From coup to catastrophe: The triple agent

Joby Warrick tells the story of a young doctor who penetrated deep inside Al Qaeda, gathering invaluable intelligence for the CIA. But when his American handlers held a reception to recognise his espionage work, a ferocious blast made it clear that they had made a terrible mistake.
Humam Al Balawi blew himself up at a US base in eastern Afghanistan on December 30, 2009, killing seven CIA agents.
Humam Al Balawi blew himself up at a US base in eastern Afghanistan on December 30, 2009, killing seven CIA agents.

The Triple Agent

Joby Warrick



The temptation will be great, undoubtedly, to thumb through the pages of Joby Warrick's The Triple Agent and offhandedly dismiss it as outdated reporting. After the US raid on the high-walled compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, that resulted in the killing of Osama bin Laden, one might be inclined to consider the story of Humam Al Balawi yesterday's news.

And yet, Al Balawi and bin Laden, and their disparate fates, offer two wildly diverging takes on the limitations of intelligence gathering, and the success, or lack thereof, of the war against Al Qaeda in all its differing permutations. If the killing of bin Laden is the great success story of US intelligence, the death of Al Balawi is one of its prime failures, and a reminder of the fallibility of all such efforts.

Intelligence is less a science than an art practised only by the partially blind, one whose disasters are as numerous as its triumphs. Those who celebrate the bin Laden coup would do well to remember that it could very easily have turned into the Balawi catastrophe.

In telling this story, Warrick - who writes about the Middle East, diplomacy and national security for The Washington Post - is following in the footsteps of other journalists looking to make sense, and a new kind of literature, of the world Al Qaeda made. This journalism takes the place of more traditional forms of artistry, providing order and a narrative arc where none might otherwise be visible. "At this moment, the defining story of our times - the Al Qaeda attacks on New York and the Pentagon, and the subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan - is being told in some of the greatest books of our time," observes Geoff Dyer in his essay The Moral Art of War. "It's just that these books are not coming in the shape and form commonly expected: the novel." The Triple Agent is not in quite the same vaunted class as George Packer's The Assassins' Gate, or Dexter Filkins's The Forever War, but at its strongest it, too, provides a certain enlightenment, and catharsis that we might otherwise seek from fiction.

The Triple Agent is the story of the Balawi debacle, but it also doubles as a potted history of the hunt for bin Laden and the rest of Al Qaeda's leadership.

After the US invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, the remnants of Al Qaeda and the Taliban fled over the border to Pakistan. The soldiers remained in Afghanistan, but much of the war was now to be found next door.

The Pakistani government professed its devotion to capturing Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders while simultaneously offering assistance, and safe conduct, to those same militants. And the gathering of intelligence was hampered by the prosecution of the war; unlike in Iraq, where commandos could seize on fresh intelligence, the fight in Pakistan was to be conducted only by air. To truly target Al Qaeda, a mole would have to be inserted in their midst.

To begin to understand Humam Al Balawi, we must first acknowledge the presence of his shadow, Abu Dujana Al Khorasani. Al Balawi was a physician, the son of Palestinian refugees treating the impoverished residents of a Palestinian refugee camp in Jordan. Abu Dujana was a fire-breathing online jihadist, given to writing anti-American screeds and paying lavish tribute to the "martyrs" who killed themselves in suicide-bombing operations in Iraq and elsewhere.

When the Jordanian Mukhabarat - secret police- sought the blogger in January 2009, they were surprised to discover that Abu Dujana was none other than the soft-spoken doctor. After being interrogated for three days at the Mukhabarat jail known as "the Fingernail Factory", Al Balawi was returned to his father's home.

Some months later, he was on a plane to Peshawar, Pakistan, armed with a fistful of dollars, his medical expertise, and a Google-searchable cache of jihadist writings as proof of his devotion. "By luck of timing," observes Warrick, "Balawi had turned up on the Mukhabarat's doorstep with his unique set of assets - a physician with impeccable jihadi credentials, seemingly willing to put his life on the line - at the precise moment the CIA and a new US administration were scrambling to find new methods and agents for a ramped-up global hunt for Osama bin Laden."

In short order, Al Balawi proved himself the most indispensable of secret agents, infiltrating Baitullah Mehsud's wing of the Taliban. Sending along video footage of one of bin Laden's top commanders, and detailed medical information about Al Qaeda's second-in-command, Ayman Al Zawahiri, Al Balawi had seemingly managed to penetrate deeper into Al Qaeda than any previous agent in more than a decade of concerted effort. The CIA appeared to be on the brink of capturing or killing Al Zawahiri, and potentially destroying the leadership of Al Qaeda.

But Humam Al Balawi was more Abu Dujana than his handlers fully grasped. In hindsight, the warning signs should have been obvious. Al Balawi had become the CIA's most valuable secret agent without ever meeting with any CIA operative. He had flipped with relative ease, and had apparently penetrated Al Qaeda and the Taliban with even greater ease. "He happened to match with a beautiful priority," noted one former CIA official, and the lure of taking out Al Qaeda's top names trumped the built-in security measures meant to guard against such shortcuts.

After gathering such an impressive haul of new information from Al Balawi, the CIA sought to bring him in to be debriefed. Al Balawi vigorously demurred, pleading the danger of being discovered by his Al Qaeda associates. After arguing vociferously for a meeting in Pakistan, he finally agreed to be brought to the secret CIA base in Khost, Afghanistan. All he asked in return was one thing: "You'll treat me like a friend, right?" His CIA handlers planned a traditional reception for their honoured guest, complete with a birthday cake.

But it was Al Balawi who brought the surprise, detonating the bomb concealed inside his vest, spraying shards of metal in a 60-metre radius around him. Ten people were killed, including seven CIA officers. Al Balawi was not a double agent, as the CIA had callowly assumed; he was a triple agent, and his truest loyalties were to the Al Qaeda leaders who had sent him to his death.

We read The Triple Agent on the other side of the abyss separating past from present, our knowledge of the raid on bin Laden informing our response to Warrick's narrative. The dazzling success of the assault on bin Laden's compound and the capture of 2.7 terabytes of information stored on computers and hard drives, offers a useful counternarrative to Al Balawi's.

The knowledge accrued since the raid also pokes a few medium-sized holes in Warrick's narrative: bin Laden was not "merely a figurehead" in Al Qaeda, but actively involved in planning and operations; and contrary to Warrick's assertion, there had been at least one near-capture of bin Laden by US forces in the decade before his death. As the countless stories on the bin Laden raid remind us, The Triple Agent is only part of the story, if a valuable one.

Intelligence is, by its very nature, a dicey proposition. It is like an advertisement for a discount iPad: to be approached with innate scepticism about its availability and the motives of its sellers. The problem of intelligence services discovering only the answers they are looking for is an old one. And yet, without the willingness to gamble on information, intelligence services like the CIA are mere sorters of documents. So should we learn a more valuable lesson from Al Balawi or from bin Laden? Does the death of bin Laden make of the Balawi disaster a necessary bump in the road on the way to success, or a reminder of the knife's edge separating intelligence triumph from calamity?

The world without bin Laden is a fundamentally different place from the one in which Warrick wrote his book, even if only in the symbolic sense: the long hand of the United States striking down its attacker with surgical precision, in the name of 3,000 dead in New York and Washington.

And yet, before you answer too hastily, perhaps we should hear from Warrick once more, as the widow of one of Al Balawi's victims pays farewell to her husband. "Mindy Lou needed to fully understand what her husband had endured, so she willed herself to touch his broken body. She caressed his swollen, shrouded face. She felt the empty parts of the glove where fingers were missing. She let her hands pass along the length of his uniform, feeling the broken bones through the fabric. She kissed her husband one last time and then closed the coffin."

The raid on bin Laden was a triumph of patient intelligence gathering, a signature accomplishment by Barack Obama and his national security team, and a potential turning point in the battle against Al Qaeda. But we too must be sure to feel the empty parts of Dane Paresi's glove, lest we forget the costs incurred along the way.


Saul Austerlitz's work has been published in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Boston Globe.

Published: August 5, 2011 04:00 AM


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