What Went Wrong with the Plan to Kill Ayman al-Zawahri?
The deaths of two Jordanians, alongside seven US intelligence officers, in the suicide attack at Forward Operation Base Chapman in Khost, Afghanistan on Wednesday. Dec. 30, will go down as an extraordinary event in the annals of the covert war against terrorism.
The Jordanian victim was Capt. Sharif Ali bin Zeid, a high-ranking intelligence officer and a member of the Hashemite royal family (first cousin of King Abdullah II and grand-nephew of Abdullah I). The suicide killer was another Jordanian, Khalil Abu Hammam Mellal Al-Balawi, a physician from the town of Zarqa, north-east of the capital Amman.
Aside from the unusual exposure of a CIA covert operation, this episode was marked out as singular by five other features:
1. The United States tried and failed yet again to penetrate the top ranks of al-Qaeda.
2. The CIA's use of a double-agent to try and reach al Qaeda's No. 2 Ayman Zuwahri backfired savagely at the cost of seven agents' lives. CIA personnel worked on this operation with Al-Balawi for a whole year and never suspected he had betrayed them and gone back to his old jihadist allegiance. No wonder it was referred to by a high-ranking ex-CIA officer as “a historic disaster for the intelligence agency.”
3. DEBKA-Net-Weekly counter-terrorism sources note that running double agents is always a tricky business. They often tread a wavy line between loyalties and many a cloak-and-dagger agency finds them crossing the lines to the enemy once too often. But this operation was compromised from the word go because the CIA reused a method which had succeeded once before against al Qaeda – not only the method, but its lead actors too.
Same method, same lead players
In 2006, Jordanian intelligence helped the CIA in Iraq infiltrate the inner circle of al Qaeda's Iraq commander, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and eventually lead him to his death at American hands.
Captain Bin Zeid and Khalil al-Balawi collaborated in that operation too.
It was the latter's task to cross clandestinely from the kingdom to Iraq as the member of a Jordanian medical unit and treat wounded al Qaeda fighters, so gaining their trust. Through him and fellow Zarqa residents who succored Zarqawi and his men, Capt. Bin Zeid wove a web of informants around the al-Qaeda commander which led to his downfall.
Al Qaeda was unlikely to forget this or fall for the same ruse twice. In fact, the jihadists used it to turn the tables.
It was a particularly unfortunate as an option for taking down Ayman al-Zawahri.
Between 2003 and 2006, Zarqawi and his brutal methods as commander of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia were a major bone of contention between Osama bin Laden, who approved of them, and Zawahri, who made no secret of his contempt.
Zawahri set about making a minute study of Zarqawi's nature, his personal habits and methods of operation. He used this information in innumerable fatwas which he had distributed among al Qaeda adherents to prove the justice of his criticism. The argument with bin Laden started out on operational grounds and evolved into a theological rift between the two top men.
Zawahri would have been first to spot a Zarqawi replay
CIA planners of the Zawahri operation should have realized their target was intimately familiar with the tactics used for finishing off the Iraqi commander and was well aware of the involvement of Jordanian intelligence.
For him, the reappearance of Bin Zeid and al-Balawi was a red flag. Trying to use their shared medical profession to win the Egyptian physician's trust was naive; Zawahri has long abandoned his life of healing for a career as a master terrorist. According to old reports prior to 9/11 his medical work is confined to advising bin Laden and other senior comrades on their medical problems. So not only was their shared professional background irrelevant, but Zawahri's security detail would have instantly seized on it to confirm that a double agent had been commissioned to trap their master.
After the deaths of Al-Balawi's handlers – the seven CIA agents and the Jordanian intelligence officer – no one in the US intelligence community is knowledgeable enough to trace when and how Zawahri's guards discovered the suicide bomber's identity as a double agent on a mission for the CIA.
It may never be known, for instance, if Al-Balawi made a clean breast of it in his initial contact with al Qaeda.
Al-Qaeda pulls a switcharoo
Whether Al-Balawi was turned or volunteered to serve al Qaeda, the following scenario may be projected:
He would have been instructed by Zawahri's men to carry on working with the CIA group and his Jordanian handler and learn what he could about them and their covert methods of operation.
To boost his credentials, he would have been supplied with the classical paraphernalia of the double agent: credible information on al-Qaeda hideouts in Pakistan's lawless South and North Waziristan.
This information was handed to the Chapman Forward Operations Base in Khost contingent. It quickly generated more frequent and accurate US drone strikes against those hideouts in recent months.
Al-Zawahri must have calculated that this was a price worth paying to lull the Obama administration and its US field commanders into believing they were making big advances in their offensive against al-Qaeda, whereas the jihadists had in fact achieved an intelligence breakthrough against the CIA by opening a back-door for piping disinformation to US intelligence and gaining access to its secret operations.
The logic behind the next step, the destruction of this back-door route together with the CIA contingent and their own informant in December 2009, is harder for US intelligence experts to fathom, DEBKA-Net-Weekly intelligence and counter-terrorism sources report.
They can only speculate that it may have been prompted by some internal event within al Qaeda that may or may not surface in the future, the failure of Umar Abdulmutalleb's attempt to blow up the Northwest airliner on Christmas Day, which moved al Qaeda to show it was alive and kicking, or perhaps by the inherent nature of Al-Balawi's mission.
Had the Jordanian turncoat confessed he was charged not only with spying on Zawahri but finding a way to liquidate him like Zarqawi in Iraq, he would have signed his own death warrant. After using him to run a two-way conduit against the CIA, al Qaeda may have simply disposed of al-Balawi in a ruthless operation which also took down his American and Jordanian controllers.
The Jordanian throne takes a buffeting
4. This was al-Qaeda second effort in six months to use a double agent for a suicide mission against his handler. The first was a flop.
Five months ago, on August 27, 2009, Abdullah Hassan Tali al-Asiri (aka Abu al-Khair) detonated explosives hidden in his underwear at a rendezvous with the man in charge of Saudi Arabia's counterterrorism efforts, deputy Interior Minister Prince Muhammad Bin Nayef. Luckily for the prince, not all the explosives carried by 'Abu al-Khair” ignited. He survived with minor injuries while the terrorist died.
The suicide killer gained access to the prince by a carefully-laid gambit: He contacted Saudi agents operating undercover in Yemen and convinced them he had secret information to divulge about al-Qaeda's activities and represented a large group of its members willing to defect to Saudi Arabia. He would only deliver these valuables to Prince Muhammad Bin Nayef, no one else.
5. The Obama administration and the CIA were left with no option but to expose the roles played by the two Jordanians in the overt Camp Chapman affair, else al Qaeda would have got in first and trumpeted its success. But bringing Jordanian intelligence's participation in the war on terror into the public domain has had an extremely detrimental effect on the standing of Jordan's Hashemite Royal House in Muslim eyes.
This contretemps sent King Abdullah II rushing over to Riyadh on Tuesday, Jan. 5, for an urgent conference with the Saudi king and an appeal for help in fending off the damage to his reputation in the Arab world.
He also needs a helping hand against the rising threat from al-Qaeda, which has now placed Jordan and its royal family front and center on its Middle East target-board.