U.S. media seem to be protecting the reputation of the CIA (see, for example, this Voice of America report), but beyond American borders the agency is being portrayed as in decline and demonstrably incomptetent in the aftermath of the Dec. 30 incident at Forward Operation Base Chapman.  --  Islamist web sites said Thursday that according to the head of Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, the Dec. 30 killing of seven CIA officers by Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, a Jordanian physician said to have been a triple agent, was revenge for the death of Taliban leaders, including Baitullah Mehsud in August 2009, and Abu Saleh al-Somali last month, AFP reported.[1]  --  The CIA is "in effect running a war in Pakistan," the New York Times reported on Dec. 31, 2009; AFP noted that "The United States is increasingly reliant on the CIA and other covert forces to pursue its strategic goals."  --  Incredible as it may seem, al-Balawi was a well-known jihadist.  --  On Wednesday the Times of London said that al-Balawi, a trainee doctor, "became an open and public supporter of al-Qaeda."[2]  --  Rana Sabbagh-Gargourin reported that al-Balawi wrote openly on the Internet of his yearning for martyrdom and moderated the online radical Islamic forum, Hisbah.net.  --  Suha Philip Ma'ayeh of the National (Abu Dhabi) said the incident corroborated the recent critique by Maj. Gen. Flynn of U.S.intelligence in Afghanistan as "ignorant."[3]  --  On Thursday, Craig Nelson, also of the National, said the incident was the latest in a series of "blunders of monumental proportions" showing that "the real CIA," as opposed to the fictional version represented as all-powerful in popular media, "has been in decline for years, not least for its performance in Afghanistan."[4]  --  As for the Jordanian connection, "[t]he Hashemite kingdom’s intelligence service was created by the CIA and has long been supported by the agency, writes Tim Weiner in Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA.  After the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, hundreds of millions in additional dollars were funnelled to the Jordanian General Intelligence Directorate to assist the agency in new covert operations.  It was the GID that was reported to have vouched for Abu Mallal," as the National called al-Balawi....



Agence France-Presse
January 8, 2010


KABUL -- Al-Qaeda hailed the suicide bombing that killed seven CIA agents in Afghanistan as "revenge" for the deaths of top militants in U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, Islamist websites said on Thursday.

A Jordanian doctor said to have been a triple agent blew himself up at a U.S. military base in Khost near the Pakistani border on December 30, the deadliest attack against the CIA since 1983.

The Afghan Taliban claimed responsibility a day later.  A Pakistani Taliban commander subsequently claimed his faction carried out the attack to avenge the drone attacks that killed its founder, Baitullah Mehsud, last August.

The head of Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, said the bomber wrote in his will that the attack was revenge for "our righteous martyrs" and named several top militants killed in drone attacks in Pakistan.

Yazid described bomber Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi's mission as an "epic breakthrough" in penetrating both American and Jordanian intelligence, said Islamist websites.

The slain militant masterminds named in the message included Mehsud, who was blamed for a wave of deadly attacks, notably the December 2007 killing of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.

Also named was Abu Saleh al-Somali, described as part of Al-Qaeda's core leadership and responsible for plotting attacks in Europe and the United States.  He was killed in a drone strike near the Afghan border last month.

U.S. media described the U.S. base in Khost as a key "anti-terror" facility that oversaw the drone strikes targeting Al-Qaeda and Taliban on the Pakistani border and as a center for recruiting and debriefing informants.

Balawi blew himself up at Forward Operating Base Chapman during a meeting with the CIA, killing seven agents and his Jordanian handler, who was a senior intelligence officer and member of the royal family.

Jihadist websites have said Balawi was a triple agent who duped Western intelligence services for months before turning on his handlers.

The Jordanian intelligence services, believing the bomber to be their double agent, reportedly took him to eastern Afghanistan with the mission of finding Al-Qaeda number two Ayman al-Zawahiri.

The Al-Qaeda statement surfaced after another round of U.S. strikes killed 13 militants, including four foreigners, in North Waziristan on Wednesday.

Washington has made Pakistan a front line in the war on Al-Qaeda and the eight-year conflict against the Taliban in Afghanistan, pinning success on dismantling militant sanctuaries along the porous border.

U.S. Senator John McCain, visiting Afghanistan on Thursday, praised the drone attacks for knocking "Al-Qaeda and other extremist groups off balance."

"I think it should continue.  I think it's an important tool in our overall strategy and we can claim measurable success in carrying out those operations," he told reporters.

Strikes by unmanned U.S. spy planes have soared since President Barack Obama took office.  They have killed more than 650 people since August 2008, inflamed anti-Americanism and prompted extremists to vow revenge.

"Drone attacks are radicalizing other people who may not have supported the Taliban," Rahimullah Yusufzai, a tribal affairs expert, told AFP.

"Maybe local militants (targeted by drones) are not a big threat to America but in the future they could become a threat as they could see America as their big enemy," he added.

Although the Pakistani government, which depends on U.S. assistance, officially opposes the operations, public criticism has lessened considerably since Mehsud was killed and analysts say they have Islamabad's tacit approval.

Intelligence experts said it was possible the base let its guard down in searching the bomber because he was a coveted informant.

It was the deadliest incident for the CIA since 1983, when eight agency employees were killed by Islamist militants who bombed the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241 Americans and 58 French.

The United States is increasingly reliant on the CIA and other covert forces to pursue its strategic goals.

CIA and special forces were at the forefront of the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan that overthrew the Taliban's extremist regime after the September 11, 2001 attacks.


World news

Afghanistan news


By Rana Sabbagh-Gargourin

Times (London)
January 6, 2009


[PHOTO CAPTION: Al-Balawi practiced medicine at this U.N. clinic in the Hittin Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan.]

AMMAN -- The Jordanian suicide bomber who killed several CIA agents in Afghanistan last week fooled Amman’s intelligence agency into believing that he was a reliable informant spying on the al-Qaeda leadership.

But Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi was a triple-agent leading an extraordinary life on the front line of America’s war against militant Islam.  An investigation by the Times has revealed that the trainee doctor became an open and public supporter of al-Qaeda, secretly pretended to work for Jordanian intelligence but ultimately sacrificed his life for the cause of jihad.

On December 30 al-Balawi infiltrated Forward Operating Base Chapman in Khost province near the Pakistan border.  He detonated explosives strapped to his body and killed seven CIA agents and his Jordanian handler, Ali bin Zaid, an army captain and distant cousin of King Abdullah II.  The Hashemite monarch, his wife, and other Royal Family members attended bin Zaid’s funeral on Friday.

A Jordanian official admitted yesterday that al-Balawi had provided the country’s General Intelligence Department (GID) with valuable “tips” a few months ago “that allowed us to abort a terrorist operation that would have threatened the security and stability of our country.”

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.

Jihadist websites, however, revealed that al-Balawi was working for his handlers’ enemies.  They said that the GID, believing the bomber to be its double agent, took him to eastern Afghanistan, to help to track Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian physician and said to be second-in-command of al-Qaeda, who U.S. intelligence officials believe is hiding in the lawless border region.  Jordan has had strong intelligence co-operation with the CIA since 9/11.  Its counter-terror teams operating inside the Iraqi border helped U.S. forces in 2006 to track and kill Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of al-Qaeda in Iraq.  It was with the same aim in mind that Jordan is thought to have monitored al-Balawi, who was an aspiring doctor.

According to records of the Jordan Medical Association, al-Balawi graduated from Istanbul University in 2002.  He then worked as an intern in two hospitals, one run by the Muslim Brotherhood charity.  He went on to practice medicine in a clinic in Hittin Palestinian refugee camp near Zarqa in Jordan, also the home town of al-Zarqawi.

Al-Balawi became attracted to militant Islam and moderated the online radical Islamic forum, Hisbah.net, based in Yemen, often saying that his ultimate dream in life was to die as a martyr in the holy war against the U.S. and Israel.  In an interview on September 26 last year al-Balawi said he had “been molded on the love for jihad since my childhood.”  He vowed to “take up arms, and to wear an explosive belt, to avenge the killing of children and women in the Gaza War.”

He also said that he decided to leave his pro-jihadist writings in favor of “real jihad on the ground, because I came to realize that preaching about jihad is not enough . . . You have to carry out jihad in practice.”

He said he hoped to meet all jihadist writers who shared his vision and contributed to jihadist websites “in al-Fardous” -- the Arabic for Paradise.

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 U.S.-led war on Iraq, and the 2008 Israeli attack against Gaza.

“He is one of the key al-Qaeda 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 ranks of the Taliban in Pakistan. 

Al-Balawi was born in Kuwait on December 25, 1977, and moved to Jordan with his family after Iraq invaded in 1991 -- a time when many Jordanians were forced to flee the emirate.  His father owns two pharmacies in Zarqa.  The al-Balawi Bedu tribe is from Tabuk, in western Saudi Arabia, and has branches in Jordan, the West Bank, and the Sinai Peninsula.  Al-Balawi, also known as Abu Dujana al-Khorasani, was married to a Turkish woman, said by relatives to be a journalist, and had two young daughters.  His immediate family lives in Nuzha, a mixed middle and working-class neighbourhood in Amman.

A high school friend, Mohammad Yousef, said al-Balawi told family and friends in March that he was going to Turkey to take an exam that would have allowed him to practice medicine in the U.S.  Instead, he went to Afghanistan, where he joined other Arab fighters with al-Qaeda.



By Suha Philip Ma'ayeh

National (Abu Dhabi)
January 6, 2009


AMMAN -- Homam Khaleel Mohammad Abu Mallal, a Kuwaiti-born medical doctor, was picked by the Jordanian intelligence service to infiltrate al Qa’eda as a foreign jihadist in Afghanistan.

Instead, last week, he turned the tables on his recruiters with deadly results.  He strapped explosives to his body and blew himself up on Wednesday, killing seven U.S. Central Intelligence Agency officers as well as his Jordanian handler at the CIA’s Forward Operating Base Chapman, set in the south-eastern province of Khost.

How a physician and father of two could have done such damage to the United States’ top spy agency has raised new questions about the intelligence agency as well as the growing sophistication of its enemy.

Barack Obama’s top military spy chief in Afghanistan said in a report on Monday posted on the website of the Centre for a New American Security, a Washington think tank, that the United States “still finds itself unable to answer fundamental questions about the environment in which we operate and the people we are trying to protect and persuade.”

Major Gen Michael Flynn said in the report he co-wrote with an adviser, Marine Capt Matt Pottinger, and Paul Batchelor of the Defence Intelligence Agency, that the problems U.S. intelligence agencies face in Afghanistan were less environmental than “attitudinal, cultural, and human.”

“Ignorant of local economics and landowners, hazy about who the power brokers are and how they might be influenced, incurious about the correlations between various development projects and the levels of co-operation among villagers, and disengaged from the people in the best position to find answers . . . U.S. intelligence officers and analysts can do little but shrug in response to high-level decision-makers seeking the knowledge, analysis, and information they need to wage a successful counterinsurgency,” the report, titled Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan, said.

“The problem is that these analysts -- the core of them bright, enthusiastic, and hungry -- are starved for information from the field, so starved, in fact, that many say their jobs feel more like fortune telling than serious detective work,” the report said.

In the case of Abu Mallal, the doctor turned suicide bomber, the fortune telling glossed over a life of contradictions.

NBC News, quoting Western intelligence officials, reported that the main mission for which Abu Mallal had been recruited was tracking down a fellow doctor, Ayman al Zawahiri, the Egyptian who is al Qa’eda’s second in command.

A dossier obtained by the National offered a rare look into the hidden life of a double agent who was also known as Dujjanah al Kharassani, after one of the Prophet Mohammed’s companions.  Born in Kuwait on Christmas Day 1977, Abu Mallal studied medicine for six years in Turkey at Istanbul University and graduated in 2002.  He also received medical training at the University of Jordan Hospital and at the Islamic hospital, run by Jordan’s Islamic Brotherhood, in Amman.

He had his membership in the Jordanian Medical Association and medical licence revoked in 2006 because he did not settle his financial obligations, including money owed for dues, his retirement fund, and social security.

He was married to Dafinah Bairak and they lived in the lower-income Amman suburb of Jabal Nuzhah.  He was detained for several months in prison for having links with al Qa’eda when he was recruited by Jordan’s spy agency, the General Intelligence Directorate.

Fouad Hussein, an independent Jordanian analyst who specializes in Islamic movements, said Abu Mallal was a well-known Salafist and a supervisor and writer on the website Al Hesbah.  It was shut down last year as part of a cyberwar against al Qa’eda and other terrorist networks.

Mr. Hussein said he read an interview with Abu Mallal published in September in a magazine called Talae’al Kharasan ('The Cadets of al Kharasan') in which said he wished to “perform jihad in the land of Kharasan,” a reference to Afghanistan.

In the interview he said:  “I have been raised to love jihad and martyrdom since I was little . . . I hope to have the honor of [becoming] a jihadi and a martyr.  While I was growing up I used to listen to the Quran and wondered if I would continue to love jihad and if I would ask for martyrdom.”  He also said he was provoked by the scenes of killing of women and children in the Gaza Strip last year.

Western intelligence officials told NBC that Abu Mallal reportedly called his Jordanian handler, Sharif Ali bin Zeid, last week and said he needed to meet the CIA team because he had important information about al Zawahiri.

Jarret Brachman, author of Global Jihadism: Theory and Practice and a consultant to the U.S. government about terrorism, told the New York Times that Abu Mallal was “one of the most revered authors on the jihadists’ forums.  He’s in the top five jihadists.  He’s one of the biggest guns out there.”

“Abu Mallal used to despise himself because he was not a mujahed yet,” Mr. Hussein said.  “Then he decided to act on his thoughts.”



By Craig Nelson

National (Abu Dhabi)
January 6, 2010 (updated Jan. 7)


Nearly nine years ago, Afghanistan was the stage for what the CIA trumpeted as one of the most storied chapters in its history.  Agency operatives with knives strapped to their thighs and wads of $100 bills stuffed in their backpacks donned pakols and chapans, and galloped on horseback across the foothills of the Hindu Kush to advance the successful ousting of the al Qa’eda-harboring Taliban from power.

Last week, it became the scene of one of the spy agency’s biggest disasters, when a Kuwaiti-born Jordanian physician -- reported to be a double and even triple agent working on behalf of al Qa’eda -- passed unchecked into a CIA base near the south-eastern border town of Khost wearing an explosives vest and blew himself up, killing four agency employees, three security guards, and a Jordanian intelligence officer escorting the man.

This “riches-to-rags” narrative, as seductive as it might seem, is misleading, however.  For in between these milestones have been blunders of monumental proportions by the CIA, starting with the failure to apprehend Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora, the marshalling of “evidence” that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, and the creation of a network of secret prisons for terrorism suspects that have proven a monumental embarrassment to the United States.

The fictional CIA is all-powerful; the real CIA has been in decline for years, not least for its performance in Afghanistan.

Even before the attack, the agency’s performance in the Central Asian country had been under fire.  In a report issued on Tuesday by a Washington-based think tank but almost certainly drafted before the suicide bombing, Major Gen Michael Flynn used words such as “hazy,” “incurious,” and “ignorant” to describe the grasp that current U.S. intelligence officials have on what is happening in Afghanistan.  One unnamed operations officer for a U.S. task force was even more scathing:  he called the intelligence-gatherers “clueless.”

Public criticism by an active duty military officer is almost unheard of in Washington.  For an intelligence community that receives an estimated $50 billion (Dh184m) annually -- in part to produce useful analyses for policymakers -- it was also damning.

Although details of the attack on the CIA base are sketchy and likely to remain so, it will probably inflict more damage on the agency’s reputation, for it was an attack that seemed bound to happen.  The targeted military post, called Forward Operating Base Chapman, was vulnerable to assault, from within or without.

For all the aura of secrecy that surrounds the CIA and its activities, any youngster in the nearby town of Khost could tell a visiting reporter “where the Americans were” and for a negotiable fee, escort him to the gate of the base.  The risk of infiltration also was high.  Afghans are employed as guards or to perform menial tasks at all U.S. military and NATO installations in Afghanistan.

There was motive, too.  Quoting unnamed officials, the Washington Post reported that Forward Operating Base Chapman was at the heart of a covert program overseeing strikes by the agency’s remote-controlled aircraft -- or drones -- along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

In the past year, drones have hit al Qa’eda and the Taliban with more than 50 fatal missile strikes, according to media accounts.  Keen for information on the whereabouts of key al Qa’eda figures that the Jordanian physician, Homam Khaleel Mohammad Abu Mallal, supposedly promised to provide, CIA operatives at the base presumably got careless.

Ironically, the victims -- among them the chief of the drone program at the base, a mother of three young children, according to the Post -- were engaged in the nitty-gritty of the spy game, which has suffered in the face of the agency’s preoccupation with gadgets and technical intelligence collection:  recruiting agents and informants, and “turning” enemies.

One of the biggest questions posed by the infiltration and bombing of the CIA base near Khost is:  who can the agency trust?  In the cloak-and-dagger world of spies, confidence is a rare commodity; in Afghanistan, where chequebook warfare is the order of the day, it is even rarer.

For instance, Jalaluddin Haqqani, whose network is suspected by senior U.S. military officials of helping carry out last week’s attack, received between 1986 and 1994 tens of thousands of dollars directly from CIA officers working undercover in Pakistan, according to author Steve Coll.

For U.S. and NATO troops, it is likely to complicate their already bewilderingly complex task -- cobbling together “community defense forces” out of Afghanistan’s welter of ethnic, tribal, and political loyalties.  Screening people joining the Afghan security forces now becomes an even more pressing task.

Another place where trust is going to be a bit harder to come by in the wake of the bombing is Jordan.

The Hashemite kingdom’s intelligence service was created by the CIA and has long been supported by the agency, writes Tim Weiner in Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA.  After the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, hundreds of millions in additional dollars were funnelled to the Jordanian General Intelligence Directorate to assist the agency in new covert operations.  It was the GID that was reported to have vouched for Abu Mallal.

The bombing not only will roil an intelligence alliance that Washington deems key in the region.  For Amman, it also calls attention to a relationship that it prefers to downplay, given the sour reputation of the CIA and many mukhabarat in the region.

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