The Sunday Times
By Christina Lamb and Miles Amoore
It was the week after Christmas and there was a line of paper Santas hanging in the small chow house at Forward Operating Base Chapman, sent to Afghanistan by loved ones back home.
Among the CIA agents waiting in the morning chill, amid the exercise bicycles and weights, were a mother of three and a father of three who had had to tell their children they would not be home for Christmas.
This was not the first time since 9/11 that they had been stuck on some remote base in Afghanistan. But this time they believed the sacrifice would be worth it, for they believed they were about to land the biggest present imaginable to an American intelligence agent.
Hunting down Osama Bin Laden has recently been given new urgency by President Barack Obama, anxious for some kind of victory that would enable him to pull out troops from Afghanistan.
Now, eight years after losing the trail in the mountains of Tora Bora, it suddenly seemed that US intelligence workers had got the piece of luck they had been praying for.
The CIA deputy country director had flown in from Kabul, CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, was alerted and the White House was on notice to expect a call.
The mother of three — the agency chief at Chapman — had spent the past 14 years of her life tracking Bin Laden and this was the moment she had been waiting for. An original member of Alec Station, the CIA team dedicated to hunting the Al-Qaeda leader, she had an “encyclopaedic knowledge” of Al-Qaeda, according to colleagues.
The man they were waiting for was a 32-year-old Jordanian doctor called Humam Khalil Abu Mulal al-Balawi.
He was driving across the border from Pakistan where he had spent a year becoming close to Ayman al-Zawahiri, Bin Laden’s Egyptian deputy. That morning, Wednesday December 30, Balawi had been picked up at the Ghulam Khan border crossing by an Afghan army commander called Arghawan, who was in charge of security at the Chapman base. The pair drove to the village of Mermandi, near Khost in southeastern Afghanistan, where at about 12.30pm they were met by Arghawan’s driver.
The driver, who wished to remain anonymous, told The Sunday Times that he had been instructed one week earlier by his boss to paint his white Toyota Corolla red, to put in tinted glass, and to keep his mobile phone on him at all times.
“Arghawan was waiting for me in a white Corolla with Balawi in the back seat,” he said. The driver had never seen Balawi before but said “he was obviously trusted by my commander, Arghawan. The two men clearly knew each other”.
The two men got into the red car. Arghawan got into the driver’s seat and Balawi sat in the back wearing a pattu, or shawl, that covered his head and upper body, and a yellow turban. His eyes were hidden by sunglasses. The driver was left behind.
It was a 40-minute drive to Chapman base, a heavily guarded compound well known in the area as a CIA facility. Its main focus was gathering intelligence to direct the unmanned drones onto Taliban and Al-Qaeda targets across the border in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
The base is surrounded by a high mud wall patrolled by plain-clothed Afghan security men carrying AK-47s. There are concrete fortified towers on each corner.
Then there is an inner layer of security and a second mud wall topped with concertina wire. The third gate is manned by American soldiers and also ringed with barbed wire.
Astonishingly, in a region where it is the norm to be screened entering any hotel or public building and where even the president’s closest friends go through seven checks before being allowed in, the doctor was not once searched before entering.
One of the base’s security guards said: “I was warned before not to search or stop the car when it arrived.”
According to the guard, Balawi had been to the base before. He claimed that before the doctor reached the first gate, the Afghan security guards in charge of the perimeter security were instructed by US soldiers to go into their rooms.
“They did not want any Afghans to see Balawi,” he said. A US army vehicle then led the car through the next two gates, reaching the inside of the base before stopping outside a block of buildings used by the CIA and military intelligence to debrief their sources.
As Balawi stepped out of the car, seven CIA officers and a handful of soldiers gathered around. According to the guard, it was then that Balawi detonated his bomb, killing eight and injuring six.
Arghawan, still sitting in the driver’s seat, survived the initial blast but a US soldier shot him in the head with his pistol, assuming that he was part of the bomb plot.
“There were lots of body parts,” said the guard. “The suicide bomber’s legs were all that was left of him. He had hidden the bomb beneath his pattu.”
According to one US intelligence official, the explosive was so powerful that it killed agency operatives who were as far as 50ft away. It blew the bomber’s turban onto the barbed wire.
In all, seven agents died, the CIA’s worst loss since 1983, when a lorry bomb killed eight at the US embassy in Beirut.
Gary Berntsen, who led the CIA team to Tora Bora in the hunt for Bin Laden, said the attack “took out decades of experience”. Robert Baer, another former CIA officer, described it as “the equivalent of the army losing a battalion”.
Although the Khost attack has been overshadowed in the media by the focus on the failed Christmas Day plane bomber, it is the terrorist group’s single most important victory since bringing down the World Trade Center in New York.
“Al-Qaeda has revealed that it is capable of running sophisticated clandestine operations with sustained deception,” said Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA officer. “Al-Qaeda did to us exactly what we intended to do to them.”
TEN days on, why the CIA was so careless is still a mystery.
“I can think of at least six basic rules the CIA broke,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Tony Shaffer, a CIA-trained officer who directed operations in Afghanistan for the military’s Defence Intelligence Agency in 2003-4.
“You never bring an asset onto a base — apart from anything else you don’t want him to be observed. You can’t be so naive as not to think the Taliban are watching who goes in and out. And why on earth were so many [agents] gathered together?”
Leon Panetta, the CIA director, insisted yesterday that the dangers of kidnap outside the bases meant that his agents had no choice but to bring assets onto them: “In the barren landscape outside Khost, things such as ‘safe’ houses — a staple of traditional espionage — are not easily found.”
While it is true that it is not easy for westerners to move around Afghanistan undetected, others see it as part of a wider malaise. Last week America’s top military intelligence officer in Afghanistan castigated his country’s spies as “clueless” and “out of touch”.
In a report released after the attack by a defence think tank, Major-General Michael Flynn and his chief adviser, Captain Matt Pottinger, said US agents were ineffective because they were “ignorant of local economics and landowners, hazy about who the powerbrokers are and how they might be influenced … and disengaged from people in the best position to find answers”.
The public release of the report was no coincidence, it seems. Senior military sources said US Central Command had had no idea the CIA had brought a Jordanian agent into Afghanistan and was furious.
“It’s typical of the arrogance of the CIA, always running their own game,” said Shaffer. “They thought they were going to get one up on everyone else and be the heroes.”
Like the suicide hijackers who carried out the September 11 attacks, Balawi was well educated and from a family who had moved around the Middle East. Born in Kuwait to a middle-class Jordanian family of Palestinian origin, he studied medicine in Istanbul where he met his wife, Defne Bayrak. “We had a routine life there; he was not someone who would go out often,” she said last week. “But I knew his inclinations.”
He frequently posted anti-western views on extremist websites and when he returned to Jordan he ran a clinic in a Palestinian refugee camp near the town of Zarqa. In March last year he was arrested by the GID — the Jordanian intelligence agency — which had been monitoring his posts.
However, the agents who held Balawi in custody believed they had “turned” him into an asset. In return for his freedom, he agreed to work for the GID and was given a mission of the utmost sensitivity.
His task was to travel to Pakistan and join Al-Qaeda, posing as an Arab volunteer. Once infiltrated into the terrorist network, he would help CIA agents in Afghanistan to track down Al-Qaeda’s core leaders, including Zawahiri.
Jordanian intelligence had good form in this respect. Their agents had provided the information that led to the assassination in 2006 of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Balawi apparently linked up with members of the so-called Haqqani network run by Jalaluddin Haqqani, the Afghan warlord, and his son Siraj. Based in North Waziristan, one of the tribal areas on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, the Haqqanis are close to Al-Qaeda and were one of the main targets of the CIA agents based just over the border at Chapman.
Agents used polygraphs or lie-detectors to check Balawi’s sincerity. According to one CIA official, he pinpointed several Al-Qaeda targets, which were attacked by US forces, and was “extremely well paid”.
He continued to post his extreme anti-American views, which appeared to have been seen by the agency as good cover. The possibility that these may have been his real views was apparently discounted.
According to the Jordanians, in December Balawi requested an urgent meeting with the CIA and Captain Sharif Ali bin Zeid, his Jordanian go-between. He dangled a tantalising piece of information, using a prearranged code to claim to know the whereabouts of Zawahiri.
It was an offer deemed so important that the local CIA station alerted top officials at CIA headquarters and the White House and apparently ignored all the usual norms. It was to prove fatal.
“I can absolutely imagine how it happened,” said Richard Barrett, former head of counter-terrorism for MI6 who now runs the United Nations commission that monitors the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. “These were individuals under great stress, then all the excitement over the possibility that he was really getting to their main target.”
What is still not clear is whether Balawi was working for Al-Qaeda from the start as a deliberate plant or if he was turned in Pakistan as the Jordanians claim.
Yesterday a video appeared posthumously on an Arabic news channel in which Balawi appeared alongside Hakimullah Mehsud, leader of the Pakistan Taliban (TTP). Hakimullah took over last summer from Baitullah Mehsud who was killed in a US drone attack.
Speaking in Arabic and wearing traditional Arabic dress, the Jordanian doctor said all jihadists must attack US targets to revenge the killing of the Pakistani Taliban leader. “We will never forget the blood of our emir Baitullah Mehsud,” he said. “We will always demand revenge for him inside America and outside.”
It is the Pakistani links that will most concern the Americans. The TTP has never before carried out an attack inside Afghanistan and the video raises questions about the involvement of the ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence service which has close links with the Haqqani network.
One US official said the chemical fingerprint of the bomb that killed the seven CIA agents matched the kind produced by Pakistani intelligence.
In recent weeks the United States has increased pressure on Pakistani authorities to go after the Haqqanis. But Pakistan’s military has refused to comply, regarding Haqqani — who worked with the CIA in the 1980s — as its “asset”.
This will alarm America almost as much as the fact that its intelligence services were gulled by an Al-Qaeda operative. Pakistan’s co-operation is seen as crucial if headway is to be made against the terrorist group and the Taliban.
Meanwhile, security has been tightened at Chapman. Even the new head of security is searched every time he enters the base. Sniffer dogs are also on patrol.
For the CIA, however, the precautions are way too late.