By Matthew Cole
Humam al-Balawi, the Jordanian double agent who killed seven CIA employees in a suicide bombing in Afghanistan last December, lured the agents to their deaths by convincing them that as a doctor he might have access to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, according to current and former intelligence officials. The death toll was especially high, say the officials, because the agents had gathered to give Balawi a present – a birthday cake.
"They have to take risks, but this was a complete breakdown of traditional tradecraft,"" said a former senior intelligence official familiar with the case. "You don't send that many officers to greet an unknown agent with a party and a birthday cake."
Details from the CIA's internal investigation of the Balawi bombing have begun to emerge as the CIA briefs members of Congress on what went wrong.
Balawi, a 32-year-old Kuwait-born Jordanian doctor, had been arrested by Jordanian officials in 2008 because he was a leading online jihadist who often wrote that he wanted to die as a martyr in Afghanistan fighting U.S. forces.
After Balawi had spent three months in prison, Jordanian intelligence officials believed they had flipped him and turned him into a double agent.
The Jordanians sent him to Pakistan in late 2008, and directed him to infiltrate al Qaeda and help the Americans track senior leaders.
To the CIA agents in Afghanistan engaged in the hunt for al-Qaeda leaders . Balawi seemed like a prize asset. The agents had previously had little luck in getting a fix on bin Laden and Zawahiri or other al-Qaeda bigs, but Balawi gave signs that he was gaining access to the elusive jihadists. Through his Jordanian handler, Balawi sent the CIA a video of himself with several senior al Qaeda leaders, as well as damage assessment from a recent CIA drone attack in Pakistan.
In December, Balawi sent a coded message to his handlers that suggested he was getting close to a key CIA target: al Qaeda's second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri. The message said that Zawahiri needed a change in the dosage of his medication, and that Balawi would be providing Zawahiri with the medicine through a courier. Officials briefed on the case said Balawi did not specify which illness Zawahiri was allegedly suffering, or what medication he was providing. The message made the agents think that Balawi might soon lead them to Osama bin Laden's chief lieutenant. The CIA agents wanted to meet their supposed mole in person for the first time.
Prior to the meeting, said the current and former intelligence officials, the Jordanian intelligence agent who was "running" Balawi told the CIA agents that the day of the proposed meeting was Balawi's birthday and that they should have a cake ready.
Balawi passed through three rings of security into a CIA's base near Khost, Afghanistan without being checked. A group of as many as a dozen Americans waited with the birthday cake for Balawi to exit his car. Survivors of the blast, including the CIA's second-highest ranking officer in Afghanistan, have told CIA officials that Balawi kept one hand in his pocket as he got out of the vehicle and began to recite a martyrdom prayer just before he triggered his suicide belt.
In addition to Balawi and seven CIA employees, Balawi's Jordanian intelligence handler and the Afghan driver who escorted Balawi to the CIA base were also killed. Six other CIA officers were severely wounded.
On discovering that Balawi was a double agent, the CIA retracted all intelligence reports that had been sourced to him. The agency now believes al Qaeda was actively feeding its agents false leads to create the illusion that Balawi was working against al Qaeda.
After the bombing, Jordanian intelligence agents tried to assert that Balawi had initially been working for them in good faith, but had switched sides during his year in Pakistan.
The CIA, however, quickly came to the conclusion that Balawi never intended to work for Jordan or the US, according to a senior counterterrorism official. An al-Qaeda video released in late February, two months after the Dec. 30 bombing, indicated that the Americans were probably right.
In the al-Qaeda video, which he recorded shortly before he detonated his bomb, Balawi described how the operation was put together.
Shortly after arriving in Pakistan, Balawi said in the Arabic-language video, he cut off contact with his Jordanian handler.
"I cut off ties for four months in order for Jordanian intelligence to stew in its own juices thinking that this guy had abandoned it, so that if he came back to them and told them that conditions were difficult, they would buy his story quickly," said Balawi. "And that's what happened." "Then [I] came back to them with some videos taken with leaders of the Mujahideen, so that they would think that I was leaking videos and betraying the Mujahideen," said Balawi. Balawi was referring to the video that was forwarded to the CIA, and that convinced agents Balawi was making progress in gaining access to al-Qaeda.
A spokesman for the CIA, Paul Gimigliano, told ABC News that the bombing and the mistakes that led to it continue to be under review.
"The agency continues to take a close, exacting look at the Khost attack," Gimigliano said. "This organization learns both from its successes and its setbacks. Here are two more enduring facts: The officers involved were very familiar with the dangers of operating against al-Qaeda and its allies. And what happened on December 30th in no way lessened the pace, scope, precision, or effectiveness of the CIA's counter-terrorism programs. We continue to hit the enemy hard, exactly as the American people expect."