CIA ignored Jordanian intelligence before suicide bombing in Khost, Afghanistan

Jordanian intelligence has been crucial in the past, but its warnings were ignored before an Al Qaeda attack on a CIA base last year, according to the US spy agency.

Jonathan Ernst /Reuters
CIA Director Leon Panetta speaks at a National Italian American Foundation policy luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 11, 2009. Panetta revealed Tuesday that one of its agents ignored warnings from Jordanian intelligence about the man who eventually killed seven CIA employees in a 2009 suicide bombing in Afghanistan.

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The CIA revealed Tuesday that one of its agents ignored warnings from Jordanian intelligence about the man who eventually killed seven employees of the American spy agency in a suicide bombing in Khost, Afghanistan.

That was just one of the mistakes leading to “systemic breakdown,” highlighted by the CIA in an internal review of the Dec. 30, 2009, bombing, which was the deadliest episode for the US spy agency in decades. It appeared to indicate a momentary breakdown in the long-crucial relationship with Jordanian intelligence as well as a lack of communication inside the US spy agency, a criticism leveled at the US security departments since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

CIA Director Leon Panetta spoke to reporters about the findings of the report Tuesday. In addition to faulting the agency for ignoring warnings about the Al Qaeda bomber, Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, the report also found insufficient war zone experience in the agency employees at Khost, a failure to sufficiently vet Mr. Balawi, and “a murky chain of command with different branches of the intelligence agency competing for control over the operation,” reports The New York Times.

Policy changes at CIA

The security failures that allowed Balawi to enter the base without being searched, and the decision of CIA agents to gather to meet him upon his arrival, have been widely criticized. But the information that the CIA had been warned about Balawi three weeks before he attacked was new.

Mr. Panetta said the agency has decided not to hold any specific individuals accountable for the attack, partly because some of those at fault were killed in the blast. Instead, the agency is implementing policy changes, according to a statement from Panetta on the CIA’s website. Those include tightening security procedures, better training for agents in war zones, and creating a team to better scrutinize sources for signs they may be double agents.

Balawi was a source recruited by the Jordanian intelligence agency, which brought him to the attention of the CIA as a possible source inside Al Qaeda. He was brought to the CIA base in Khost for his first meeting with CIA officers after giving them information on Al Qaeda for months to prove his connections to the group. A doctor, Balawi claimed to have connections to Al Qaida's second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Balawi detonated explosives on his body when he arrived at the base, killing five CIA agents, two CIA security contractors, his Jordanian intelligence handler, and the Afghan driver of the car that brought him to the base. Six CIA officers were wounded.

Prior warning

The Associated Press reports that Jordanian intelligence officers raised doubts about Balawi’s loyalties with a CIA officer in Jordan. They became suspicious after Balawi repeatedly asked CIA agents in Afghanistan to visit him in Miram Shah in Pakistan – a stronghold of Al Qaeda. The Jordanian officials expressed concern that Balawi might be trying to lure the American agents to an ambush.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the CIA officer in Jordan did not pass the warning along to his superiors, or to the officers in Khost, because he thought the information might be part of an “internal power play within Jordanian intelligence.” The Jordanian intelligence officer also did not provide specific evidence with his warning. The CIA officer in Jordan has not been disciplined, according to the Journal.

Jordan's sophisticated intelligence agency

The Jordanian intelligence service, called the General Intelligence Department (GID), is widely recognized as being highly effective. The Khost bombing displayed the extent of its cooperation with the CIA, The Guardian reports.

The GID became a big player in the post-9/11 effort by western intelligence agencies – spearheaded by the CIA – to penetrate jihadist groups. Jordan's best-known coup was providing the information for the US missile strike that killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, […]

[T]he GID has developed a successful western-style anti-terrorist strategy that combines the use of intelligence with elite special forces. Its Fursan al-Haq (Knights of Justice) unit has operated inside Iraq, exploiting cross-border tribal links in Anbar province.

The US has for years relied on Jordanian intelligence to make crucial decisions, according to The Christian Science Monitor. Even prior to 9/11, the largest CIA station in the world was in 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.

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