Khost, Al-Qaeda’s greatest victory against the CIA. On the 30th of December 2009, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) suffered its darkest day in the Global War on Terror (GWOT). However, the CIA’s darkest day would turn out to be Al-Qaeda’s (AQ) greatest success against its mortal enemy. AQ’s attack at the US military’s forward operating base (FOB) in Khost, claimed the lives of seven CIA officers and one Jordanian officer. The 1983 attack on the US embassy in Beirut is the only attack which has killed more US intelligence officers.
A group of Al-Qaeda fighters did not carry out this attack in a firefight with US personnel at Khost’s FOB, but a single man perpetrated it: Humam al-Balawi. The fact that such an attack was possible has raised several concerns, such as how could a man with known ties to AQ could gain unchecked access to Camp Chapman in Khost? Was it operational security (OPSEC) failure on the US and Jordanian sides? Or was it a masterstroke from AQ? However, al-Balawi and AQ inflicted devastating losses on the CIA.
2. Doctor to Al-Qaeda, Triple agent, and Khost bomber
Humam al-Balawi was from a humble background. The son of Palestinian refugees, he studied to become a doctor in Istanbul, where he married a Turkish woman. When he returned to Jordan, he delivered medical aid to those at the Palestinian Marka refugee camp near Amman, Jordan. (source) They described Balawi as a serious professional with kind eyes.
2.2. Balawi an AQ propagandist
Despite his budding career and many opportunities afforded him, Balawi hid a dark secret given his status in society. He was a propagandist writer for AQ and was involved in recruitment for AQ. He wrote online jihadist news and analysis using the alias Abu Dujjana al Khorasani. (source) Furthermore, his skill for writing propaganda and also disseminating the work of Ayman al Zawahiri, concerned the US enough for them to tip off Jordanian’s General Intelligence Department (GID), that Balawi was indeed Khorasani. This tip led to the GID’s arrest of Balawi in January 2009. The arresting officer was the King of Jordan’s cousin, Captain Sharif Ali bin Zeid.
2.3. From AQ to Jordanian Asset
After his arrest in 2009, the GID interrogated Balawi for three days. However, unlike many of the more dedicated terrorists, he broke within the first day. Accordingly, he gave up the names of others within his network. After his short stint in captivity, Jordanian officials believed they had flipped him, especially Zeid. At this time, they released Balawi. Zeid now believed he had a double agent under his control capable of penetrating AQ’s upper echelons.
Zeid sent Balawi to Peshawar in northern Pakistan. They instructed him to infiltrate AQ and, if possible, get close to its leadership. Ultimately ending up in Waziristan, Balawi reported back to Zeid that he was getting on well as a spy and that his cover was intact, a devout man looking to serve jihad by providing medical care to Taliban insurgents. However, what happened next would be pivotal. Balawi did not make contact for over a month. After a month, Zeid received the email he had been waiting for: Balawi had made contact and shot a low-quality video of Atiyah Abd al-Rahman. (source) Rahman was a known associate of Osama bin Laden.
The intelligence gathered by Balawi continued to flow to Zeid and his American counterparts over the following weeks. Clearly, Balawi had some rudimentary training in being an asset to the Jordanians. As a result, it seemed his role as a double agent was going to plan.
2.4. The ‘Golden Boy’ of the CIA
In December 2009, Balawi became the CIA’s golden boy. (source) He relayed information that he was now Ayman al-Zawahiri’s physician. This news stopped the intelligence in its tracks. If what Balawi was saying was true, intelligence that the CIA had not collected since the early 2000s would now be available to the US. The need to meet Balawi and debrief him became a desperate priority of the CIA and its allies. Khost, a city near the Afghanistan/Pakistan border, was the chosen destination. CIA agents on the ground were thrilled. The chance to gather detailed intelligence on a top-ranking AQ official and potential long-term asset was exhilarating.
3. The Darkest of Christmases – Al-Qaeda penetrates Khost
On the 30th of December 2009, Balawi arrived at the forward operating base, Camp Chapman. His demands when he arrived should have raised several red flags, but such was the desperation of the CIA to meet their new ‘Golden boy’. The CIA obliged. Balawi’s main demand, under no circumstances, should his vehicle face any searches at any point whilst entering the base. Consequently, the security of the compound allowed him to enter unimpeded. What happened next was a catastrophic event for the CIA and Jordanian intelligence. Humam al-Balawi used his body as a human cruise missile, killing seven CIA officers and Zeid, his GID handler. AQ had struck a kill shot to the heart of the American IC and secured a victory that it could have only dreamed of when it played Balawi back against the US and GID.
4. The post-mortem of Al-Qaeda at Khost
The post-mortem of the Khost attack by Al-Qaeda, revealed several lapses in judgement, especially from leadership. However, it showed that many of the agents handling the case did not employ basic OPSEC, especially for running agents and double agents. This attack shows the dangers posed by terrorist organisations like AQ. It shows a level of operational understanding that is rarely attributed to it and was a costly lesson learned for future intelligence liaisons between state intelligence services.
According to official reports, the death toll at Khost from the Al-Qaeda attack was especially high because the agents had gathered around the car to present Balawi with a birthday cake! (source) In its investigation into what happened at Khost, the CIA quickly concluded that Balawi had never intended to work for the CIA or GID. As well as that, the information he provided was being spoon-fed to him by AQ. A classic case of deception. Unquestionably, this shows the tradecraft that AQ possessed and still possesses to this day. The CIA was correct in its assessment. Three months after the Khost tragedy, AQ released videos of Balawi in which he described his plan.
“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, […] 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.”Balawi (Source)
4.1. Failures to act on the information provided before Khost
As well as lapses of security on the ground at Khost, the post-mortem revealed that the CIA failed to act on intelligence provided by Jordanian Intelligence. (source) A CIA official claims the Jordanians raised concerns about Balawi and where his true loyalties lay. However, those concerns weighed against the intelligence he had already provided, and the potential for further intelligence ultimately did not get passed along. The breakdown in communication or failure to act on intelligence provided by an ally shows that intelligence liaisons can be fraught with mistakes. The US needs to vet its sources closer, especially when provided by a partner organisation.
5. Pakistan ISI involvement with Al-Qaeda and Khost
Since the attack on Camp Chapman in Khost by Al-Qaeda took place, declassified documents show potential links between the attack and Pakistan’s ISI. These documents, although heavily redacted, show that ISI agents paid a member of the Haqqani network $200,000 in the weeks leading up to the attack. (source) The payment helped to facilitate the attack in Khost and to step up attacks against Western targets. The document also states that the documents released are an information report, not a finished intelligence product. However, it is completely plausible to believe this was the case, given the relationship the ISI has with the Haqqani network
Undoubtedly, the attack at FOB Camp Chapman in Khost by Al-Qaeda was a hammer blow to the US and its intelligence community. Only surpassed by the 1983 attack in Beirut. However, the lessons from this attack are clear. Intelligence liaisons are a risk, especially with running double agents in the GWOT. The Khost attack more than any other showed the capability of AQ to mount an operation that required months of planning. It showed AQ’s ability to employ deception tactics that are akin to operations run by nation-states. The running of a triple agent by AQ and successfully achieving its aims is the type of operation the CIA had been trying to conduct against its enemy. Clearly shows the intelligence tradecraft that AQ possesses.