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28 February 2024

CIA director says bomber ‘was about to be searched’

CIA Director Leon Panetta revealed on Saturday that a Jordanian doctor who killed seven agency operatives was about to be searched before he blew himself up at a US military base in Afghanistan.

"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," Panetta wrote in an article in The Washington Post.

"The individual was about to be searched by our security officers -- a distance away from other intelligence personnel -- when he set off his explosives."

The Post said the Central Intelligence Agency had been planning to speak with the suicide bomber about ways to kill Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al-Qaeda's number two leader, a top US target who remains at large.

Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, a Jordanian of Palestinian origin who is said to have been a triple agent, blew himself up at a US military base in Khost near the Pakistani border on December 30, in the deadliest attack against the spy agency since 1983.

In addition to the agents, Balawi also killed his Jordanian handler -- a top intelligence officer and member of the royal family.

Nearly everyone within sight of the bomber died instantly when thousands of steel pellets exploded from the device.

At least six other people, including the CIA's second-in-command in Afghanistan, were wounded, the Post said, citing US officials briefed on the incident.

In a video broadcast Saturday, Balawi said the bombing was an act of revenge for a series of US drone attacks.

"We tell our emir Baitullah Mehsud we will never forget his blood. It is up to us to avenge him in and outside America," a bearded Balawi clad in military uniform said about a Taliban leader killed in a US attack in August.

"This is a message to the enemies of the (Muslim) nation -- the CIA and Jordanian intelligence services."

Khalil al-Balawi told AFP that the man shown in the video was his son, who had been "manipulated" by several unidentified intelligence services.

Fighting back criticism of the agency's handling of Balawi -- who posted radical anti-Western comments online -- Panetta reacted angrily to comments "suggesting that those who gave their lives somehow brought it upon themselves because of 'poor tradecraft.'"

Criticism has narrowed on how Balawi bypassed checkpoints and was allowed onto the frontline base, which he had never visited before.

"Somebody comes and it's like a celebration that they're coming. It's good to make them feel welcome. It's good to make them feel important," a former CIA field officer told the newspaper.

The Jordanian "was heralded as a superstar asset... So you get an important visitor coming. So you go out and meet him... Is it bad tradecraft? Of course."

But Panetta said the charge was akin to suggesting that "Marines who die in a firefight brought it upon themselves because they have poor war-fighting skills.

The CIA is also taking heat for a foiled Christmas Day attack, with US officials saying the Nigerian accused of trying to detonate explosives aboard a US-bound airliner, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, received training from an Al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen.

President Barack Obama has ordered urgent action at security and intelligence agencies to fix flaws exposed by the narrowly averted attack, saying spy agencies did not properly "connect and understand" information that could have uncovered the plot during its planning stages.

"The main lesson from this attack is that, like our military, CIA officers are on the front lines against al-Qaeda and its violent allies," Panetta said in his piece, which will be published in Sunday's print edition of the Post.

"They take risks to confront the enemy, gathering information to destroy its networks and disrupt its operations."


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