SELDOM before has Central Intelligence Agency experienced such a lethal dose of blowback. The earliest reports following a suicide bombing at Forward Operating Base Chapman in Khost on December 30 suggested eight fatalities among agency operatives, which would have made it the deadliest attack since the same number of CIA officers were killed when the US embassy in Beirut was bombed back in 1983.
The Afghan Taliban were quick to claim that the perpetrator was an officer of the Afghan National Army.
As the picture became clearer (although several aspects of it remain hazy), several intriguing details began to emerge. The deceased, it turned out, included five bonafide CIA employees plus two men hired from Xe, the firm better known as Blackwater. The eighth victim was a officer of Jordan’s General Intelligence Directorate – and a distant cousin of King Abdullah.
Captain Sharif Ali bin Zeid was apparently "running" Humam Khalil Abu Mulal al-Balawi, the Jordanian doctor of Palestinian origin who evidently gained access to the base without being searched. (Although CIA chief Leon Panetta has said that Balawi was about to be searched when he blew himself up, that seems unlikely on the face of it, given that he managed to murder relatively senior agents without harming any of the guards on the periphery of the base.)
The encounter was not unplanned on the CIA’s side. In fact, it was rather tantalized by the prospect: the agency’s deputy chief of mission had arrived from Kabul specifically for purpose, and the White House had been informed. Balawi had purportedly claimed that he had lately met Al Qaeda’s deputy head Ayman al-Zawahiri and wished to convey information on his whereabouts.
Not surprisingly, Al Qaeda too claimed credit for the attack, followed by the Pakistani Taliban – whose version of events was buttressed by a video dated Dec 20 that showed Balawi fraternizing with Hakeemullah Mehsud and vowing vengeance for the killing of Baitullah Mehsud last August by a missile fired from a CIA drone.
Following the Chapman base attack, the CIA too promised to exact revenge, and drone strikes have been stepped up in the past fortnight.
It is presumably no coincidence that the base was used to gather information employed in choosing targets for drone attacks, although its focus was on the Haqqani network in North Waziristan. Of course, that’s where the Mehsud Taliban have been driven in the wake of the Pakistan army’s operation in South Waziristan. Has this helped to tighten the nexus between the militant factions? Was the Balawi operation a joint venture? Did Al Qaeda chip in?
Whether or not he met al-Zawahiri, Balawi wasn’t clueless about Al Qaeda – reports suggest that for about a year he had been feeding Sharif Ali fairly accurate information about low-level operatives. But, although he has been described as a double or even a triple agent, his final act suggests he never had any doubt about which side he was on. And chances are that Baitullah Mehsud was incidental to his incendiary resolve.
Balawi was arrested in Jordan, apparently on the basis of his contributions to jihadist websites, during Israel’s assault on Gaza last year, but released after three days. Whereupon he left for Pakistan. Which isn’t a good sign these days. It’s unclear whether he was let off lightly by the Jordanians and allowed to travel because he had promised to spy for them and their American friends, although that seems likely.
What he did thereafter, where he went, whether he travelled back to Jordan in the interim, and whether he had any previous direct contact with the CIA – all that is so far a mystery. Amman could probably shed some light on some of these areas, but it is being characteristically coy.
Although close collaboration between Jordan’s intelligence services and secret police on the one hand and American agencies on the other is hardly a secret, with Jordan having served as a destination for rendition flights and a torture site for their occupants, Abdullah’s government is understandably not keen to publicize the more sordid aspects of its relationship with the US. (It has claimed that Sharif Ali was in Afghanistan as part of a "humanitarian mission".)
Chances are the CIA will henceforth be a little more wary about Jordanian tips and informants, but what it really needs to worry about is the relative ease with which an individual clad in low-tech weaponry was able to strike such a devastating blow against an agency with the latest technology at its command. The loss of life has also entailed a loss of intelligence: for instance the Khost base chief, one of two women killed in the explosion, was a veteran of the CIA’s Al Qaeda-tracking Alec Station who reportedly boasted an encyclopaedic knowledge of its top leadership.
But well before George Bush’s war on terror thrust it into a particularly nasty role, the CIA has been involved in activities that extended well beyond espionage and intelligence analysis, ranging from assassination programmes to the routine destabilization of governments deemed to be inadequately subservient to Washington’s diktat.
Its deployment in the Af-Pak theatre is far from the first time it has served as an instrument of war: from Angola to Vietnam to El Salvador (and in numerous other countries) it has dedicated itself to all manner of nefarious activities, with Operation Phoenix merely the most notorious of its initiatives. And it was, of course, intricately involved in the mayhem in Afghanistan in which the Taliban and Al Qaeda were incubated.
The reprehensible nature of its adversaries in the present instance hardly means the CIA’s character has changed or its tactics can be condoned.
Reacting to the Khost tragedy, Panetta said in a message to employees: "Those who fell yesterday were far from home and closer to the enemy…" Which prompted the thought: had CIA operatives, over the decades, stayed closer to home, the US may well have had far fewer enemies.