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Attack on CIA in Afghanistan Blamed on Double Agent

January 5, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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The suicide bomber who killed seven CIA officers in Afghanistan last week is reported to have been a Jordanian double agent who American officials recruited to help provide intelligence on al-Qaida leaders. Gwen Ifill speaks with two experts about who the attacker was, and how he was able to carry out the devastating attack.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Information has emerged about a possible Jordanian connection in the attack that killed seven Americans at a CIA operating base in Afghanistan.

Gwen Ifill has that story.

GWEN IFILL: New details surfaced today about the attack, a suicide bombing allegedly carried out by a double agent working with the U.S. The names of the victims have not been released by the CIA, but family members have identified three. Thirty-seven-year-old Harold Brown Jr., originally from Massachusetts, leaves behind a wife and three children.

REV. RICHARD JONES, First Parish Church: His concern was to make the world a better and safer place for everyone who lived here. And I think that fueled his own commitment to the military and to our country, and, indeed to the people that he was trying to help.

GWEN IFILL: Jeremy Wise was a 35-year-old former Navy SEAL who worked as a security contractor. Friends have already set up a memorial on Facebook, including this entry: “He was doing what he wanted to do.”

And 39-year-old Scott Michael Roberson was working as a security officer. He leaves a wife who was eight months pregnant. They will each receive a star here on the agency’s memorial wall at the headquarters in Langley, Virginia, commemorating those who have died in the line of service.

An eighth victim, identified as a Jordanian spy, was also killed in the attack. Captain Sharif Ali bin Zeid was a member of the royal family, and received a state funeral on Saturday. He reportedly recruited a top informant, Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, the alleged double agent working for al-Qaida. The 32-year old was a doctor from Zarqa, Jordan, also the hometown of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the slain leader of al-Qaida in Iraq.

A CIA spokesman would not confirm al-Balawi’s alleged role in the attack, saying in a statement: “The enemy doesn’t know everything that went on, and it makes no sense to fill in the gaps for him. The agency and our government as a whole have bled al-Qaida and its allies, dangerous though they still are, through aggressive, successful counterterrorism operations. That will continue without break or pause.”

A key part of those operations have been U.S. drone aircraft strikes on insurgents. The bomber struck at a base coordinating the strikes on Taliban militants near the border with Pakistan.

So, who was the attacker, and how did he get close enough to carry out such a devastating attack?

For that, we turn to two men who have been tracking just those questions, David Ignatius, a columnist for The Washington Post who has covered intelligence issues for many years, and Jarret Brachman, the author of “Global Jihadism” and the former director of research at West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center. He now teaches at North Dakota State University.

Welcome to you, both.

David Ignatius, it sounds like a plot from a novel, one you may have written, actually. And, so, what do you know about how this unfolded?

DAVID IGNATIUS, The Washington Post: What we know is that the Jordanian intelligence service, which has been a key partner for the U.S. in fighting al-Qaida for many years, developed this doctor, this young doctor, as a potential penetration of al-Qaida at a high level.

He seems to have been turned. He was a radical jihadist. He was somebody whose writings have appeared on Web sites. You can track his trail. But the Jordanians have seemed, within the last several years, to have turned him into what they thought was a double agent, somebody who was nominally a jihadist, but was really working for them.

And, in that guise, he was making his bona fides with al-Qaida, and ended up here on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. What’s interesting is that he became, it seems, a triple agent, that, somehow, al-Qaida flipped him back, and sent him into this camp, apparently bringing really hot intelligence about the — perhaps having the locations of Ayman al-Zawahri, the number two in al-Qaida, just tantalizing stuff for the Americans.

And they left the man in the gate, and he had a suicide bomb.

GWEN IFILL: Is it generally understood here and in intelligence circles, or even in Jordan, that we — that the U.S. intelligence community was working so closely with Jordanian agents?

DAVID IGNATIUS: It’s understood for people who pay attention to this. I wrote a novel, “Body of Lies,” that was made into a Hollywood movie with Leonardo DiCaprio. And the whole theme of that movie is that Jordan is a key CIA ally in the fight against al-Qaida.

Jordanians, I think, generally know about it and are proud of it. The fact that the Jordanians are operating with us in Afghanistan at that close range, I expect people didn’t know that.

GWEN IFILL: Jarret Brachman, you had — it falls to you to explain to us who this individual was. I want to get his name right, Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi. Who was he? What do we know about him?

JARRET BRACHMAN, author, “Global Jihadism”: Well, you know, the thing is that I didn’t know him by that name. I knew him by the name Abu Dujana al-Khurasani, which is the moniker that he was using online.

And, so, since at least 2007, this guy has become one of the most prominent al-Qaida jihadist pundits. And, so, this guy is, you know, what you might consider a commentator. He takes the big ideas of al-Qaida and tries to translate them into digestible tidbits in compelling essay formats for the followers of al-Qaida on the forums.

GWEN IFILL: This all happens on — and this all happens online?

JARRET BRACHMAN: Yes.

And, you know, he started off as a cheerleader, kind of on the sidelines. And what happened is, he was recognized by more formal al-Qaida, you know, Web administrators as having a lot of potential. So, they basically promoted him to this elite status.

Well, over the course of writing tens of 20, 30 essays, people began to really take notice that this guy had potential. And, so, over the course of several years, he became one of the most heralded essayists or jihadists pundits on the forums.

GWEN IFILL: Was it significant that he was a physician?

JARRET BRACHMAN: Well, you know, that information never came out. The only biographical information we ever knew about him, as Abu Dujana al-Khurasani, was that he was born somewhere in the northern part of the Arabian Peninsula, that he was married and had two kids in his early 30s.

All we had to go on was really the essays that he had. And they were thoughtful. They were rabid. And they were very creative.

GWEN IFILL: David Ignatius, you mentioned Ayman al-Zawahri, who also is a physician. Do you think there’s a connection there between their two occupations?

DAVID IGNATIUS: I’m just guessing, but I’m thinking that one reason that he was seen as such a valuable potential penetration of the al-Qaida circle was that, as a physician, he might be able to make his way toward Zawahri. Conceivably, there was hopes even of getting him close to Osama bin Laden.

It’s very interesting that, here again, we have an example of a very well educated person in the Muslim world, a doctor. We have seen other doctors in Britain drawn in to these plots. It’s a reminder that the very top of society, the best educated, often the most prosperous people, seem to be especially vulnerable to this kind of recruitment.

GWEN IFILL: What is the significance. A lot of people don’t even realize that the CIA has bases in war zones. What was the significance of the CIA having an outpost in a place like Khost?

DAVID IGNATIUS: This was an important base, Gwen. It’s very close to the areas Pakistan border, to the tribal areas of Pakistan. And this base was used for gathering information that could then be given to the targeters for our Predator unmanned drone attacks on key al-Qaida and Taliban figures who are hiding out in these tribal areas of Pakistan.

It was — it was said to be a key hub for information. CIA officers there were meeting with agents. Unfortunately, they seemed to have invited the agents inside the base, which was dangerous, but it was an important place in this war.

I talked to CIA officers today who said, we have done so much damage in the last year against this enemy, against al-Qaida and the Taliban, we have to expect that they’re going to try to hit us back. It’s not going to stop us from continuing the activity that that base was doing.

GWEN IFILL: Jarret Brachman, the president today talked about the flexibility which al-Qaida is demonstrating in changing its tactics. Is that something we have begun to see? Was this unfortunate episode a sign at how al-Qaida is changing and becoming something else?

JARRET BRACHMAN: Well, I mean, I think this is really a disaster for us, in the sense that this was a guy who was, you know, something I have called a jihobbyist, right, somebody who cheers from the sidelines as nothing more than a hobby, who then took the next step and actually did something.

And, so, he’s providing a role model for the thousands of people who are in these jihadist discussion forums that they too can be, you know, an al-Qaida army of one. They can go out to Afghanistan or they can — they can, you know, go anywhere, that they can pick up a gun or an explosive belt and do some damage in the name of al-Qaida.

And, so, I think this shows both the creativity, just how nefarious these guys are, and how dedicated they are.

GWEN IFILL: In the same way…

JARRET BRACHMAN: You know, one of the things we see from…

GWEN IFILL: Go ahead.

JARRET BRACHMAN: Oh, one of the things we from Abu Dujana al-Khurasani’s writings is that he felt, you know, from at least 2007, that he was kind of the representative of downtrodden communities, of oppressed and persecuted people.

And you also got a sense that he was very, you know, upset with himself for doing nothing more than talking about it. And, so, it’s this disconnect between, you know, consuming the ideology, but not doing anything about it that drives guys like him mad, forcing them to find a way to get out there and activate themselves.

GWEN IFILL: And, David, finally, does this change now the way the CIA operates on the ground and in dangerous frontiers like this?

DAVID IGNATIUS: People at the agency have been saying today, no, we’re going to be — we’re in the line of fire. We know that. We have to be to do our work.

I hope it will change the tradecraft that they use in meeting with people.

GWEN IFILL: Meaning?

DAVID IGNATIUS: Typically, in a spy novel and in real life, you meet agents in safe houses. You don’t meet them in embassies or in military bases, where you’re vulnerable, where they can see a lot of the people around you. It’s just not secure to do that. Typically, you would go outside.

We stopped doing that in Iraq and Afghanistan, because we thought it was too dangerous for our CIA officers to be traveling. I have a feeling people will now reexamine that and say, you know, it probably is important to get out because it’s more secure. They can do less damage.

But, otherwise, I think they are going to keep pushing. They think that their fight has been effective.

GWEN IFILL: David Ignatius and Jarret Brachman, thank you both very much.