Tuesday, February 27, 2018


by K.J. Howe

Stories about double agents pepper the annals of the history of spies, stories showcasing misplaced trust and betrayal.  Still, how could a soft-spoken physician become a triple agent, deceiving those who live and breathe the trade?   That is exactly what happened on December 30, 2009 when a doctor named Humam Khalili al-Balawi arrived at a CIA base near Khost, Afghanistan.  Although little was known about the doctor, he breezed through security checks with his promise of intelligence on al-Qaeda.  The end result was the deadliest strike against the CIA in 25 years.  Balawi detonated his explosive vest, killing seven CIA officers, two other personnel, and himself.  The shock wave rippled straight up to Leon Panetta, the CIA director at the time.  How could the elite experts on tradecraft have become victims of this triple agent?

The story starts in January 2009, when a Jordanian Mukhabarat intelligence officer named Ali bin Zeid brought in a mild-mannered doctor named Balawi who treated the poor in Palestinian refugee camps.  Balawi had adopted several online personas in highly inflammatory anti-Western blogs.  After three days of interrogation, Balawi "cracked," and Zeid believed he could use him to further his cause.  Sending Balawi into Pakistan was a gamble, but the joint approach of the Mukhabarat and CIA was to imbed as many long shots as possible in an attempt to penetrate al-Qaeda's inner circle.  A grave miscalculation.

After the young doctor was released by the Mukhabarat, bin Zeid attempted to woo him by sharing tales of the Mukhabarat's exploits and offering large sums of money in exchange for tips about al-Qaeda's leadership.  Although Balawi didn't speak Pashto, he had lived in South Waziristan for several months where he met Baitullah Mehsud, a Taliban commander.  Balawi offered to travel to the tribal areas of Pakistan.  Several months passed with no word, but then a video arrived with Balawi sitting with senior al-Qaeda officials in a tent.  Working his way into the inner circle, Balawi was treating Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda's second in command.

In retrospect, there were many red flags in Balawi's background.  While the doctor claimed to abhor violence and disavowed his extreme online rhetoric as a hobby, he had tried to join the Abu Musab al-Zarqawi insurgency in Iraq.  Also, while living in Turkey, Balawi and his future wife, Defne, had translated books about Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.  And, they named their first daughter after an infamous female Palestinian hijacker, and their second daughter after a woman who had made a film about the hijacker.

When Balwali shared that he could lead the CIA to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Americans were excited and wanted to meet him in person.  There were a few skeptics, including Darren LaBonte, bin Zeid's CIA counterpart and friend in Amman.  He felt that this manna from heaven was too good to be true.  Sadly, he was correct.

Balawi and his wife who was supportive of his anti-American sentiments.
It's difficult to believe that there was no formal counterintelligence vetting of Balawi.  Three suggested reasons for this oversight include the CIA being too busy with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the fact that Balawi had been recruited by an allied intelligence service, and the sad truth that top policymakers were too eager to deal a serious blow to al-Qaeda after the 9/11 attacks.  The bomber infiltrated a highly secure base by duping both the CIA and the Jordanian General Intelligence Department who believed he was a trusted informant.  Balawi walked around the side of the car that brought him into camp, began chanting in Arabic, 'God is great,' and hit the detonation switch on his 30-pound suicide vest, killing ten people and proving there is no greater threat than the triple agent.


  1. This was such a tragedy, KJ. Thank you for retelling the story, and reminding us to always be alert and rethink and recheck! Looking forward to your new Thea novel, SKYJACK!

    1. Thanks, Gayle. Sure reinforces that even the experts can make errors, and trust is a nebulous thing in those dangerous worlds.

  2. What a great recap of an incredible story of "double-dealing" or rather "triple-dealing" spy craft. This sounds like a scenario you should turn into one of your great thrillers! Thanks, K.J. for a really interesting post!

    1. Thanks, Karna! Yeah, I love the complexity of intrigue...so many layers!