A Double Agent for the Taliban?

The suicide bomber who devastated a CIA base in Afghanistan will be a source of bragging for terrorists, but which terrorists? Salameh Nematt on why al Qaeda might not be behind the attack—and how the bomber pulled it off.

01.06.10 7:00 AM ET

While news outlets in the United States are reporting that al Qaeda is behind the devastating Dec. 30 attack in Afghanistan that left seven CIA officers and a Jordanian intelligence officer dead, sources in the Arab world are questioning whether the terrorist organization is responsible.

Al Qaeda-affiliated Web sites have not taken credit for the assault on the CIA base and are expressing doubts about whether the suspected Jordanian suicide bomber, Humam Khalil al-Balawi, is really the jihadi celebrity and online propagandist Abu Dujana al-Khorasani, as has been reported. And now the Pakistani Taliban is claiming responsibility for the bombing and claiming Balawi as one of their own.

“In Cold War days, you would have books written about this operation,” the analyst said. “It was not easy to do at all. The jihadists now have something big to brag about.”

Jordanian intelligence apparently picked up Balawi early last year, after tracking him down electronically. The Jordanians, in close cooperation with the CIA for decades, appear to have believed at the time that he was more valuable to them as a double agent who could infiltrate al Qaeda than as a figure who could be used to condemn the terrorist organization and its tactics, providing a psychological blow to jihadists worldwide.

Arab intelligence analysts say Balawi convinced his Jordanian handlers that he would cooperate and possibly provide information that could lead to the arrest or killing of Osama bin Laden’s No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahri, or even the terror chief himself. Instead, the double agent contacted the Pakistani Taliban, who eventually sent him back to wreak havoc at the CIA base in Afghanistan, the analysts say. The Taliban, for their part, back up this claim, stating through the Arabic satellite channel al-Jazeera that Balawi carried out the attack on their behalf.

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The Taliban affiliation may explain why Web sites associated with al Qaeda have yet to claim Balawi as one of their own. Most sites, including al-Falluja Forum, are questioning whether the suicide bomber is indeed the well-known Khorasani, the most prominent al Qaeda propagandist known to the jihadi sites. (One of Khorasani’s most quoted sayings is “When will my words drink from my blood?”—which means he longed for the day he would fight and die for the jihadists’ cause, rather than just write about it.)

Balawi, aka Khorasani, 32, was flown to Afghanistan, and Jordanian intelligence officer Ali bin Zaid, a distant relative of Jordan’s King Abdullah II, was entrusted with handling him from there. Bin Zaid, who was killed in the Dec. 30 blast, was sent to Afghanistan as part of the Jordanian force serving there under the umbrella of the multinational forces led by the U.S. The king and his wife, Queen Rania, attended his funeral in Amman.

“When [bin Zaid] went to Afghanistan, he put his money where his mouth is,” Nibras Kazimi, a U.S.-based Iraqi analyst who has written extensively on al Qaeda and the jihadist movement, told The Daily Beast. “This is a very sophisticated operation…you cannot easily mislead two intelligence services for almost a year, feed them with enough information to keep them going the way he did, and successfully carry out such a spectacular attack.”

Kazimi, a visiting scholar at the Hudson Institute in Washington, has described the attack on his blog, the Talisman Gate, as “plain incredible.”

Bin Zaid was clearly a liaison officer with the CIA, and this was supposed to be the most glamorous joint operation between the two agencies—catching someone like Zawahri or even bin Laden. Instead, Balawi was brought to Afghanistan, plugged into the Taliban in Afghanistan to help locate leading members of al Qaeda, and the Taliban ended up strapping a suicide explosive belt to his body and sending him to target the CIA base in Khost.

An Arab intelligence analyst told The Daily Beast that the bombing of the CIA base had a “Stasi sophistication,” referring to the East German intelligence service. “In Cold War days, you would have books written about this operation,” the analyst said. “It was not easy to do at all. The jihadists now have something big to brag about.”

“From the moment [Balawi] was caught, he decided that he would either cooperate or pretend to cooperate,” the analyst said. “He decided to pretend, which would’ve required the kind of willpower that would make him do it despite the fact that he had family members to worry about.” Balawi, a doctor, was reportedly married to a Turkish woman and had two children.

The attack at the CIA base has dealt a devastating blow to the spy agency’s operations against militants in the remote mountains of Afghanistan, eliminating an elite team using an informant with strong jihadi credentials and dashing optimism about penetrating al Qaeda’s upper ranks.

The Arab intelligence analyst, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media, said the problem with intelligence services is that they lack both the willpower of the terrorists and the ideology to guide them.

The city of Zarqa, where Balawi came from, is the hometown of al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed by U.S. forces in 2006 with the help of Jordanian intelligence. It is not clear how the Dec. 30 attack will affect relations between the CIA and Jordan’s respected spy agency, the General Intelligence Directorate.

Jordanian officials have insisted that Jordan had no link to or knowledge of last Wednesday’s bombing. The media in Amman have made no mention of the link between bin Zaid’s death and the attack that killed the seven CIA officers, reporting instead that the Jordanian intelligence officer was involved in humanitarian work in Afghanistan.

Salameh Nematt is an international writer for The Daily Beast. He is the former Washington bureau chief for the international Arab daily Al Hayat, where he reported on U.S. foreign policy, the war in Iraq, and the US drive for democratization in the broader Middle East. He has also written extensively on regional and global energy issues and their political implications.