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Real-Life Thriller Explores al-Qaida Triple Agent’s CIA Infiltration, Bombing

August 30, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
In the real-life thriller, "The Triple Agent: The al-Qaeda Mole Who Infiltrated the CIA," author Joby Warrick examines the unlikely story of an operative who infiltrated the CIA and detonated a suicide bomb at a U.S. base in Afghanistan. Margaret Warner discusses the spy story with Warrick.

JEFFREY BROWN: Next, a true-life spy story about the al-Qaida triple agent who dealt a deadly blow to the CIA. Margaret Warner has our book conversation.

It was the most devastating attack on the CIA in more than two decades. On December 30, 2009, a suicide bomber blew himself up inside a CIA base in Afghanistan. Dead were seven CIA officers, a Jordanian intelligence agent and their driver.

HARI SREENIVASAN: At least eight American civilians were killed in a suicide bombing today in Afghanistan. The bomb exploded at a military base.

MARGARET WARNER: Early reports were sketchy.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The base supports reconstruction and other civilian programs.

MARGARET WARNER: The man carrying out the audacious assault was a Jordanian doctor, Humam Khalil al-Balawi, who was initially recruited by Jordanian intelligence.

The CIA thought he would lead them to Osama bin Laden and his top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri. Instead, he turned out to be a triple agent for al-Qaida.

Like many suicide bombers, he made a testimonial video just before his fatal mission.

HUMAM KHALIL AL-BALAWI, suicide bomber: It’s not a watch. It’s a detonator to kill as much as I can. This is my goal: to kill you, to kill your partner, Jordanian partner.

MARGARET WARNER: How the CIA came to trust Balawi and how al-Qaida sent him on his murderous path are revealed in a new book, “The Triple Agent: The al-Qaeda Mole Who Infiltrated the CIA.” The writer is Washington Post reporter Joby Warrick, and he joins us now.

So, Joby, welcome.

JOBY WARRICK, “The Triple Agent”: Thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, remind us, first of all, how big a disaster was this in the history of the CIA?

JOBY WARRICK: It’s arguably the biggest intelligence disaster since the Cold War for the CIA. There hasn’t been this many lives lost in a single incident since the 1980s. And in terms of just treachery and deceit, it’s as big as it gets, the CIA led into a trap in which multiple officers, including seven Americans, were killed.

MARGARET WARNER: So, now tell us about the perpetrator, the triple agent, Humam Khalil al-Balawi. Who was he? What drove him? How did he get into a position to be able to pull off something like this?

JOBY WARRICK: You probably could not script a character as improbable as this man.

First of all, he starts out as just being a lowly Jordanian, a pediatrician, of all people, working in a refugee clinic in Jordan, living a quiet life, two children in the suburbs and that sort of thing, and just through this series of improbable circumstances, ends up being arrested and interrogated, and then made into an informant. With his own interest in doing so, because, at heart, he was also an al-Qaida sympathizer, and he was looking for a way to somehow strike out and do his own form of jihad.

And this is exactly what happened in the end.

MARGARET WARNER: And he was secretly, at night, actually penning anti-U.S. missives or screeds on the Internet, right, under a pseudonym.

JOBY WARRICK: He had a dangerous hobby, which is, he was a blogger for — under an assumed name, as you said. He was writing fairly radical things. He was supporting al-Qaida, supporting al-Qaida leaders, trying to explain them to the masses, and doing it in a very effective way, so he had a very large following, young people in particular.

MARGARET WARNER: And what do you know about Balawi and what drove him? You had a lot of detail in here. How did you get inside his head?

JOBY WARRICK: He left quite a record of his own thinking.

He wrote hundreds and hundreds of words in his blogs before he was arrested. And even after he went to Pakistan, he continued to write articles. He submitted to interviews. He did multiple videotapes right up to the day that he was killed. So he was able to tell us what he was thinking, and even gave us a glimpse of his own internal conflicts as he was trying to decide whether it was worth it to sacrifice himself.

This is not some young, naive 20-year-old giving himself up for a few hundred bucks. This was a doctor, a learned man. And he really wrestled with this idea of, will I kill myself? Is this the best I can do for God, for Allah? In the end, he ultimately decided that this is the path he had to take.

MARGARET WARNER: So, now, what on earth caused the CIA to put someone like this into position to pull off a catastrophe?

JOBY WARRICK: Well, unlikely is the way to describe this man, and that includes, from the CIA’s point of view, too, because, as far they are concerned, he was one of many possible informants, someone who could be sent someplace and may or may not be able to get access.

So, they took a gamble on him, sent him to Pakistan, paid his airfare and a little setup money, but essentially didn’t really expect that much out of him, sort of dropping him off into a place where he may get his head cut off, as far as anyone knew, and at no great loss.

But as it turns out, he ended up very quickly becoming extremely good, and he started finding more and more amazing things and giving it to the CIA through the Jordanians, his handlers, and was showing the CIA that he was getting very, very close to the inner circle of al-Qaida.

MARGARET WARNER: Including with videos?

JOBY WARRICK: Exactly. He had not just boasts or saying that he was doing this, but he was sending back documented, you know, solid evidence that he was getting very close to senior leaders.

MARGARET WARNER: So the CIA decides they have to meet him. One of the astonishing sort of warning signs or bungles here is, no American had ever met him, right?


And this is what becomes alarming to the CIA, as they began to see this incredible evidence that he was giving to them and realizing that no one had ever laid eyes on him. And, so, it became a priority for the CIA to have this man brought to a place where they could meet him in person, where they could look him in the eye to see if he was telling the truth, and also to potentially arm him for the things he was about to do.

And that assignment included, very likely, bringing him to the number-two leader of al-Qaida, Ayman al-Zawahri.

MARGARET WARNER: Whom he claimed to be his doctor?

JOBY WARRICK: Claimed to be his doctor. And he claimed to be the doctor to the number-two leader of al-Qaida.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, as I said, there were so — I mean, this book is painful to read. There are so many missed signals, so many warning signs ignored, including, one, that nobody had ever met him, but two, that the actual CIA guy in Amman smelled a rat.

JOBY WARRICK: It’s true. And the Jordanians are quite good at human intelligence, and we have relied on them for years to help us find terrorists and help us sort of sniff out their networks.

And in this particular case, there were concerns that this man, Balawi, might be not what he claimed. There was even a direct warning that he might be leading them into an ambush.

But there are reasons that the CIA was able to look at these warnings and say, this is just infighting among Jordanians, and they were able to disregard it and not take it seriously.

MARGARET WARNER: But then right — right before he comes to this CIA outpost, didn’t the American, the CIA agent who was closest to the operation, send a warning back to the station chief, saying, something is really bad here?

JOBY WARRICK: Yes. And that’s part of the reconstruction of what went wrong. There were not only warnings from the Jordanians, but some of the Americans had concerns and suspicions, too.

And so there was a back-and-forth between the Americans at Khost, the base where they were all staying, and also back and forth to Washington: How do we handle this man? What is the proper security parameters? Do we trust him or not? It was quite a robust argument.

In the end, the imperative was to meet the person. And so the cautions were just disregarded.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, they could’ve stopped him even up to the last minute, yet he gets in with no — going through no screening. How did that happen?

JOBY WARRICK: Yes, this is really remarkable.

MARGARET WARNER: To meet all these high-level — not high-level, but senior CIA people.

JOBY WARRICK: Yes. And there are traditions within the CIA for dealing with informants, and you do — you never trust them because you’re not sure where they have been and who they have been threatened by.

And so, just as a matter of routine, they are often searched as soon as they get into the car. Someone checks them from — just to make sure they are not wearing wires, for example, let alone bombs.

In this case, because he was so valuable and because they wanted to see him so urgently, and they were so worried about Taliban spies, they allowed him to get through three layers of security without being checked or searched a single time, until the moment that he was within a few feet of a great number of CIA operatives.

MARGARET WARNER: You also point out this wasn’t a freelance mission. They were — it was approved at the highest levels in Washington.

JOBY WARRICK: That’s right. This was something that, because, if you think back to the excitement that surrounded the death of bin Laden just a few months ago, an opportunity to go to the very heart of al-Qaida, this seemed to be the same opportunity. And there was excitement, not just in Langley, at CIA headquarters, but all the way up to Washington, where the president himself was briefed about this meeting that was about to take place.

MARGARET WARNER: Then, of course, the CIA did an internal review.

What lessons did they take away from that? What have they concluded from this about how they bungled this so badly?

JOBY WARRICK: Yes, there’s lots of anguish and grief because of the loss of these people. But they did look back and find not just little things that went wrong, but systemic problems, such as a failure to be attentive to counterintelligence, which is the handling of informants, to make sure you have experienced people in the right places.

There has been a lot of soul-searching and a lot of change because of this accident.

MARGARET WARNER: And did anyone pay a price?

JOBY WARRICK: You know, that’s been a criticism of the CIA, but it’s typical of the way they work. They try to keep their problems internal.

This is an agency that doesn’t like to be in the spotlight any more than it has to be. In this case, it was deemed that mistakes were made by people who in this case weren’t alive anymore. And so some commissions were set up and studies were made. No one was disciplined, as far as we can tell. And it’s — but things, hopefully, have changed regardless of that.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Joby Warrick, thank you. Great book. Thank you so much.

JOBY WARRICK: Thank you for having me.