Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
12 April 2012
Review by David Southworth, Columbus, OH
The Triple Agent: The al-Qaeda Mole Who Infiltrated the CIA
By Joby Warrick
New York: Doubleday, 2011. Pp. xv, 244. ISBN 978–0–385–53418–5.
Descriptors: Volume 2012, 21st Century, Afghanistan, Intelligence Print Version

On 30 December 2009, a suicide bomber killed seven CIA employees, a Jordanian intelligence officer, and an Afghan driver, and seriously wounded five other CIA employees at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Chapman in the eastern Afghan city of Khost. The Triple Agent is a riveting account of the bombing and the intelligence failures that made it possible.

Joby Warrick is an award-winning[1] journalist with the Washington Post, covering intelligence and weapons proliferation issues. For the present book, he has tapped sources in the US intelligence community as well as the White House, despite the secretive and insular nature of both organizations.

Warrick gives a general sketch of events leading up to and including the September 11 terrorist attacks, then continues his story to the 2008 presidential election. He paints a picture of an extremely chaotic situation in Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11, a situation which had become sclerotic by early 2009. By then, the US hunt for al-Qaeda leaders had been stalled for some years. Barack Obama and a new national security team decided to ratchet up pressure on the terrorist organization. In practice, this meant increasing the drone attacks on suspected al-Qaeda and Taliban sanctuaries in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The book is written for a general audience interested in the ongoing "War on Terror." But specialists, too, in both the government and academia will value The Triple Agent as a rare case-study for a closely held operation, revealing information previously known only to the inner circles of Taliban and al-Qaeda or the upper echelons of the US government.

As Warrick tells it, American national security leaders could hardly contain their elation when Jordanian intelligence informed them that they had a potential mole within the senior ranks of al-Qaeda and Taliban in Pakistan. Mukhabarat, Jordan's main intelligence agency, had recruited Humam al-Balawi, the future bomber, after discovering he was a leading online agitator for al-Qaeda. The Jordanians dispatched al-Balawi to Pakistan to use his internet reputation along with his skills as a trained doctor to ingratiate himself with Islamist militants. Unbeknown to Washington or Amman, al-Balawi revealed his connection with the Jordanians to his hosts in Pakistan, who decided to use him to strike back at their enemies in the CIA. Al-Balawi spoke of having been "reborn" in Pakistan: "That much was true. What was less certain at this time was whether al-Balawi would survive infancy in his alien new world. Al-Balawi had indeed received an invitation to board with the region's most powerful Taliban group. It had come from the leader of the group, a short, paunchy man with an outlandish black beard and a sadistic sense of humor. His name was Baitullah Mehsud, and he was, at the moment, the most wanted man in all of South Asia" (79).

Eager to infiltrate al-Qaeda's leadership, senior White House and CIA managers hastily sanctioned a plan targeting long sought individuals without first conducting a comprehensive review of the operation.

Months later some U.S. intelligence officials still marveled over how quickly the plan came together and also over the eagerness with which agency veterans bought into the notion that the untrained al-Balawi could survive in a lawless FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Area, in Northwest Pakistan] let alone penetrate a dangerous terrorist network. Such a thing had never happened, not like this. By luck of timing, al-Balawi had turned up on the Mukhabarat's doorstep with his unique set of assets—physician with impeccable jihadist credentials, seemingly willing to put his life on the line—at the precise moment the CIA and the new administration were scrambling to find new methods and agents for a ramped up global hunt for Osama bin Laden…. Al-Balawi dangled that he could go [said one agency official privy to internal conversations about the Jordanians] and he happened to match with a beautiful priority. (83)

In the rush to act, the CIA skipped several steps that might have averted just the sort of counter-penetration that led to the attack at FOB Chapman, never considering whether the whole thing could be a set up. Al-Balawi sent a video recording of himself with a known al-Qaeda leader to his Jordanian handler. He promptly forwarded it to his CIA colleagues, who took the bait.

Some people in Langley and Amman did question whether those managing the operation were up to the task. Ali bin Zeid, the Jordanian officer who acted as al-Balawi's liaison was a member of the royal family who had never participated in such a hands-on operation in a war zone. When his Mukhabarat superiors expressed reservations, bin Zeid brushed them off.

To lead the operation from their side, the CIA chose Jennifer Matthews, a member of the Agency's Counter Terrorism Center and a long-time analyst of al-Qaeda. She advised CIA interrogation teams who questioned, sometimes roughly, al-Qaeda cell members captured by the United States or its allies in the aftermath of 9/11. But she had no experience leading a team in a war zone, in a high-pressure, high-visibility operation. According to Warrick, she took the assignment as chief of CIA operations in eastern Afghanistan to prove to her colleagues that she could succeed in such a challenging environment as a hard-charging female. Matthews knew she would have to "punch her ticket" in a war zone in order to advance her career. An internal CIA report had named her as an individual responsible for the agency's failure to share vital information with FBI colleagues prior to September 11. Warrick claims she saw the al-Balawi assignment as a way to erase this black mark in her record.

Since Matthews came from Langley's analytical branch, not its operational side, running tactical operations and dealing with informants were new to her. When the time came to meet with al-Balawi, she arranged certain questionable privileges for her prized informant. For example, he was allowed to pass through the gates at FOB Chapman without having his identification checked or being patted down. Matthews also encouraged a gathering of all her team members, including security guards, in the CIA compound to give al-Balawi a big welcome—including cake—when he finally arrived, despite the objections of much more experienced members of her team. Such a concentration of individuals in one location was dangerous, as was allowing a dozen individuals access to such a sensitive operation. Warrick believes the privileges granted al-Balawi were in part a reward for his having infiltrated al-Qaeda.

Why exactly did this accomplished doctor, who had served in United Nations refugee camps, decide to act as an al-Qaeda suicide bomber, abandoning his wife and children, and ending a promising medical career? Warrick believes he had made his choice long before the bombing at FOB Chapman, to judge from pseudonymous writings he posted on jihadist discussion boards in support of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq and Jordan and averring the justice of the al-Qaeda cause generally.

Also illuminated are the tensions and motivations within both the CIA and al-Qaeda's high command. In Washington, the new administration in 2009 was determined to increase pressure on al-Qaeda, both to degrade the threat from the 9/11 perpetrators and to demonstrate the folly of the Bush administration's choice to invade Iraq instead of concentrating on al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Leads regarding al-Qaeda leaders were pursued without proper vetting, as in al-Balawi's case, and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) or "drone" strikes on suspected al-Qaeda and Taliban targets were intensified. These attacks in turn motivated the terrorist leaders to retaliate against their American adversaries. In that context, al-Balawi was an invaluable asset.

The book's argument does have weaknesses. For example, Warrick asserts that al-Qaeda had "staged a comeback" in Afghanistan when US forces were shifted to Iraq in 2002 (11). This is debatable: al-Qaeda fighters had never gone away; they had only lain low in the porous Pakistan border regions. The media and US government leaders failed to recognize and appreciate the gravity of the ongoing threat.

In addition, the book is full of internal dialogue and the recreated conversations of individuals no longer alive to confirm or impugn their veracity. Perhaps Warrick drew on al-Balawi's letters or e-mails to his wife and family, but his silence on the matter vitiates some of his claims about the man's motivation and desires.[2]

Though the book is an excellent journalistic overview of a single deadly incident in America's protracted war on terrorism, it leaves many questions unanswered: what were the initial reactions of al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders to al-Balawi? How might things play out should such opportunities arise in the future? Did the suicide bombing succeed by pure luck or methodical planning? Does its success augur similar attacks to come? Like Humam al-Balawi, John Walker Lindh (the "American Taliban"), Faisal Shahzad, who tried to detonate a car bomb in Times Square, and others were able to meet with al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders. Notwithstanding the stunning success of the May 2011 raid on bin Laden's Abbottabad compound, many high-level terrorists have eluded US efforts to apprehend them. Why?

The FOB Chapman incident led to a significant uptick in UAV missile strikes in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Warrick attributes this partly to a new reluctance to conduct risky human intelligence operations and partly to the CIA's desire for revenge. What will be the long-term outcomes of these often controversial strikes, with their inevitable costs in collateral damage? We may not learn the answers in our lifetime, but The Triple Agent will serve as an excellent starting point for future researchers.

[1] A 1996 Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of factory farming for the Raleigh News & Observer.

[2] See, e.g., 61on on al-Balawi's decision to go to Pakistan without informing his family.

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