TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. In December, 2009, U.S. officials were stunned by news that a suicide bomber had penetrated security at an American base in Afghanistan and killed seven CIA employees and a Jordanian intelligence officer.
It soon emerged that the bomber had entered the base without a search because he was a trusted informant whom the CIA hoped would provide critical information about senior al-Qaida leaders in Pakistan.
The informant-turned-suicide-bomber was an unlikely figure to be playing a high-stakes espionage game in the tribal areas of Pakistan. Less than a year before his death, Humam Balawi was a Jordanian physician living in a suburb of Amman with his father, his wife and children.
The story of the young man's journey and the CIA's risky decision to trust him are told in a new by our guest, Joby Warrick. Warrick covers national security for The Washington Post. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1996 with two colleagues at the Raleigh News and Observer for their work on the environmental fallout from factory farming in Southern states.
His new book is called "Triple Agent: The al-Qaeda Mole who Infiltrated the CIA." He spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.
DAVE DAVIES, host:
Joby Warrick, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's begin with the man at the center of this, the triple agent, Humam Balawi. Tell us who he was.
Mr. JOBY WARRICK (Author, "The Triple Agent: The al-Qaeda Mole who Infiltrated the CIA"): Part of the mystery of the book is figuring out who this guy was and his mental journey throughout the course of the book. But the bottom line is Humam Balawi was a bright young man who grew up in Jordan with a family of Palestinian refugees.
He was a physician. He - fairly quiet life, taking care of Palestinian refugees in a refugee camp, and he became, by this extraordinary series of, you know, inadvertent accidents or mishaps, to become an agent for the Jordanian intelligence agency and ultimately an agent for the CIA, as well.
DAVIES: Now, he was married, had two kids, right?
Mr. WARRICK: Exactly, he had two children. He has a Turkish wife. And his -just as a reflection of his sort of political sensibilities, he named his oldest daughter after a Palestinian hijacker.
And here's a guy who had no history of any problems with the law, no, you know, record of involvement with militant groups. But he did have an interesting little hobby on the side, which he was an Internet blogger under an assumed name and a pretty radical one, as we see as the course of the book unfolds.
DAVIES: Yeah, yeah, talk about his Internet identity.
Mr. WARRICK: Here's a man who lived a quiet life, as you say, you know, publicly, but he developed this Internet persona called Abu Dujanah al-Khorasani, which means essentially son of Dujanah, which is a Muslim hero from early days of the Quran, and Khorasani meaning sort of the area that is now Afghanistan.
And under this fake name, he began to write increasingly angry diatribes against the West, against Israel, against the United States. And these became very popular. He became the moderator of one of the most popular Internet sites in the jihadist community, writing what was essentially a very caustic but very entertaining daily dialogue about the things that were going on in the Middle East and particularly in Iraq.
And he became well-known throughout the Muslim world and was probably one of the four or five top writers in this sort of blogosphere, and yet nobody knew who he really was.
DAVIES: And some really vivid language. I mean, there were a couple of passage that you quote in the book.
Mr. WARRICK: Yes, he'll post these awful, graphic videos of tanks blowing up and of U.S. soldiers being killed with this sort of ghoulish commentary, you know, watch as these tanks and jeeps get blown up like it's PlayStation. You know, we're going to have - serve up today a pate of U.S. brains from a sniper attack. It's very ghoulish and creepy, and yet for, you know, millions of people who read his columns, you know, entertaining.
And he was - people were tuning in every day to see what this guy would say.
DAVIES: But this was an Internet identity. He has his day job as a physician in a Palestinian refugee camp and is a family man. How does he come to the attention of American intelligence?
Mr. WARRICK: You know, the jihadist websites are watched very closely not only in this country, by other intelligence agencies around the world, and they monitor them for clues about who's up and who's down and who, you know, who the rising stars are.
And in the late 2008, it became clear that this was somebody that was getting a lot of attention, somebody that people ought to be paying attention to because he was clearly inciting young people to become involved in jihad, and he seemed to have very direct connections to al-Qaida itself in the sense that he was, you know, professing, you know, ideology that was very close to al-Qaida's, and the suspicion that may be directly linked somehow.
DAVIES: You know, and it was amazing to read how they were actually able to figure out where he lived just from his Internet chatter.
Mr. WARRICK: That's right. The tools that our intelligence community use now to try to trace back, to reach back into cyberspace to find out someone's identity are quite remarkable. And there's been some controversy about them here in this country.
But overseas, you know, the National Security Agency can essentially go anywhere it wants to and do whatever it wants to try to find potential bad guys. And using a series of these kinds of tools - there's a vast computer search engine called Turbulence that's run out of the NSA - that can reach back and reach back further and deeper into cyberspace to try to find individual users at individual IP addresses and could even then get close, you know, physically close to an apartment where someone is typing these things, and they can make individual keystrokes.
So the amount of technology that's used in trying to find these people is quite remarkable, and it's top secret, as well.
DAVIES: So then they get together with the Jordanian intelligence folks, and a raid is staged to bring this guy, Humam Balawi, in, right?
Mr. WARRICK: This happens on January 19 of 2009, 11 o'clock at night, everybody's pretty much asleep or getting there, and the Jordanian intelligence raid his house to take this guy out. And everyone is quite surprised, you know, most of all our bomber, who is essentially put into handcuffs, put into a car and taken off to the Jordanian intelligence agency's secret prison, where they do a lot of interrogation.
And it's probably one of the most feared locations in all of Jordan, a place that nobody wants to go, but this guy disappeared into sort of the clutches of the Jordanians for three days.
DAVIES: Right, and a central character in the book is this Jordanian intelligence figure, Ali bin Zaid, who actually is related to the Jordanian royal family, and takes charge of questioning this young physician, who as far as anybody knows doesn't do anything but brag on the Internet or have this jihadist, you know, commentary.
What do we know about what happens while Balawi is in the hands of the Jordanian intelligence?
Mr. WARRICK: Have pretty good insight into that from several different sides, including the intelligence agency itself but also from Balawi's own writings. He describes later, very vividly, what happened to him inside this prison.
He claims that he didn't give up any information, but it turns out quite the opposite. He cracked very quickly. He's somebody who's not - he's not a tough guy. He's a very small, sort of meek person who had never been in trouble with the law.
So it took very little time at all for the Jordanians to sort of put pressure on him and get him to just talk like crazy. He was giving up names of people that he had met over the Internet, describing how the Internet worked in the jihadist community. And so he was - he rolled over fast. They thought they had - the Jordanians thought they had somebody who was being very cooperative and probably not very important to them but somebody who was now in their control.
DAVIES: Now, he wasn't tortured, as far as we know, right?
Mr. WARRICK: Yes, and perhaps contrary to some people's expectations. The Jordanians have become a lot more sophisticated about how they handle people like this. They do have a reputation in the past as being quite brutal.
The prison where al-Balawi was taken for questioning is known informally as the fingernail factory, which sort of conjures up images of torture and abuse.
But now in the case, essentially, you know, very straightforward, sort of hour after hour of questioning, some sleep deprivation certainly. They kept him locked up in a cell. They kept him blindfolded for many hours. But they didn't physically torture him.
And yet even with this relatively mild treatment, he gave up pretty quickly.
DAVIES: So this physician, Humam Balawi, is now in contact with the Jordanian intelligence, living his life in a suburb of Amman. But he would soon become a much more prominent figure in the eyes of the U.S. intelligence.
But first, tell us - set this in the context of al-Qaida's activities at the time. This is 2009, and in the U.S. forces' efforts to fight al-Qaida. How were things going?
Mr. WARRICK: Well, this is an interesting period in the history of counterterrorism because in the past six months, eight months before this took place, the United States has become much more aggressive in the sort of Pakistani tribal area, where al-Qaeda was believed to be based.
We see sort of a ramping-up of drone warfare, many more missile strikes than we'd ever seen before, an attempt to try to put al-Qaida on the defensive and ultimately to find their top leaders.
And at this moment, as Balawi's being arrested, this is right as we have a new U.S. president coming into office. A new CIA director is about to take charge. And their number one priority in terms of counterterrorism is finding the guys who did 9/11.
They sort of eluded us for eight years. Now we're really going to try to put everything we can into it, find ways to get to bin Laden. So they're open to ways to try to do this, looking all around the world for help, any way they can.
GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with Joby Warrick, author of the new book "Triple Agent." We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with Joby Warrick, author the new book "Triple Agent: The al-Qaeda Mole who Infiltrated the CIA." The mole was a Jordanian physician who became a trusted informant of the CIA.
DAVIES: So this physician, Humam Balawi, suddenly changes his life, comes home, tells his family I've sold the Ford. He's quit his job at this Palestinian refugee camp, and leave saying he's going to Turkey. In fact, he's headed for the tribal areas of Pakistan. What had happened?
Mr. WARRICK: This is very strange because here's a guy who had no training as an agent of any kind. He had been, you know, as we'd said, lived a very quiet life, had done nothing really remarkable, and yet he volunteered this idea that look, you want me to help you, here's something I can do.
I've got credentials. I'm a doctor. I can go to Pakistan and help you look around for these, you know, al-Qaida characters that you're interested in. It's - it was sort of a shot in the dark. It's something that he knew and sort of made quite prominent mention of the fact that he could get a lot of money for this. He seemed to be motivated by money.
But it was a very intriguing idea to everyone. Here's a guy who could - may or may not be able to help us out, but it's worth a try, perhaps.
DAVIES: Now you say money, he was telling his family that the Americans will pay me a lot of money for this.
Mr. WARRICK: Yes, and this is quite well-known. And I've talked to others who were also recruited by the CIA or sort of in the process of being recruited who talked about vast sums of money.
If you can go into a place like Pakistan, or if you can help the CIA, help allied intelligence agencies find these really important bad guys, potentially there's millions of dollars that could be made, could change your life, can change your family's life. And this is quite an attractive lure. And in the case of Balawi, he seemed very interested in the money.
DAVIES: Right, now his contact is the Jordanian intelligence fellow bin Zaid. Were the Americans in on this? Did they suggest sending him to Pakistan?
Mr. WARRICK: Not at first because this was essentially a Jordanian operation at the beginning, in terms of Balawi being recruited, being assessed to see what he could do and where he could go.
But when the moment came when this guy said I can go to Pakistan, I can be your guy over there, then this becomes a much bigger deal, and the CIA gets involved.
So Balawi gets a CIA case officer, as well as a Jordanian case officer. He gets a new code name. They called him Wolf. They gave him a passport and a visa to allow him to travel to Pakistan, a little bit of traveling money and then sent him off, off he goes to the tribal areas.
DAVIES: And did it strike in Langley, at the CIA, as weird that this guy, who wasn't even involved with, you know, radicals in his home country, suddenly is going to go to Pakistan and just sort of blend in?
Mr. WARRICK: Yeah, it was - at very best, it was a long shot. I think people who looked at this said okay, why not? What do we have to lose with this guy? It's not going to cost us anything. If he gets killed, if he gets - you know, if al-Qaida gets suspicious and thinks he's a spy and kills him, then we've lost almost nothing.
But why not? It's a plausible situation. The guy could potentially blend in because of his Internet connections, because of his ability to serve as a doctor, providing medical services. So sure, send him, let's see what happens. Just keep an eye on him, and maybe it'll be nothing, but it's worth a try.
DAVIES: Right, so weeks, even months pass, and they don't hear from him. And then suddenly he proves his mettle to the Jordanian and American intelligence. How?
Mr. WARRICK: It's extraordinary. For the period of time, the only contact they have with this guy is by an occasional email that's sent to a secret account, just to say I'm here, I'm, you know, trying to do what I can do to find my way around.
And then, as you say, months pass. He actually sort of excused himself for a while. He says I'm going to join this training camp. I'm going to disappear for a bit. You're not going to hear from me. But it's worth sort of investing my time to get to know these guys.
So months pass, and then out of the blue, they get this extraordinary calling card from Balawi, showing that this guy has actually done some pretty good work, and I've got something that you need to pay attention to.
DAVIES: And what is it?
Mr. WARRICK: It's a videotape that was made in the presence of senior al-Qaida leaders. This - it's the kind of thing that you could not imagine anything that would provoke more, you know, interest and attention at CIA than videotapes showing this guy had actually gone into the tent of al-Qaida, had met senior al-Qaida leaders and actually had a few snippets of video to show himself sitting with senior al-Qaida leaders.
So incontrovertible evidence, you know, the kind that would just sort of grab everybody by the throat, and showed them that wow, we've really got an amazing asset here.
DAVIES: And what was the impact of this information at the CIA headquarters?
Mr. WARRICK: You know, it was very exciting to everyone. I think there was - at this point, there's still some skepticism, as you would expect - how did this unknown get so good so fast.
So then there becomes an effort, well, let's see what else he knows and see what else he can do. Can he find targets for his? Can he help us with our drone strikes? So there was a period of several months that ensued in which they essentially put this guy to the test. What can you do for us?
DAVIES: So does he find targets for the drones?
Mr. WARRICK: He does in a kind of an indirect way. His complaint was that look, I don't know the area very well. Some of these people don't trust me. I can't give you specific addresses. But what I can do is be a close read on how effective you're being.
So when there was a drone strike, when people were killed, Balawi would send, you know, on-the-scene reports: Here's what happened, here's what you got, here's the guy that got away. And it was sort of vivid, real-time sort of collaboration and corroboration to what the CIA was accomplishing over there, and it was quite detailed and quite convincing.
DAVIES: And again, it tells the CIA that this guy is right there, where we have been targeting al-Qaida figures. He is with - he is sleeping with the enemy, in effect.
Mr. WARRICK: He is sleeping with the enemy, and he's able to take directions. Sometimes the CIA could say look, we need to know about this guy. Can you tell us about this network? And Balawi would send back these reports, always through his Jordanian handler, by email, but he could take direction. He could give them answers that they were looking for. So a real relationship was maturing in which this guy was establishing his trust.
DAVIES: And the thing that really sends the meter spinning at Langley, at the CIA headquarters, is when he convinces them he has had contact with Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Mr. WARRICK: Exactly, the number two leader of al-Qaida, second only to Osama bin Laden himself. And this came in late November of 2009, after sort of several months of developing this relationship, of helping out with drone strikes.
Balawi comes up one day and says I've got a new patient. I'm treating Zawahiri himself. And that's quite a claim to make, but he also had proof to show that he actually had been in the presence of Zawahiri.
DAVIES: Yeah, and what kind of proof?
Mr. WARRICK: They knew a lot about Zawahiri from his time in Egypt. He had been for many years in Egyptian prisons. SO they knew a lot about him physically. They knew about his scars, his health conditions.
And Balawi was reporting back to them in detail the kinds of things that he knew the CIA would already know: Here's a guy, he's diabetic, he's got problems with this, he's got a scar. This man is in my custody. I've got proof that I'm waiting on him, and I'm going to see him again in a couple weeks to give him some medicine.
DAVIES: So this gets them understandably really excited that they have a guy there who is among al-Qaida's top people. But, you know, in retrospect, now that we know how this all turned out, you have to wonder, didn't they wonder how he could have gotten a video, which was - would have to have been taken by someone other than himself because the video shows him sitting next to this al-Qaida figure, Atiyah.
So he had to be in a position to not only have someone else take this video of him with one of the most hunted men in the world but then somehow get a copy of it and manage to get it to them. Shouldn't that have thrown up all kinds of red flags?
Mr. WARRICK: Looking back now there were many red flags, and some were raised sort of specifically and individually by people who were involved in this operation.
But if you'll think back to sort of the takedown of Osama bin Laden a few months ago, this was the greatest single priority for the CIA, is trying to find the guys responsible for 9/11. This is the closest that anyone had gotten to Zawahiri since 2006, perhaps earlier than that.
So everyone is - was focused on the fact that we may be getting close to some of these big players. Yes, the guy's information may or may not check out, but this is potentially a huge windfall, a huge break for us, and at very least, we need to check him out, we need to confront him in person, we need to see what he has, not necessarily take it all on faith, but we need to meet with him, and we need to meet with him fast.
DAVIES: All right, so the effort for the CIA to meet directly with Balawi is what leads to the tragedy that the book is about. But what's one of the fascinating things about your book, before we get to the meeting itself, is that you have an account of what was going on the other side of this; what Balawi was doing, which wasn't really spying for the Americans, that he was among Taliban and eventual Taliban leaders in Pakistan and playing the Americans.
And it's really fascinating to hear what was really happening when he was telling them, the CIA, that he was on their side. How did you get this account of what Balawi was up to when he was in Pakistan?
Mr. WARRICK: Yeah, the three main sources - part of it is Balawi's words himself. Fortunately for me, he left quite a record of his own sort of thinking, his personal views about what was happening to him at the time, people that he met with, even sort of minor anecdotes about sort of incidents while he was inside Taliban country, his views on the leaders that he was working with.
So there was quite a wealth of stuff that he left for us, both written records and also videos that he made. The Taliban - this, you know, Balawi has become quite a legend among them because he was working with the Taliban, as well as al-Qaida.
And through my associates and through my own interviews, people working in the tribal areas with - who know some of the emissaries from the Taliban world, they're able to sort of get these stories very readily of what the Taliban was thinking about this case and how they - you know, how excited they were that they were able to pull off this incredible attack on the CIA. They're quite willing to talk about it.
And the third, of course, is triangulating with the agency, with CIA, with the Pakistani intelligence. All these people who have come in afterward to try to piece together what happened.
And it is remarkable because we have one side this view that the CIA is getting at the time, but there's an incredible web of intrigue that's being woven on the al-Qaida side of this that doesn't come to light until months later.
GROSS: FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies will continue the interview with Joby Warrick in the second half of the show. Warrick is the author of the new book "The Triple Agent" and covers national security for The Washington Post. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with Joby Warrick who covers national security for the Washington Post. Warrick is the author of the new book "The Triple Agent: The al-Qaeda Mole who Infiltrated the CIA." It's about a trusted CIA informant in Afghanistan who the agency hoped would provide critical information about senior al-Qaida leaders in Pakistan. But the informant, Humam Balawi, used his access to the CIA base to enter with a bomb strapped to his body. The explosion killed 10 people, seven CIA employees, a Jordanian intelligence officer, the bomber and his driver.
In the first half, we heard about how Balawi established a working relationship with the Jordanians, then went to Pakistan, where he worked with the Taliban and the CIA.
DAVIES: So when Balawi goes to Pakistan he connects with the Taliban and becomes their associate. And one of the fascinating parts of the story is at one point, do I have this right, he directed a drone strike that got people killed just to establish his bona fides with the CIA.
Mr. WARRICK: Yeah. This is part of his legend among the Taliban. It's a very peculiar story but it's been told to me by several Taliban people who swear that it's true and it has a ring of truth. The person that Balawi was staying with at the time was the leader of the Pakistan Taliban, a man that we all came to know later as Batula Massoud. It was actually his driver who was put to Massoud's car, sent on a mission and the coordinates given to Balawi so he could pass them on to the CIA, and then there was a missile strike in which this guy was killed. So this Massoud, the Taliban leader, essentially set up his own driver to be sacrificed just to prove to everyone that Balawi was the real thing.
DAVIES: So now you have Balawi and the Taliban cooperating in in effect seducing the CIA - convincing them that they've got a spy in the inner circle of al-Qaida and the Taliban. And there is this video which, of course, Balawi managed to send to his, you know, his contacts, which really got the CIA's attention. What do you now know about making that video?
Mr. WARRICK: It was essentially an al-Qaida production. And if you think back about, you know, the things the CIA has done over many years, you know, they're the greatest at the clever ruse. You know, taking, you know, making front companies and phony passports and fake documents. An al-Qaida essentially did the same thing in this case.
They used their own production equipment. They have their own video cameras and that kind of thing to create a video that essentially would be bait to lure the CIA into a trap. And agency officers who've look back at it now say it was just incredibly clever. It was as good as anything the CIA would have done, you know, in its best day, and it worked.
DAVIES: Before Balawi went on his mission he made videos, you know, in the presence of his al-Qaida and Taliban friends. And these have been preserved. And we have a little segment we're going to listen to hear. You want to just kind of set this up visually, tell us what we're about to hear?
Mr. WARRICK: Okay. Balawi made several different videos before he went on this mission. And the one that's the most striking is he gets into a car, has a camera close on him and his face and he, this is where he makes his sort of threat against the CIA and the Americans just before he sort of takes the drive into Khost to do the deed that he's going to do. He's sitting in the driver seat of a car wearing this big shawl and a turban, has a crutch next to him because he's injured his leg in an accident recently, and he makes this threat in almost in sort of Hollywood bad guy rhetoric saying: CIA, I'm going to get you. I'm going to go to paradise. You're going to go to hell. You can't just send, you know, drones and missiles, you know, into the tribal areas and get away with it. You can't just do these pushbutton things because we're going to find ways to come at you. We're going to find unusual ways to get revenge against you.
And then the dramatic final moments, he holds up this watch that's on his left hand and he says this is not an ordinary watch; it's a detonator. And as he does this you could see sort of the stress and the, you know, the almost fear and sort of pain in his eyes as he's contemplating what he's about to do. And he just can't bring himself to look at the camera, but he's saying I'm about to give my life and this is why I'm going to do it.
DAVIES: So let's listen to a bit of this. This is Balawi before he undertakes his mission.
Mr. HUMAM BALAWI: Look, this is for you. It's not a watch. It's a detonator to kill as much as I can, God willing. But this is meant to kill you, to kill your partner, your Jordanian partner and (unintelligible). I go to the (unintelligible) paradise and you will be sent to the hell. And you will see (unintelligible) we will surely see you again.
DAVIES: And that's Humam Balawi, the man who killed several CIA officers and others when he blew himself up in Afghanistan. What are the emotions that you hear in his voice there?
Mr. WARRICK: I hear bitterness. I hear a man who's sort of reconciling himself to this fate that I think he didn't set out to do, who's not someone who volunteered to be a, you know, a suicide bomber. In fact, in some of his writings he's very descriptive in sort of the mental anguish with which he faces this decision, the arguments, the counter-arguments. Well, if I blow myself up that means I can't do anything else ever again. If I kill myself, you know what happens to my wife and my daughters and my father? So he's kind of walking through the sort of mental process of sort of the gravity of what he's about to do.
And you see it all in his face as he's kind of looking at the camera and saying okay, well, this is what I've decided to do. This is, you know, this is bitter, this is painful, but I'm dedicated to doing it.
GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with Joby Warrick, author of the new book "The Triple Agent." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with Joby Warrick, author of the new book "The Triple Agent: The al-Qaeda Mole who Infiltrated the CIA." The al-Qaida mole, Humam Balawi, managed to become a trusted CIA informant and used his access to enter a CIA base in Afghanistan with a bomb strapped to his body, killing nine people and himself.
DAVIES: So we have quite a circumstance here. We have the CIA thinking theyve got their best informant ever on al-Qaida and they want to arrange a meeting. So they're going to meet with him at this American intelligence base in Khost, K-H-O-S-T, in Afghanistan. And what's really happening, of course, is that their informant is working with al-Qaida and the Taliban.
The meeting was going to be at this base, this American base, Khost. And, of course, a lot of thought went into all of the choreographed details of exactly how it would happen, how he would get into the base, what kind of security would occur, what kind, how many people would be there to greet him and talk to him. And the ranking CIA officer at Khost was a woman named Jennifer Matthews. Her role in this became controversial. Tell us a little about her.
Mr. WARRICK: Yeah. Her name is Jennifer Matthews and she's a remarkable person in her own right. She was one of the best al-Qaida experts in the CIA. She had been on sort of the case of al-Qaida since before 9/11 and spent many years after the 9/11 attacks trying to track down senior al-Qaida officials around the world. She had been present at one of the sort of notorious waterboarding sessions of a key al-Qaida operative who was captured in 2003.
And she was someone who clearly knew about al-Qaida and how to get to them. On the other hand, she was someone who had never really served in a war zone, didn't have much sort of practical experience in the sense of working with agents and undercover informants.
And so here's a person that just by happenstance happens to be in a place where some of those skills were potentially very important.
DAVIES: So they were going to dispatch a trusted Afghan driver would bring Balawi in from Pakistan in a car and bring him to this American base at Khost. Now when he arrives at the base, you know, he's a guy that they think they can trust but they don't really know. And there's an enormous amount of security. There's a wide perimeter. Tell us about the security arrangements and the plans for greeting Balawi when he arrives.
Mr. WARRICK: If you saw the base, it's a fortress. It's something that it has -it's built around an old Soviet airfield. It's got high walls, concertina wire, you know, Afghan guards on the outside, you know, U.S. Marine guards on the inside, plus, you know, contract guards. It's a very secure place, and the CIA portion of the base is even more secure. It's in a inner part of the base with its own separate security guards and its own separate walls, so not anyone obviously can get on to the base.
In the case of Balawi, they werent concerned about him being a problem, or about him being sort of a double agent as much as they were worried about somebody else seeing him, that he might be spotted by some Taliban informant and exposed as a spy. So a lot of operational detail went into trying to protect this guy's identity to make sure nobody saw him or recognized him.
And so they managed to get him onto the base without being searched at all. He passed through three security perimeters and they actually told guards to look away. Don't look at the guy's face. We can't have anyone seeing this guy. We can't have anyone knowing who he really is.
DAVIES: And Jennifer Matthews thought that there should be a special greeting. There were 14 people out waiting for him, right?
Mr. WARRICK: Right. And that's really unusual. And some of the old time CIA officers were quite critical of this one fact that usually we have an informant of this magnitude, someone whose identity is very important to be protected, that he only have two or three people meet with him. You keep his identity, you know, as closely held as you possibly can. So instead, there was a fairly large entourage of people who were waiting to meet the guy, to poke him, to prod him, to even give him a medical checkup. And they were all waiting for him inside this base, you know, essentially with the whole intention of protecting him and not realizing, of course, that he was out to hurt them.
DAVIES: And Jennifer Matthews, I mean was the idea here to sort of observe, you know, Arabs' customs of courtesy?
Mr. WARRICK: Yes. They had gotten the sense from bin Zayed, the Jordanian agent, this is a man who is very sensitive. He had sort of he's a hard case. He was difficult to manage. He had a, you know, he was very demanding, had a big temper. They wanted to try to make him happy and comfortable. And they were going to give him a mission that could cost him his life. They were already putting him at a great risk just having him in Pakistan. So they wanted to go out of their way to be hospitable to this guy and to honor Arab traditions and culture that sort of mandates treating a guest with respect.
So not only did they have this elaborate sort of meeting planned for him, but they went as far as baking him a cake. It turns out he had a birthday just the previous week. He had just turned 32 years old. And so, you know, what better way to show sort of appreciation for the guy than to surprise him with a big birthday cake? And that's what they tried to do.
DAVIES: Now once the plan was in place there was a delay of many days before Balawi actually came, and there was time for the security folks, both in the CIA and in Blackwater, the contract security folks, to think about the plan that was arranged. What did they think of it?
Mr. WARRICK: Some of them were very critical. The CIA case officer was a guy named Darren LaBonte who had been an Army Ranger. He had been a CIA paramilitary officer in Afghanistan. He had done these kinds of missions before. And he argued repeatedly that there are too many people involved and that the plan was - it was essentially moving too fast. We don't know enough about this person. He began to push back, we need to slow down and rethink some of this and he was overruled at every point because the CIA believed that the imperative was to get this guy into the CIA base as quickly as they could, to get the information from him whatever they could, and then to move on it.
DAVIES: Isn't it standard practice to search double agents when you bring them in? I mean not like I know this world, but no?
Mr. WARRICK: Yes. In a typical case when you're meeting an informant - and we have to empathize that there is no typical with Balawi because he was sort of in a league of his own. But if for someone who was sort of a normal informant you would have perhaps a meeting in a car some place. There would be two American officers in the car. One would immediately search the guy, make him, you know, put his hands on the front of the dash and then just do a quick body check to make sure he wasn't carrying a weapon, make sure he wasn't wired. And that's essentially standard protocol.
And then the meeting would take place maybe for a few minutes in the car. He would be dropped off in an alley all very discreetly. And in the case of Balawi, nothing went along those lines at all. It was a big meeting with lots of people involved and the search was not exactly an afterthought but they wanted to get him past all the Afghan guards first and not search him until he became, you know, inside the CIA area where they could take a look at him and have control over him.
DAVIES: So what happens is he is in the backseat of a car that pulls up to a building where there are 14 people standing outside. Is that right?
Mr. WARRICK: Exactly. They're all kind of scattered outside the building. Not waiting inside, but outside as sort of a welcoming party - in a sense - because everybody wanted to see him. A lot of people told me later that it was seen as a historic case that everybody wanted to be part of, so you have this fairly large gathering. And Balawi shows up, you know, for the initial search when he was within a few dozen yards of, you know, 16 Americans and Jordanians that suddenly had their lives in danger.
DAVIES: So what happened?
Mr. WARRICK: He, when he was first approached, the car pulls up in front of this group and this is where the search finally is going to take place. So the American security guards come up to the car to pull him out and instead of coming out on the passenger side of the car, he backs away from them to the driver's side and lets himself out on the opposite side. And this is the first thing that sort of raises flags for the security officers. You know, this is very strange behavior. He's not coming out to meet them. He's sort of sneaking out the back way and suddenly alarms start to go out to go off in the minds of some of these security officers. What is this guy up to? And so he begins to kind of walk around the side of the car and as he's walking he starts to chant the words in Arabic, you know, God is great. This is sort of a martyr's chant before a suicide mission. So suddenly it becomes clear to everyone that something is gravely wrong here.
DAVIES: In fact, of course, he has explosives strapped to him. He hits the switch. They detonate. What happens?
Mr. WARRICK: He's wearing a bomb that is quite extraordinary. There's not just the usual explosives, but military C4, so it's very powerful. It's got, you know, just a vest covered with ball bearings and, you know, pieces of metal, even children's Jacks, we heard, and just just he was such a big walking, you know, 30-pound bomb that when detonated sent shrapnel in all directions. It was very powerful. It lifted cars off the ground. It's sort of a killing radius that was, you know, dozens of yards wide.
DAVIES: And what was the death toll?
Mr. WARRICK: So seven were killed at once, and that includes LaBonte, the American CIA officer and the Jordanian, bin Zayed. And then two of the Americans that were killed died of wounds essentially in the few minutes after the bombing. And that includes Jennifer Matthews. She was wounded and died later.
DAVIES: So a total of 10.
Mr. WARRICK: Total of 10, including the bomber himself.
DAVIES: It was written at the time that among those killed were some of the CIA's best analysts. Some of its most trusted experts on al-Qaida. Was there a tremendous loss of brain power here?
Mr. WARRICK: Yes, there was, because not only Matthews, who was really sort of the resident expert, or one of them, on al-Qaida, and had sort of this institutional knowledge that went deep into al-Qaida's networks and really understood the relations between various allied groups around the world, just a sort of an replaceable font of knowledge inside this one person; and there were others like that too. There was a young woman, this strikingly beautiful young lady, 30 years old, named Elizabeth Hansen, who had come up along the parallel track with Jennifer Matthews and had been a targeter back at the CIA headquarters, which is the job in which you pull together kind of a mosaic of information from various places to try to go after individual al-Qaida operatives, and she also had just a vast wealth of knowledge about these networks.
And it'll take many years really for the agency to replace that body of knowledge and other people, but it was a big blow to the agency.
DAVIES: There were, of course, investigations into the whole business. I mean the relationship with Balawi, the planning of the meeting. What conclusions did they reach about what might have been done differently?
Mr. WARRICK: The CIA conducted two investigations and they were very critical of its, you know, not just what a few individuals had done but they said that there were systemic errors that led to this. There had been sort of an inattention to the whole science of counterintelligence, of trying to figure out the motives of people who were working as informants for you. This was essentially neglected in the case of Balawi. No one really did the deep dive into his background to see was he real or not. They acknowledged that there was haste in trying to set up this meeting with a man that no one had ever seen, that no one had even spoken to on the American side and sort of a credulity that developed based on this man's, you know, very impressive reporting from the field that made everyone kind of rush to protect him, rush to see him, but not ever think about the fact that he could be a double agent, he could be someone who's out to kill them.
DAVIES: You know, since this event, of course, they tracked down and killed Osama bin Laden. And you note in the book that two of the women who were killed in the Afghan meeting with Balawi in fact were involved in some of the important intelligence work that led to tracking bin Laden down. Where do things stand now with al-Qaida and efforts to limit and defeat them?
Mr. WARRICK: The killing of Osama bin Laden was symbolically very important and it took out the leadership, sort of the key leader that kept al-Qaida together for all these years. And it also, it shows that in a way that al-Qaida has been discredited by its own ideology and sort of rejected by Arabs and Muslims around the world who see now that Arab Spring, you know, these seriously powerful sort of mass movements of people to overthrow unpopular dictators and authoritarian rulers, is another way or a better way for Muslims to seek justice in their own countries.
So it's been a difficult year for al-Qaida. It's really not only unwise but dangerous to say that al-Qaida's been defeated because they still exist not just in the Pakistani tribal areas but also in other places around the world, such as Yemen. And we see every day reports of attempts to do, you know, bad things in places around the world, including the United States.
DAVIES: Well, Joby Warrick, thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. WARRICK: Thank you very much.
GROSS: Joby Warrick spoke FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Warrick is the author of the new book "The Triple Agent," and covers national security for the Washington Post.
You can read an excerpt of his book on our website, freshair.npr.org.