CIA Bomber Was No Double Agent, Say Jordanians

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From left: ABC News / AP; Dennis Brack / Corbis

Senior Jordanian intelligence sources speaking to TIME on condition of anonymity have disputed the claim that Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, whose suicide bombing of a U.S. facility in Afghanistan last week killed seven CIA operatives, had been a double agent working for al-Qaeda all along. Instead, they say, after he was initially turned following his arrest by the Jordanians in 2007, al-Balawi had been a useful asset whose work helped the Americans target al-Qaeda leaders. But, they claim, his outrage at the high number of civilian casualties inflicted in the resulting strikes may be the factor that prompted him to go back to the other side. The Jordanians, of course, were greatly embarrassed by the incident, and their denial of the claim that al-Balawi had never been genuinely committed to the fight against al-Qaeda will be received by many with a measure of skepticism.

The 32-year-old al-Balawi, recruited by the Jordanians during his imprisonment for outlawed activities on jihadi websites, had seemed to be an ideal candidate for a top-priority espionage mission: penetrating the al-Qaeda circle around Ayman al-Zawahiri, the movement's top ideologue and second-in-command who is believed to be hiding in Pakistan's tribal wilds. Al-Balawi was a known presence on radical Islamic websites; he was Arab; and, like al-Zawahiri, he was a trained doctor whose medical skills were needed in treating al-Qaeda and Taliban war casualties.

Jordan's spy agency, the General Intelligence Directorate (GID), was respected and trusted by the CIA for its ability to infiltrate agents into radical Islamists groups. A mole planted by the Jordanians in al-Qaeda's affiliate in Iraq had provided the key intelligence tip that allowed U.S. forces to kill the group's leader, Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi, in a June 2006 air strike.

A senior Jordanian intelligence source tells TIME that al-Balawi was sent to Pakistan at the behest of the CIA, with a plausible cover story: he was to be a medical student pursuing advanced university studies. An official in Amman, who like his colleagues requested anonymity, says that once al-Balawi set himself up in Pakistan's border region and sent out feelers to jihadi militants, "he was very helpful, and the CIA were grateful to him." This source tells TIME that al-Balawi pinpointed several al-Qaeda targets, which were attacked by U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and that "al-Balawi was extremely well paid."

The Jordanians say that in December, al-Balawi requested an urgent meeting with the CIA and his Jordanian go-between, Captain Sharif Ali bin Zeid, reportedly a relation of the royal Jordanian family. To whet their appetite, al-Balawi dangled a tantalizing piece of information: he claimed to have "some information" on the whereabouts of al-Zawahiri, these sources say.

The New York Times reported on Wednesday that al-Balawi's offer of information on al-Zawahiri was deemed important enough for the local CIA station to alert top officials at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., and in the White House. Al-Balawi was taken seriously, and trusted enough to warrant a trip to Khost by the CIA's second-in-command in Afghanistan, an unidentified mother of three, to attend the spy's debriefing at a U.S. base. But al-Balawi, who was allowed onto Forward Operating Base Chapman without a body search, was wearing a suicide belt and blew himself up as soon as he encountered his CIA and Jordanian spymasters.

So why did al-Balawi, a seemingly trusted agent, switch sides? The Jordanian intelligence sources who spoke to TIME speculate that al-Balawi had become enraged at the Americans for killing a high number of civilians in their hunt for al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders. And al-Balawi, who felt partly responsible for these deaths because of his role in pointing out the targeted villages in which al-Qaeda militants had been hiding, may have been consumed by guilt. "It's very possible that he decided to take revenge for the death of these Muslim civilians," says a senior Jordanian official.

While these officials admit to feeling "deep embarrassment" over al-Balawi's betrayal, they remain confident in their ability to penetrate al-Qaeda's leadership circles. "We've done it before, and we can do it again," an official says. "We won't stop trying."

In Afghanistan, the U.S. military may have few other options. On Jan. 4, Major General Michael T. Flynn, the country's top U.S. intelligence officer, issued a grim assessment of the U.S.-led coalition forces' ability to gather actionable data on its elusive enemy. Analysts, according to the report, are "starved for information from the field," to the point that their jobs feel more like "fortune-telling than serious detective work." Despite misgivings after al-Balawi's lethal betrayal, the CIA's attempts — with Jordan's help — to recruit another spy to infiltrate al-Qaeda may still be their best bet.