The Triple Agent: The Al-Qaeda Mole Who Infiltrated the CIA
- Joby Warrick
- 272 pp.
- August 24, 2011
From a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, the riveting inside story of how a meek Jordanian physician turned terrorist, and the missteps that cost seven agents their lives.
Reviewed by Robert Timberg
Abu Dujana al-Khorasani, a Jordanian blogger who had become a favorite of radical Islam, knew his audience and its appetites.
“Welcome to the al-Hesbah café,” he greeted his fans as he began one of his online sessions. “Go to the menu and pick today’s dish.”
Roasted Humvee with sauce of human remains. Exploded tank by an IED with no survivors. Or a pastry made of American brains taken out with snipers’ bullets.
Abu Dujana had little in common with Humam Khalil Mulal al-Balawi, a slight 31-one year old Jordanian pediatrician and father of two who treated ragged Palestinians at a nearby refugee camp.
Little in common except that they were the same person. And in December 2009, posing as an agent of American and Jordanian intelligence, the introverted, introspective doctor detonated a 32-pound bomb strapped to his chest that killed seven smiling CIA operatives and two others as they welcomed him to their seemingly impregnable compound at an obscure outpost in the Afghani town of Khost. The CIA had not suffered such a one-day loss of life since the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, when eight agents were killed.
In The Triple Agent: The Al-Qaeda Mole Who Infiltrated the CIA, Joby Warrick, a Washington Post national security correspondent, masterfully chronicles a tale that again affirms the saying, “If it’s too good to be true, it probably is.”
Israeli bombing raids in Gaza and U.S. Predator strikes against the Taliban had radicalized Balawi. He responded by turning his laptop into a weapon to recruit and rally jihadists with videos of battlefield carnage.
Abu Dujana’s appeal rested on more than the bloodcurdling images he served up to his audience. Warrick says he was “a showman as well, prone to verbal bluster and fireworks.” Along the way, the author adds, he gained a reputation as “one of the most engaging and colorful writers in the online community of radical Islam.”
Amazingly, no one, not even his wife, knew that the unassuming physician who each day ministered to women and children at a camp that housed thousands of Palestinian refugees was the eloquent agitator whose fiery words were inflaming radical Islamists around the world.
A National Security Agency computer finally ferreted out Abu Dujana’s true identity and traced his online rants to the laptop on his kitchen table in Amman. Jordanian security raided Balawi’s home, took him into custody, and persuaded him, by physical means and threats to his family, to become a double agent. His assignment? To use his medical skills to insinuate himself into the confidence of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and report on their activities to the Jordanians, who would share the take with their American counterparts.
Dispatched to Pakistan’s lawless tribal region, he electrified his handlers when he reported that he had a new patient, Ayman al-Zawahiri, second only to Osama bin Laden on the al-Qaeda leadership ladder, today bin Laden’s successor.
“Marble buildings seemed to shift on their foundations” at the headquarters of American and allied intelligence agencies, Warrick writes. “There had been no verified sighting of Zawahiri by a Westerner or government informant since 2002.”
Balawi suddenly became “the golden source.” CIA chief Leon Panetta told fellow members of the Obama administration, “If we can meet with him and give him the right technology, we have a chance to go after Zawahiri.”
A great idea, if only Balawi had been what he said he was. The steps and missteps that followed led inexorably to the fateful moment on December 30, 2009, when Balawi, unsearched to avoid offending him, stepped from a vehicle that had been waved through three guard stations at the CIA compound in Khost, avoided the eyes of the 16 men and women lined up to greet their “distinguished guest” (and present him with a chocolate birthday cake), began chanting in Arabic, “There is no god but God,” and depressed a detonator, igniting what Warrick describes as “a flash of unimaginable brightness.”
Warrick, a Pulitzer Prize winner, has fashioned a compelling narrative. In barely more than 200 pages, he details Malawi’s transformation from meek physician to suicide bomber, along with the egregious — and ultimately deadly — mistakes of seasoned intelligence officers.
All through this saga, concerns are raised about Balawi’s authenticity. Is he really who he says he is? Each question is examined and not always laid to rest, but all are eventually overridden by the exquisite prospect of bagging Zawahiri.
In crisp, clean, well-documented prose, Warrick humanizes Balawi and describes the Jordanian’s state of mind almost up to the moment when he reluctantly puts aside concern for his family and his own fear of death to commit an act of surpassing inhumanity.
Warrick does more than tell the tale, though that by itself in an enormous achievement. He also picks apart the motivations and mistakes of those involved.
“Somewhere along the way,” he writes, “basic rules of spycraft, including time-honored procedures for assessing and running informants and double agents, had been all but forgotten.” He ascribes the deadly fiasco to “the eagerness of war-weary spies who saw a mirage and desperately wanted it to be real.”
Warrick’s documentary research is extraordinary, but what elevates this book above the merely terrific is his success in tracking down and interviewing more than 200 sources, many of them reluctant to talk to him. His interviews include not just the families of the slain Americans but Balawi’s wife, father and brother as well as numerous normally tight-lipped intelligence officials.
He also provides striking details that illuminate the story. He writes of “al-Qaeda’s tailor,” who “made a living making suicide vests.” The vests are custom made, with a special zipper sewed in “to prevent excitable young martyrs-to-be from blowing themselves up too quickly.”
We also learn the grisly factoid that the heads of suicide bombers are often found fully preserved not far from the rest of their bodies, which have been shredded — something to do with the directional nature of shock waves. Balawi’s head was no exception.
Robert Timberg has been a journalist for more than four decades, mostly with The Baltimore Sun. He is the author of three books, including The Nightingale’s Song, which chronicles the entwined lives of five well-known Naval Academy graduates, including John McCain, James Webb and Oliver North.