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New details emerge about the CIA bomber

New details emerge about the CIA bomber

Isn’t it interesting that the underpants bomber — whose failed attempt to detonate plastic explosives on a Detroit-bound plane killed zero people — has gotten a lot more attention than the CIA bomber — who successfully perpetrated a devastating attack against a CIA forward operating base in Khost, Afghanistan, killing seven?

Granted, most Americans are probably more interested in the former story, because it directly concerns them. But now, the focus of media attention is shifting, with a couple new data points coming out.

First, the CIA bomber, a Jordanian doctor of Palestinian origin named Humam Khalil Abu Mulal al-Balawi, showed his face today in a video of himself  next to Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud, posthumously published by Al Jazeera. (Interestingly, Balawi was also a prolific jihadi blogger who told the CIA that his online writings were part of his cover.)

And second, the CIA disclosed that Balawi detonated himself moments before he was about to undergo a pat-down search. As CIA director Leon Panetta puts it in an op-ed in today’s Washington Post, " This was not a question of trusting a potential intelligence asset, even one who had provided information that we could verify independently."

It is never that simple, and no one ignored the hazards. The individual was about to be searched by our security officers — a distance away from other intelligence personnel — when he set off his explosives.

(Panetta’s claim that poor tradecraft was not to blame for the bombing’s success is undermined by the Post‘s own reporting. )

NPR also notes today, as has been reported elsewhere, that Balawi was considered "a valued CIA informant" whose reports were restricted to the highest levels of the agency. "He was feeding us low-level operatives and we were whacking them," a former intelligence official told the network.

The new details about the attack are interesting, but the most significant news here is that the Pakistani Taliban is taking credit. That means there’s going to be intensified pressure on the Pakistani government and military to finish the job against the Mehsud network, whose base in South Waziristan was just successfully assaulted last fall. Hakimullah has obviously survived to fight another day, and now he can boast about having outfoxed the mighty CIA.

"We say that we will never forget the blood of our Emir Baitullah Mehsud, God’s mercy on him," Balawi says in the video, some of which is translated here.

Some analysts’ initial assumption had been that the Haqqani network, whose area of operations straddles Afghanistan and Pakistan and is near the Khost base, was behind the attack. (The Afghan Taliban originally claimed responsibility, crediting a disaffected Afghan army member.)  Haqqani’s people as well as al Qaeda proper may yet have been involved, suggests Pakistani analyst Talat Masood here:

Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani general, said that in addition to involvement by Mr. Mehsud’s network, the attack on the C.I.A. station in Khost most likely also had some involvement of Al Qaeda and other Taliban factions. Al Qaeda and Afghan Taliban groups have also claimed responsibility for the attack.

So what happens now? Well, I think it’s fair to say the CIA is going to be out for blood. It may take some time to replenish its expertise in targeting drone strikes — and reassess the effectiveness of those strikes aided by Balawi’s tips — but Hakimullah is going to be Public Enemy No. 1 now, if he wasn’t already. With Pakistan already on his tail, I’d say his days are numbered.