x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

CIA was warned of double agent who killed seven

The spy agency's internal investigation found multiple lapses in screening Jordanian defector who detonated suicide bomb inside Afghan base.

Humam Khalil Abu Balawi in an interview with al Qa'eda's media arm. He later detonated a bomb inside a US base in Afghanistan, killing himself and seven CIA officers.
Humam Khalil Abu Balawi in an interview with al Qa'eda's media arm. He later detonated a bomb inside a US base in Afghanistan, killing himself and seven CIA officers.

WASHINGTON // The CIA received a warning that a Jordanian double agent was working for al Qa'eda three weeks before he detonated a suicide bomb inside one of its bases in Afghanistan last December, the director of the intelligence agency has acknowledged.

That the warning went unheeded, analysts suggest, indicates that the lack of solid human intelligence available to the CIA in Afghanistan can cause its agents to improperly vet potential sources.

An internal CIA investigation into the incident found multiple lapses, including the failure of a CIA officer in Jordan to pass on a warning from Jordanian intelligence that the man, Humam Khalil Abu Balawi, might not be the defector the agency took him for.

Moreover, basic security protocol was not followed on the day of the incident. Balawi was not searched when he entered the base where he detonated a bomb hidden under his clothes that killed him, seven CIA officers, including the commander of the base, and wounded six others.

It was the biggest loss of life for the CIA in any single incident since the US embassy in Beirut was bombed in 1983. Eight CIA agents were among the 63 people killed.

In a statement on Tuesday, however, Leon Panetta, the CIA director, said that "based on the findings of the task force and the independent review, responsibility cannot be assigned to any particular individual or group". And analysts suggested that above all, the incident illustrated the difficulties the US faces in gathering solid intelligence on al Qa'eda and other groups it is fighting in Afghanistan.

"If he had been who he purported to be, this is exactly the kind of figure you really yearn for," said Marvin Weinbaum, an Afghan expert with the Washington-based Middle East Institute. "This was the real problem. In spite of the warning signs, they were not going to give up on the possibility that he was who he said he was."

Mr Weinbaum suggested the incident was evidence of a dearth of intelligence available to the US in Afghanistan.

"It's been very difficult to break into the inner circles of al Qa'eda … [and] when they say the last good intelligence we had on the location of Osama Bin Laden was in 2001, you can believe it."

The CIA investigation has already raised questions in the US media about where the responsibility lies for the security lapses, not least why the warning from a Jordanian intelligence agent was not passed on.

The conclusion of the CIA suggests that the agency has placed most of the responsibility on agents at the base for not ensuring that Balawi had been searched before gaining access and for gathering around him in such numbers.

"But that's not so sexy for everyone to talk about," Scott Stewart, an intelligence analyst with Stratfor, a Texas-based intelligence think tank. "They'd rather talk about organisational failure and the need to reorganise the intelligence community and the CIA."

The December incident was primarily a security protocol lapse, said Mr Stewart, though he accepted that there were broader problems. In particular, the bombing showed the extent to which the CIA had to rely on "liaison services", especially with respect to sources with access to the al Qa'eda leadership.

"Historically, the US is not very good at human intelligence. We are not patient, we don't want to invest the time and effort into developing an agent that, 20 years down the line, will bear fruit."

Instead, Mr Stewart said, the US has concentrated more on signal intelligence and image analysis and has had to rely heavily on other intelligence agencies for human sources.

okarmi@thenational.ae