihadists, was heavily influenced by Osama bin Laden, al Zarqawi, the US-led war on Iraq and the Israeli attack against Gaza in 2008. " 'He is one of the key al Qa'eda spokesmen,' said Abu Rumman. 'He always called for jihad against the Americans and the Israelis.' Jihadist websites said al Balawi was also nicknamed 'the doctor of Mujahidin'. They said that he was the first Arab to join the Taliban in Pakistan." The Associated Press said: "Family and friends said al Balawi, a father of two young daughters, had practiced medicine in a clinic at a Palestinian refugee camp near Zarqa, the hometown of slain al Qa'eda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. One high school classmate, Mohammed Yousef, described al Balawi as 'brilliant,' well-spoken and well-mannered, though he kept mostly to himself and did not mingle much with relatives or friends. "The doctor also spoke openly about wanting to die in a holy war, Yousef said, adding that in Internet postings he called tirelessly for jihad against Israel and the United States. " 'If the love of jihad entered a man's heart, it will not abandon him, even if he wanted so,' al Balawi said in an interview published by the Ana Al-Muslim, or 'I, the Muslim,' website. "Jordanian intelligence was aware of these provocative statements when they arrested al Balawi last March after he signed up for a humanitarian mission to the Gaza Strip with a Jordanian field hospital in the wake of Israel's offensive there, the counterterrorism officials said." Canada's National Post reported: "Michael Scheuer, a former CIA agent who was in charge of the hunt for bin Laden prior to the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, said he believes al Qa'eda may be a bigger threat now than ever before. " 'We've killed some of the al Qa'eda leaders and every dead al Qa'eda leader is a success. But all we have is a body count,' he recently told CNN television. 'We now have al Qa'eda - the main al Qa'eda - in the Pakistan and Afghanistan theatre. We have a fully-fledged wing in Yemen. We have a fully-fledged wing in Iraq, a fully-fledged wing in North Africa and a nascent wing in Somalia. How can they be less threatening to us?'" Robert Fisk suggested: "What the CIA's double agent Humam Khalil Abu Mulal al Balawi did - like so many al Qa'eda followers, he was a doctor - was routine. He worked for both sides, because America's enemies long ago infiltrated Washington's 'allies' in the Arab intelligence forces. Even Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who effectively led the al Qa'eda side of the insurgency in Iraq and was himself a Jordanian citizen, maintained contacts within Amman's General Intelligence Department, whose own senior officer, Sharif Ali bin Zeid, was killed along with seven Americans this week in the CIA's greatest disaster since the Beirut US embassy bombing of 1983. "There is, however, nothing romantic about espionage in the Middle East. Several of the CIA men killed in Afghanistan were in fact hired mercenaries while the Jordanian 'mukhabbarat' spooks, for whom both bin Zeid and al Balawi worked, use torture routinely on Jordan's supposed enemies; indeed, they tortured men who were equally routinely 'renditioned' to Amman by the CIA under the Bush administration. "The mystery, however, is not so much the existence of double agents within the US security apparatus in the Middle East, but just how a Jordanian 'mole' could be of use in Afghanistan. Few Arabs speak Pushtun or Dari or Urdu, although a larger percentage of Afghans would speak Arabic. What it does suggest, however, is that there have been much closer links between the anti-American Iraqi insurgents based in Amman and their opposite numbers in Afghanistan. "Hitherto regarded as a purely inspirational transfer of operations, it is now clear that - despite the vast landmass of Iran between the two states - Iraqi and Afghan/al Qa'eda operatives have been collaborating. In other words, just as the CIA blithely assumed that it could make friends with and trust the local intelligence men in the Muslim world, so the insurgent groups could do the same. The presence of an anti-American Jordanian spy in Afghanistan - one who would sacrifice his life so far from home - proves how close are the links between America's enemies in Amman and in eastern Afghanistan. It would not be going too far to suggest that anti-American Jordanians have connections that reach as far as Islamabad."

pwoodward@thenational.ae