The Triple Agent

Article excerpt

When the CIA thought it had a line on Ayman al-Zawahiri--al Qaeda's new chief--almost any risk seemed worth it. But in the world of terrorism, no one's loyalty is ever certain.

On Dec. 30, 2009, seven CIA operatives were killed at a U.S. base in Khost, Afghanistan, when a Jordanian double agent who claimed to have cracked Al Qaeda's inner circle proved instead to be a suicide bomber--in other words, a triple agent.

The attack, the deadliest for the CIA in 25 years, was unlike any in the agency's history. Over the decades, a multitude of CIA informants had lied, defrauded, betrayed, stolen money, or skipped town. But none had sought to lure his handlers into a trap with the aim of killing them, along with himself.

A 2010 internal CIA review identified a chain of failures that allowed 32-year-old physician Humam al-Balawi to gain access to the highly secure CIA base, breezing through checkpoints without a search until he came face to face with a large gathering of CIA officers anxious to meet him. Balawi had promised to deliver Ayman al-Zawahiri, deputy to Al Qaeda's leader, Osama bin Laden. (Last week, in the wake of bin Laden's death, Zawahiri emerged as the terrorist group's new leader, though he was already in essence its operational commander.)

Balawi had backed his intelligence claims with evidence so electrifying that even President Obama had been briefed in advance. But the Jordanian was not what he seemed.

The warning signs, painfully obvious in hindsight, would be obscured by two singular forces that collided at Khost on that late-December day. One was the mind of Balawi, a man who flitted pre-cariously between opposing camps. The other was the eagerness of war-weary intelligence operatives who saw a mirage and desperately wanted it to be real.

Humam al-Balawi's first big score as a spy--the one that would surely cement his reputation as the decade's greatest--arrived at CIA headquarters in late August 2009. Attached to one of the Jordanian's regular emails was a few seconds of digital video showing a gathering of men in Pashtun dress. In the foreground was Balawi himself. Seated near him was a slim, dark-bearded man whose face was instantly recognized by the agency's counterterrorism experts. His name was Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, and he was one of the closest known associates of Osama bin Laden. The man had eluded capture for eight years; yet here he was, holding forth on video, with a CIA informant seated at his feet.

It was a stunning debut for the young spy, coming just five months after his arrival in Pakistan. But the video was a trifle compared with what came next.

Balawi's medical skills had quickly earned the respect of his Taliban hosts, just as the CIA had hoped, and soon he was treating a widening circle of jihadi commanders. But in November, Balawi revealed in an email that he had become the physician to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the deputy commander of Al Qaeda, second only to bin Laden himself.

It had happened quite suddenly, as Balawi related the events. One day he learned that Zawahiri's health was slipping, and soon afterward the bearded, bespectacled terrorist leader was standing in front of him. Zawahiri, himself a doctor, was suffering from a range of complications related to diabetes, and he needed advice and medicine.

Balawi happily consented, and within minutes he was checking the vital signs of the man who had helped dream up the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

In his email, Balawi supplied a summary of Zawahiri's physical condition as well as his medical history, providing details that perfectly matched records the CIA had obtained years earlier from intelligence officials in Egypt, Zawahiri's home country. Most important, Balawi wrote that he had scheduled a follow-up visit with his patient in a few weeks.

From Kabul to Amman to Langley, marble buildings seemed to shift on their foundations. …