Briefly Noted: The Triple Agent

Last month, a Taliban member came with a message from the Quetta shura to meet Burhanuddin Rabbani, the former Afghan president who was leading the peace council. The Taliban member — Mullah Esmatullah — had bought two audio messages from the shura and one of them was for Mr. Rabbani. The messenger was treated with respect and bought into Rabbani’s room where he exploded, taking a few lives with him.

In 2009, in Khost, Afghanistan, a similar event happened. A Jordanian agent who had provided spectacular reports on Al-Qaeda members was invited to Camp Chapman for a debriefing. To show that he was trusted, CIA officials in Khost who had never met him decided to let him inside without a search. As soon as he saw the line of CIA officers and their Blackwater guards he started chanting something and only his Jordanian handler knew what was going to happen.

According to a NY Times report

The attack at the C.I.A. base 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. The attack further delayed hope of penetrating Al Qaeda’s upper ranks, and also seemed potent evidence of militants’ ability to strike back against their American pursuers.[Attacker in Afghanistan Was a Double Agent]

The Triple Agent: The al-Qaeda Mole who infiltrated the CIA by Joby Warrick tells the story of what happened in Khost by following the lives of the bomber Humam al-Balawi, his Jordanian handler Sharif Ali bin Zeid, the station chief Jennifer Matthews, the analyst Elizabeth Hanson and even their guards. It starts with the arrest of al-Balwai who was a doctor who moonlighted as an online Islamic warrior. He was arrested by Jordianian Intelligence, but then bin Zeid decided to make him a double agent. He was to infiltrate al-Qaeda in Pakistan and report back. The doctor who had never been to Pakistan before vanished into the tribal regions and very soon started giving inside information like they had never seen before. No one in Jordan or Langley realized that it was a setup. The al-Qaeda folks turned out to be smarter than the ones who flew the drones.

The book compiles decisions made the various actors and how they all added up to a disastrous end. Excited by the possibility that they could get al-Zawahiri, the CIA let their guard down. The blame is finally attributed to the station chief Jennifer Matthews who made the decision to let the bomber in without a search. The book is less than 300 pages, but reads a Frederick Forsyth novel.