Muslim extremists. American heroes. Betrayed confidences. Barren landscapes. It’s the stuff of a summer thriller, but sadly, Joby Warrick’s spellbinding book “The Triple Agent: The al-Qaeda Mole Who Infiltrated the CIA” is a work of nonfiction. And in the end, nine individuals ― including seven CIA operatives ― were killed.
Why was a young Jordanian doctor named Humam al-Balawi, who had never been face to face with American intelligence officers, waved through three security checkpoints at the super-secret CIA outpost in Khost, Afghanistan, near the Pakistan border? Because the trail for Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri had been cold for years, and with the passing of time, desperation rose and security was sacrificed.
Yet more than a year and a half later, very few questions had been answered regarding how al-Balawi had arrived literally on the CIA’s doorstep. That is, until the Washington Post’s Warrick, a Pulitzer Prize-winner who began his career at the Delaware County Daily Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer, was able to piece together what went wrong by researching the story from all sides.
The greatest challenge, he told me in an interview last week, was fleshing out and substantiating the Pakistani side of the narrative. So he and his team of two Pakistani researchers started with the writings and video recordings al-Balawi had left behind. They tracked down Pakistani officials who had conducted their own review of the attack, and eventually made contact with the Taliban operatives who had met and interacted with the former double agent. “In the aftermath of the attack, some were very proud to say that they knew Balawi,” Warrick recalled chillingly.
What made al-Balawi remarkable to American and Jordanian intelligence operatives was the sheer speed with which he bounded onto their radars. His violent anti-American Internet postings attracted the interest of Jordanian officials in January 2009. They confronted him, and he almost immediately agreed to become a double agent, travel to Pakistan and report on al-Qaida operations there.
Using his medical expertise to ingratiate himself, al-Balawi was soon building his credibility as a double agent by providing information from the ground regarding American drone strikes and passing along video snippets showing top al-Qaida leaders. Eventually, he reported becoming al-Zawahiri’s physician.
“It had happened quite suddenly, as Balawi related the events,” Warrick wrote. “One day he learned that Zawahiri’s health was slipping, and soon afterward the bearded, bespectacled terrorist leader was standing in front of him. Zawahiri, himself a doctor, was suffering from a range of complications related to diabetes, and he needed advice and medicine.”
Soon al-Balawi was providing further proof of his value as a spy by offering detailed summaries of al-Zawahiri’s medical history and physical condition to U.S. intelligence officials. Even more tantalizing was his revelation that he would have a follow-up visit with al-Qaida’s second-in-command a few weeks later.
But U.S. officials still knew very little about al-Balawi, who managed to infiltrate al-Qaida’s innermost circle inside of a year. Indeed, a veteran CIA officer and former Army Ranger named Darren LaBonte would repeatedly caution his colleagues to “go slow on this case.”
Nonetheless, preparations for the meeting with al-Balawi at Khost continued ― including a formal reception and a surprise birthday cake. An intelligence asset such as al-Balawi must feel welcomed, some Jordanian and U.S. officials reasoned.
In a tragic twist befitting a work of fiction, the preparations would prove unnecessary. Upon arriving at the base in Khost, al-Balawi detonated 30 pounds of explosives “with a force powerful enough to snap steel girders,” Warrick wrote. The seven CIA officers closest to the Subaru carrying al-Balawi ― including LaBonte ― were killed instantly.
Was it always al-Balawi’s design to set up this ruse?
“Long before his arrest by the Jordanians, Balawi was clearly intent on doing ‘something,’ ” Warrick told me. “He explored the possibility of slipping into Iraq to fight Americans but then chickened out and raised money instead. He wanted to find ways to help Hamas against the Israelis in 2008 but could only offer medical aid.
”His inability to find a tangible path to physical jihad is something that chafed at him and comes up repeatedly in his writings.“
By Michael Smerconish, The Philadelphia Inquirer
Michael Smerconish writes a weekly column for the Philadelphia Inquirer. ― Ed.
(McClatchy-Tribune Information Services)