On December 30, 2009, in the Afghanistan city of Khowst, Jordanian doctor Humam Khalil Abu Mulal al-Balawi entered a meeting of CIA agents for a briefing as an informant for the agency. He detonated a suicide vest killing five CIA agents and two contractors working for the CIA. Other deaths included the Jordanian Intelligence Case Officer who vouched for Dr al-Balawi and the Afghan national in charge of external security at the base who had driven al-Balawi from the Pakistan border to Khowst.
As a sign of respect and trust, al-Balawi was not searched prior to entering the meeting.
Their names of the CIA personnel killed that day,
Jennifer Matthews, Station Chief. Mother of three.
Harold Brown, Case Officer. Former Army Intelligence Officer.
Elizabeth Hanson, Targeting Analyst. Joined the CIA right out of college. With the agency for just four years.
Darren LaBonte, Case Officer. Former Ranger, small-town cop, and U.S Marshal
Scott Roberson, Station Security Chief, and a former Police officer in Atlanta Georgia
Dane Paresi, Security Contractor. Army Master Sergeant, Green Beret
Jeremy Wise, Security contractor, former Navy SEAL.
Al Qaeda wasted no time taking credit for the attack. They had managed to turn al-Balawi into a “Triple Agent.” This is a term for an operative who is captured by an intelligence agency and turned into a cooperating Double-Agent, but when this agent goes back to work against his former friends switches sides again.
To say that Al-Qaeda was ruthless in exploiting al-Balawi and turning him into a suicide bomber is an understatement. In order for al-Balawi to gain the trust of the CIA, he was giving up information on lower-level Al Qaeda people who were then killed by the CIA or Jordanian Intelligence. Al Qaeda was willing to see their own operatives die in the effort to get al-Balawi closer to higher-level people in the CIA in Afghanistan.
Still, the spy game being what it is, some in the CIA still viewed him with suspicion. As we reported in 2009,
“Those skeptics reportedly included Amman-based CIA Case Officer Darren LaBonte, who expressed his reservations about the meeting. He thought the Agency was moving too fast with al-Balawi, and that the Jordanian doctor was trying to control too many details of the planned meeting. LaBonte suspected something nefarious might be going on, according to the above press report.”
LaBonte was proven right but was killed in the explosion.
This was the single bloodiest day for the CIA in the war on terror. That we know about anyway.
This attack on the people assigned to the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center (CTC) in Afghanistan was a serious blow to the agency. The CTC was primarily tasked with targeting al Qaeda operatives and in particular, Osama Bin Laden.
Some grudging acknowledgment is due to the terrorists for their sophistication in pulling off this attack. They seemed to have a better understanding of how Americans think than we did of Al Qaeda. The correctly surmised that we would not believe that Al Qaeda would allow their own people to be killed position a triple agent to potentially cripple the CTC with a suicide vest. It also speaks to their sophistication that they did not kill al-Balawi upon discovering(or his willingly admitting) that he was working for the CIA.
It is also very possible given that the ISI, Pakistan’s Intelligence Service has long ties to al Qaeda and is the mostly likely suspect in giving Bin Laden shelter in Pakistan, that they played some role in this as well. al-Balawi was working for the CIA in the northern border regions of Pakistan which was an al Qaeda haven after Afghanistan was wrested from the control of the Taliban following the September 11th attacks.
This being said, al Qaeda probably did miscalculate the effect of this attack. American resolve to hunt for them and Bin Laden did not wane. Two years later, the CIA located Bin Laden in Afghanistan and with the help of another doctor, this time a Pakistani who posed as someone conducting vaccinations in the area. The news that Pakistan, a supposed ally of the United States in the war on terror was found harboring the most wanted fugitive on the planet did reputational harm to that country that it may never recover from in this country. It was further humiliated when U.S. military forces entered the country unannounced, landed inside their country, killed Bin Laden, and removed his body. Without any reaction at all from the Pakistan military which never even got its pants on before we were out of the country.
A CIA report found that they were too eager to meet with al-Balawi and should have been more cautious in their handling of him, given his long history of Islamist radicalism, but this may be unfair. Intelligence and counter-intelligence operations are never based on sure things. They are all but entirely about calculated risks, speculation, good guesses, and gut instincts. There was enormous pressure on the CIA to find Bin Laden and destroy Al Qaeda as an operational terrorist group. The Counter-Terrorism Center in Afghanistan rolled the dice that day and it came up snake eyes on them. You can drill, practice, train and plan to assure a successful operation, but some things just come down to luck.
And sometimes, luck isn’t with you.
Offered in Memorium, on December 30th, 2021. We remember those fallen in the hunt for Bin Laden.