The South Asia Channel

The Triple Agent

Were Shakespeare alive, he would find ample material for a high tragedy among the players in veteran intelligence correspondent Joby Warrick’s new book, The Triple Agent. All the ingredients are there, including betrayal, shame, heroism, and more than one person with a recklessly determined hubris worthy of King Lear himself.  Yet as those who have ...

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Were Shakespeare alive, he would find ample material for a high tragedy among the players in veteran intelligence correspondent Joby Warrick’s new book, The Triple Agent. All the ingredients are there, including betrayal, shame, heroism, and more than one person with a recklessly determined hubris worthy of King Lear himself.  Yet as those who have operated in the world of human intelligence will viscerally feel, this is not cathartic fiction, but a factual account of a modern day human intelligence operation gone terribly wrong, involving real men and women, with all the failings thereof.  The Triple Agent provides a riveting look at the disastrous attempt by the CIA and their partners in the Jordanian General Intelligence Department (GID) to maneuver the Jordanian doctor-cum-cyber-jihadist, Humam al-Balawi, into penetrating the leadership of al-Qaeda.

The central figure of The Triple Agent is the paradoxical Balawi, a soft-spoken doctor, husband, and father of two. Coexisting with the seemingly dedicated physician is Balawi’s online alter ego, Abu Dujana al-Khorisani, a demonic mirror image that frequents online militant forums lauding Al-Qaeda and posting jihadist videos. Khorisani becomes infamous for appending grisly teasers to the videos he posts, such as "Watch how the Americans get killed as if they were in PlayStation video games" or "On today’s menu…Roasted Humvee with a sauce of human remains."

Determined to halt the cyber-propagandist, Jordan’s GID backtracks Balawi’s internet activity to his home, leading to the doctor’s arrest in 2008.  Despite his leonine rhetoric online, once in GID custody, Balawi quickly coughs up the name of those cyber-jihadis known to him.  

After the interrogation is over and Balawi is returned home, the question for the GID becomes: what is to be done with the little doctor, this curious combination of retiring physical frailty and bombastic online zealotry? 

The manc harged with making that determination is Balawi’s GID case officer, Ali Bin Zeid, a cousin of Jordan’s King Abdullah and a man highly regarded for both his smarts and his work ethic. Zeid’s colleague and friend is CIA case officer Darren LaBonte, whose own dedication and front-line service in Afghanistan makes him Zeid’s trusted counterpart. As Zeid struggles to determine if anything useful can be done with Balawi, investigations into Balawi’s past turn up troubling details hinting he had violent aspirations beyond the virtual world.

From early on, Zeid worries that his superiors at the GID would find Balawi’s links to extremist circles too tempting to be ignored, and that "inflating expectations could lead to disappointments and mistakes." Not immune to realities of pressure placed on his own GID superiors from their American allies to act, and act quickly,  Zeid comments that one drawback of working with Americans, impatient in a profession the requires time and deliberation, is that, "Always, they want everything to happen right now." Eventually, an oddly-detached Balawi volunteers to penetrate the militant preserves in the lawless tribal regions of Pakistan near the border with Afghanistan, a known hidey hole for both the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Once in Pakistan, Balawi soon falls in with the leadership of the Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP). While TTP leader Baitullah Mehsud (and then Mehsud’s successor Hakimullah) trust Balawi, most of the Taliban and their al-Qaeda allies do not — which does not stop a senior al-Qaeda leader from utilizing the doctor. As Warrick tells it, al-Qaeda baits a trap by allowing Balawi to send back tantalizing emails to his Jordanian handlers (as well as the GID’s allies in the CIA), implying Balawi has gotten a firm lead on the penultimate prize in terrorist-hunting circles:  Al-Qaeda’s then-Number Two, Ayman al-Zawahiri.  

The carefully crafted "dangle" generates great interest in GID and CIA circles, and a rendezvous is planned at the CIA-run Camp Chapman in Afghanistan to debrief Balawi, whose penetration of al-Qaeda with such startling rapidity borders on the miraculous. Along the way to the fateful meeting, Warrick chronicles how warnings from the Jordanian case officer Bin Zeid, his CIA counterpart LaBonte,  and security officers on the ground, Dane Paresi and Scott Robertson, are all,  Cassandra-like, ignored.

For a book which begins at the ending, and then jumps back in time to show the paths of the subjects moving towards the predetermined conclusion on Camp Chapman on 30 December, 2009, Warrick does yeoman work in keeping readers interested in the lives of all involved. A picture emerges of Humam al-Balawi as a man doomed by his voluntary but ill-considered purveyance of militant propaganda, first into unwilling cooperation with Jordan’s GID, and later, in the tribal areas ofPakistan, into becoming the pawn of an al-Qaeda leader ruthlessly determined to turn the wretched doctor into a Judas goat — a specially trained goat used to lead other animals to slaughter.   

Left with little alternative, Balawi dons a custom-made vest constructed of powerful C-4 plastic explosives.  In his final hours, the condemned Balawi bitterly records "martyr" videos for exploitation by the Taliban and Al-Qaeda before heading for his own dark rendezvous at Chapman.  Previous accounts of Balawi have described the bomber as willing and fully committed, but Warrick’s account holds a different version of events, reporting that, "Balawi tried his best to mak esure that the vest ended up belonging to someone else.  Anyone but him."


The general reader will find The Triple Agent a gripping story, but one that takes place on comfortingly distant foreign shores. Among those professional circles with a material stake in the events Warrick recounts, particularly America’s human intelligence community, it will almost certainly reignite passionatedebate about the bombing. It is safe to presume the savvier analysts and case officers at the CIA will consider The Triple Agent a case study, the lessons of which may only be ignored literally at their own deadly peril. 

Warrick carefully lays out the facts and largely leaves the reader to make his or her own judgment of what went wrong. My own conclusion, as a former CIA case officer, is that the lure that Balawi dangled was too enticing to be entirely ignored. Ultimately, somebody from the CIA had to meet with Balawi to check his claims, and in so doing, some deaths were probably inevitable.

Still, there is much in The Triple Agent that argues the toll of injuries and deaths in the Khost bombing was considerably higher than it should have been. Months before the bombing, against all established procedure, CIA Headquarters assigned a person with great experience as an analyst, but none as an agent-handling case officer, Jennifer Matthews, to be base chief at Camp Chapman. When it came time to design the scenario in which Balawi was to be met, Matthews hatched a plan that exposed far too many people to Balawi. To the extent that the new base chief was in the position to make that mistake at all, and that her ill-conceived plan was given support by both CIA HQ and other CIA stations, some fault definitely lies with the bureaucracy that put a person with no field experience in a position of authority in an overseas field base, and then failed to scrutinize a novice’s plan to meet (potentially) the most sensitive terrorist recruit since 9/11. But it is not and cannot be solely the fault of CIA HQ. Before Balawi arrived in Khost, the experienced case officer LaBonte and security men Scott Robertson, Paresi, and Wise all protested that too many people were going to be at the meeting with Balawi. To the extent that Matthews ignored direct, repeated, vehement protests of more experienced officials, some portion of the blame for the high casualty numbers must fall squarely on Matthews’ shoulders.  

While it is easy to get bogged down focusing on the mistaken tactics employed in the specific case of Balawi, The Triple Agent also raises a strategic concern about U.S. intelligence operations. In the hoary Cold War days, there was a firewall between analysts and field operators at the CIA, both to protect the identity of the spies being handledby the case officers, and to avoid the skewed analysis that can occur when ananalyst focuses too much on the biography of the spy, and does not evaluate the data the spy provides on its own merits. In a post-9/11 world, that firewall is long-gone, at least in the counterterrorism arena, and analysts and case officers share operational information much more freely. In many cases, this is a good thing, allowing "the dots to be connected" more quickly. But in the case of Balawi, that free exchange also meant that when a lead to a sensational but untested agent cropped-up, instead of that information being held to a tight circle of experienced case officers until his veracity could be established, information on Balawi was briefed far and wide, all the way up to the president. Balawi’s "lure" generated such lust to finally "get" Zawahiri that the desire for action steamrollered all calls for careful due-diligence in evaluating Balawi himself. The question of how to avoid such a disaster in the future, while still maintaining the collaborative synergy between analysts and case officers was foremost in my mind after reading The Triple Agent.

The answer of how to crack that particular conundrum, however, remains elusive.

Art Keller is a former case officer for the CentralIntelligence Agency’s National Clandestine Service. He participated incounterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda in Pakistan’s tribal areas in 2006.

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