Wednesday, January 6, 2010

CIA believed killer a lead to al-Qa'ida No 2

WASHINGTON: Before detonating a suicide bomb in Afghanistan last week, a Jordanian militant was considered by American spy agencies as the most promising informant in years about the whereabouts of al-Qa'ida's top leaders.

US intelligence officials told The New York Times they had been so hopeful about what the Jordanian might deliver during a meeting with CIA officials at a remote base in Khost that top officials at the agency and the White House had been informed the gathering would take place.

Instead, the Jordanian double-agent blew himself up, killing seven CIA operatives.

The Jordanian militant for months had been feeding a stream of information about lower-ranking al-Qa'ida operatives to his Jordanian supervisor, Captain Sharif Ali bin Zeid, to establish his credibility and apparently to help broker a meeting with CIA operatives in Afghanistan.

The Americans believed he might provide them with leads to Ayman al-Zawahri, the terrorist group's second-ranking operative.

Jordanian officials said the GID detained and interrogated Balawi about a year ago because of concerns he was tied to al-Qa'ida.

The GID subsequently released Balawi after concluding he'd become a loyal covert asset of the agency, the officials said.

Balawi, who was living in Pakistan, began contacting the GID by email and passing on "credible" information about al-Qa'ida leaders and plots against Jordan, the US and other Western allies, the officials said.

The GID turned the information over to the CIA and other Western governments, which maintain close ties to the Jordanian intelligence agency, they said.

US intelligence officials are working to verify their belief the double-agent was working with al-Qa'ida. The meeting at the CIA base, one official said, was about "important people" in al-Qa'ida.

"It was the most promising lead" the agency had, the official said. "If you've got promising leads brought to you by your friends, coupled with information that checked out . . . It was the agency's duty to meet with this person".

The agency has not yet had a chance to do a full review of what happened, but questions it seeks to answer include why the bomber was allowed on to the compound without being checked and why so many officers were near the bomber at the time of the explosion. Jordanian officials said they expected a team of CIA investigators to visit Amman in coming days to seek information about Balawi and the circumstances surrounding the attack.

A staunch Western ally in the Middle East, Jordan has long had one of the most effective intelligence operations in the Arab world. But the suicide bombing severely embarrassed Amman, and raises questions over Jordan's vaunted role in helping Western intelligence agencies identify and track down Islamist terrorists.

Jordan's GID was set up in 1964 and has built up a reputation for ruthless efficiency at home and abroad. Keeping a very tight grip on internal security and briefing the government on opposition movements within the kingdom, it has forestalled or intercepted several plots to destabilise the country during the 10-year reign of King Abdullah II and his father.

Its role overseas is of growing importance and is the key to Western attempts to penetrate Arab jihadist networks.

The Australian

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