CIA killings in Afghanistan spotlight Jordan as key US intelligence partner

The death of Jordanian Army Capt. Sharif Ali bin Zeid alongside American CIA operatives in Afghanistan – and the fact that the attacker was a Jordanian double agent – has forced the US-Jordanian partnership into the open.

This undated image shows Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, the suspected Jordanian double agent who killed seven CIA officers in Afghanistan on Dec. 30.

The suicide bombing that killed seven CIA operatives and one Jordanian intelligence official in Afghanistan last week has shed new light on some of the partnerships the United States has come to rely on in its shadow war against Al Qaeda.

Although Jordan has been involved in supporting operations in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, it has worked to keep its involvement secret due to the unpopularity of both wars among most Arabs. But the death of Jordanian Army Capt. Sharif Ali bin Zeid, a distant relative of Jordan’s King Abdullah II, alongside American CIA operatives, and the fact that the attacker was a Jordanian double agent, has forced at least a small part of this partnership into the open.

So far, the reaction among Jordanians has been muted, but that may be in large part due to what US and Jordanian security analysts say are increasingly obvious shared security concerns between the US and its Arab allies. Jordan, in particular, has many of the same enemies as the US – and it would be significantly more challenging for the US to penetrate groups like Al Qaeda without the aid of regional intelligence services.

"For the most part, it’s very difficult to use guys from Yale by the name of Chip to infiltrate these [Islamic terrorist] groups,” says Scott Stewart, vice president of tactical intelligence at STRATFOR, a global intelligence company. “What you really need are people who not only have the physical characteristics, but also an understanding of the customs and the mindset to really recruit those sources and run them efficiently.”

How CIA works with Jordan

To obtain this level of local knowledge, the CIA has a long history of turning to local intelligence agencies and providing them with funding and access to technology in exchange for access to human sources.

Most notably, in 2006, Jordanian intelligence officials provided the US military with critical background intelligence that led American forces to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq. Mr. Zarqawi was killed by an airstrike north of Baghdad in June of that year. Prior to 9/11, the largest CIA station in the world was in Jordan.

In this recent attack on the CIA in Afghanistan, the suspected bomber, Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, was a Jordanian informant who CIA and Jordanian intelligence officials hoped would lead them to Al Qaeda’s No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Double agent comes back to bite the US

Jordanian intelligence officials recruited Mr. Balawi as an informant when they thought he’d forgone his jihadi beliefs. But Balawi was allegedly a double agent and is suspected to have entered Forward Operating Base Chapman for a meeting with his handlers where he detonated a suicide bomb in front of the CIA building. The blast caused the most devastating loss of life for the CIA since the Beirut Embassy bombing in 1983.

“This is a tragedy, no question about it, but it’s part and parcel of the business of espionage. If you’re in the business looking out, you’re saying its kind of surprising that we haven’t been attacked like this sooner,” says Richard Russell, a former CIA analyst and professor of national security affairs at the National Defense University in Washington. “You’re dealing with a lot of nefarious people of questionable backgrounds. It’s always difficult to assess human motivations, psychology, emotions, and ideology.”

It is highly unlikely that the attack will lead the US to change its reliance on foreign intelligence services, says Dr. Russell. But he adds that it raises the concern that the CIA could push away from vital but extremely dangerous human intelligence operations.

Jordan: a crossroads for militants

Meanwhile, in Jordan, the attacks are also expected to have little affect on the country’s relationship with the American intelligence agencies. Militants have commonly used the relatively stable country, located between Iraq and Israel, as a portal of entry into the two conflicts. In 2005, an Al Qaeda bombing rocked the capital city of Amman, reminding residents that they were not immune to the problems of their neighbors.

"Jordan has no choice but to act to protect its national interest by all means necessary. That’s the duty and obligation of each and every state in the world,” says Ihmod Abu Salim, a professor of political science at Mu’tah University in Karak, Jordan.

Additionally, US aid to Jordan plays a critical role here. Presently, the country is one of the largest per capita aid recipients in the world, and over the past decade the US has steadily been increasing its financial support to the pro-Western monarchy.

“From Jordan’s perspective, it has to earn that money, so to speak, by proving its value as a strategic partner in order to justify increasing levels of assistance to Jordan,” says Mouin Rabbani, a contributing editor to Middle East Report who is based in Amman, Jordan.

Aside from intelligence partnerships with the US, Jordan has played a critical role as a staging area for the US throughout the Iraq war. Given this long-term relationship, Hasan Al-Momani, director of the Regional Centre on Conflict Prevention at the Jordan Institute of Diplomacy, says it is unlikely Jordanians will react as more news unfolds about their government’s involvement in Afghanistan.

“I don’t think this is the first time people have talked about the role of Jordanian security forces [outside Jordan]. It is clear that we have a role in Iraq, for instance,” says Dr. Momani. “At the end of the day Jordan is trying to protect itself. … When we speak of Afghanistan, of course we speak of Al Qaeda, and those people who conducted the Amman bombings [in 2005], they were Al Qaeda.”

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