Here is an exclusive excerpt from the recently released book “Left of the Boom: How a Young CIA Case Officer Penetrated the Taliban and Al- Qaeda,” written by Douglas Laux.
Chapter 4: WADI BASE
The bombing in Khowst was a catastrophe from the CIA’s perspective. As the dust settled, we learned that the bomber was an al- Qaeda triple agent named Humam Khalil al-Balawi. A seemingly mild-mannered Jordanian doctor who treated poor women and children in Palestinian refugee camps, he had become a mild celebrity on jihadist websites for his highly inflammatory rants against the West. In January 2009, he was picked up by the Jordanian intelligence ser vice, the General Intelligence Directorate (GID), and interrogated. The Jordanian intel officer who was running his case, Ali bin Zeid, quickly calculated that Balawi could be useful because of his status among jihadists, and possibly could be turned.
Supposedly swayed by the promise of earning a large amount of money, Balawi offered to travel to the tribal area of western Pakistan to attempt to penetrate al-Qaeda. Despite the fact that he spoke no Pashtu and was from pro- Western Jordan, he appeared to succeed. In the fall of 2009, Balawi sent bin Zeid a video of himself sitting with a close aide to bin Laden. A month later, he claimed in an email that he was treating Ayman al- Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s second-in-command.
The Agency, which had never successfully penetrated al-Qaeda and was concerned about a rumor that the terrorists were in possession of a dirty bomb, jumped at the opportunity that Balawi seemed to represent. Despite the warnings of some, including the COS in Jordan, they invited the Jordanian to meet with offi cers at Camp Chapman, where they planned to discuss a plot to kill or capture Ayman al- Zawahiri. Both DCIA Leon Panetta and President Barack Obama approved the meeting.
On December 30, 2009, Balawi was picked up by an Afghan driver working for the CIA on the Pakistani border and driven to Camp Chapman. Because of his perceived value as a spy and the danger of him being identifi ed by one of the Afghan soldiers at the gate, he was allowed to enter the base without being searched.
When the car stopped inside the CIA compound, Balawi exited and detonated the thirty- pound suicide vest he was wearing under his patio (a large shawl) and kameez shirt. He and nine others were killed, including CIA base chief Jennifer Lynne Matthews, two other CIA case officers, a CIA targeting analyst, three CIA security contractors, Ali bin Zeid, and the Afghan driver and chief of security. Six others were seriously wounded.
It was the second-worst single-day loss in the CIA’s history, after the 1983 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, and an enormous blow to our ability to collect intel on the ground in Afghanistan.
I arrived in Kabul two weeks later armed with some training, near fluent Pashtu (or so I thought), and no field experience. As I entered the airport terminal, a young man stepped forward and asked, “Are you Doug?”
“Yes, I am.”
“The chief of operations wants to talk to you tomorrow, so you need to spend the night in Kabul.”
I grabbed my bags and followed him outside to a waiting SUV. It was so dark that I couldn’t see much, but my first impression was of a city that was as cold as hell and smelled like human shit.
There was reason for this, which I learned later. The Afghans burn their feces to stay warm, which is why Kabul is considered one of the most polluted cities in the world owing to the tremendous amount of fecal matter in the air.
So I was not only smelling it, I was literally inhaling it.
It was after midnight when we arrived at the CIA base, which featured a number of low-slung prefabricated structures packed with desks and laptops. Nobody there had a clue who I was or why I was there.
“Maybe you should wake up the support guy,” I suggested.
Minutes later a half-asleep man walked in and asked, “Are you Doug?”
“We have some shipping containers in back with mattresses in them. We use them when people are visiting. You can sleep in there.”
They were called pods. Some, including the ones used by the embassy, were nicely outfitted with heaters and TVs. The one I was escorted to contained a bed with a mattress and a desk, but no sheets and no chair. The support guy handed me a blanket and said, “See you in the morning.”
I spent the next three nights trying to sleep in the pod as rats crawled over me. The good news was that they generally didn’t bite, since they were looking for food. But they made sleeping problematic. Every several hours I’d wake, shake the rats off , and try to fall asleep again. I found the conditions somewhat appalling considering that I wasn’t in some far-flung base. I was located in the capital of the country, where the Agency had maintained a strong presence since 2001.
The next morning I returned to the office and said, “I’m supposed to talk to the operations chief.”
“He’s busy,” the support guy answered.
“Do you have any idea when he will be available to see me?”
“Sorry. Don’t know.”
Three days later the operations chief showed up, a fifty-year-old guy with a white goatee and a potbelly. He said, “Nice to meet you. I just wanted to put a face to a name.”
“I’m Doug. I’m going to Wadi Base. What’s going on?”
“Wadi Base, yeah…best of luck down there. Go knock ’em dead.”
He struck me as a used-car dealer trying to sell me a lemon. I cleared the disappointment out of my throat and proceeded, “Sir,
I thought you’d have some guidance to give me in terms of what we’re trying to achieve there, what I should expect, the threat level, et cetera.”
He studied his fingernails, then looked past my head to the opposite wall. “To be honest with you, yeah…you’re the new guy. You’re going out there to give it wings.”
What? I had never done the job to this point. The operations chief admitted he’d never been to Wadi, and didn’t seem interested in what was going on at this important forward base.
He said, “If you want to know more, go talk to our targeted slash desk officer. Her name is Karen. She manages that account.”
I found her in an adjoining building. Karen said, “Yeah, it’s new. No real sources are run out of there. We’re looking for you to get us up and going.”
“Who’s the shadow governor?” I asked, having read that the shadow governor was the Taliban ruler in a par tic u lar province. He had huge influence among the Pashtuns and what he said was considered the rule of law.
“We don’t know,” she answered.
“What about the district governor?”
She shook her head. “No information.”
“What about al-Qaeda?”
“We don’t know that, either.”
I tried to keep my cool. “There’s a military base down there, correct? What are they telling us?”
“They don’t go out,” the desk officer answered. “The IED threat is too pervasive. Every time they leave they don’t go more than two kilometers before they’re hit by an IED. They just kind of stay on the base, really.”
Real useful, I thought.
“When’s my flight out?”
“Just go to the airport.”
“When’s my flight?”
“We don’t have a scheduled flight to Wadi.”
I spent the next two days at Bagram Airfield, sleeping in a shipping container with no TV, and nothing to do except read a book about economics that someone had left behind.
I finally flew out on a plane to Kandahar. There I faced another CIA support guy who wasn’t expecting me, and didn’t know my name.
“ You’re going where?” he asked.
“Really? We have a base there?”
Was this typical of how the Agency operated in the field? Or was I stuck in some weird version of “Groundhog Day” and didn’t know it?
I learned quickly that most of the Agency support people in Afghanistan were like tellers in a bank. They completed the tasks in front of them, but didn’t bother trying to understand the bigger picture like what was going on at the forward bases, or what it took to run human assets. Their sole concerns seemed to be their safety and careers.
On first impression the entire U.S. military and security operation seemed hugely flawed. You had military units that rarely left their bases, and CIA support people who didn’t know where their operations officers were deployed. It explained why we were losing.
I found an abandoned golf cart and drove around Kandahar Airfield for two days. Within a heavily armed perimeter was a vast makeshift city that featured a number of Canadian fast-food joints including a Tim Hortons—which is Canada’s version of McDonald’s—a PX the size of a Walmart, and stores that sold DVDs.
As I watched soldiers entered and exited, I thought, How is it that they can keep these establishments stocked, and they can’t figure out how to get me to my base?
Featured image courtesy of Noorullah Shirzada