ZARQA, Jordan – The suspected Jordanian double agent who killed eight people on a CIA base in Afghanistan was recruited by his country’s intelligence agency after it threw him in jail to coerce him into helping them track down al-Qaida’s No. 2 leader, counterterrorism officials in the Middle East said Tuesday.
Three Middle Eastern counterterrorism officials said 32-year-old physician Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi was jailed for three days after he signed up for a humanitarian mission to the Gaza Strip with a Jordanian field hospital following Israel’s offensive there. At that time, authorities were aware that al-Balawi had posted fiery writings on militant Web sites, calling on Muslims to join a holy war against Israel and the United States.
The officials spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment on an operation involving the CIA.
The Jordanian Intelligence Directorate wanted al-Balawi, who was respected among al-Qaida and other militants for his Web writings, to help them and their CIA allies capture or kill Ayman al-Zawahri, Osama bin Laden’s right-hand man, according to a counterterrorism official based in the Middle East.
Another counterterrorism official in the Middle East confirmed the account of al-Balawi’s jailing and said his allegiance was to al-Qaida from the start — not with his Jordanian recruiters or their CIA friends — and never wavered. He also spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment on an operation involving the CIA.
The other counterterrorism officials gave identical accounts of how and when al-Balawi was recruited.
Jordanian intelligence thought he had been persuaded to support U.S. and Jordanian efforts against al-Qaida.
But on Dec. 30, al-Balawi was invited to Camp Chapman, a tightly secured CIA forward base in Khost province on the fractious Afghan-Pakistan frontier, after his Jordanian recruiters offered him to their CIA allies as someone who would help them capture or kill al-Zawahri, according to a former senior U.S. intelligence official and a foreign government official.
He was not searched for bombs when he got into the camp, according to former and current U.S. intelligence officials. He detonated the explosive shortly after his debriefing began, according to one of the former intelligence officials. He killed seven CIA employees
The three Middle Eastern counterterrorism officials said al-Balawi also killed his Jordanian recruiter, Ali bin Zaid, a relative of Jordan’s King Abdullah.
The bombing — the worst attack against the CIA in decades — exposed the close cooperation between Jordanian intelligence and the CIA, which has for decades helped fund and train Jordanian operatives.
In return, Jordan has acted as a proxy jailer for the CIA, interrogating several al-Qaida militants who were flown in on rendition flights from Guantanamo Bay.
A key U.S. ally in the Middle East, Jordan has consistently offered intelligence to the United States on militants and helped track down al-Zarqawi, who was killed in a U.S. airstrike in Iraq in June, 2006.
The bombing also was an embarrassment for Jordan.
The country’s pro-U.S. government has gone to great lengths to conceal its connection with the attack on the CIA to avoid angering Arabs already disgruntled with Washington’s Mideast policy, which they regard as biased in favor of Israel.
Jordanian government spokesman Nabil Sharif and other top officials have insisted that Jordan had no link to or knowledge of the bombing. The circumstances surrounding the death of bin Zaid, the intelligence officer, remain shrouded in secrecy. Jordan’s official media said he was involved in humanitarian work in Afghanistan. His funeral was attended by the king and his wife, Queen Rania.
Al-Balawi’s family and friends said Tuesday that he had practiced medicine in a clinic at a Palestinian refugee camp near Zarqa.
High-school friend Mohammed Yousef said he deceived family and friends, telling them in March he was going to Turkey to be with his Turkish wife and two daughters and also for medical studies when he in fact went to Afghanistan to join militants.
“He fooled us, saying he was going to continue his medical studies, but he embarked on a suicide mission,” said a close relative, who requested anonymity, citing instructions from Jordanian authorities to the family not to talk to the media. “He never called us,” added the bearded relative as he wept over al-Balawi’s death.
He said the family found out about the death in a telephone call last Thursday from an anonymous person who claimed to be from the Taliban.
He said Al-Balawi’s death was later confirmed to the family when Jordanian authorities summoned relatives to caution them against speaking with anyone about the incident in Afghanistan.
“They even banned us from holding a wake,” he added.
The relative and Yousef, the high school friend, described the bomber as “brilliant,” a devout Muslim, well-mannered, well-spoken, but a little anti-social. They said he wanted to die in a holy war and that his Internet postings tirelessly called for jihad against Israel and the United States in Palestinian territories, Iraq and Afghanistan.
“If the love of jihad entered a man’s heart, it will not abandon him, even if he wanted so,” he said in an interview published by the Ana Al-Muslim, or “I, the Muslim,” Web site. “If a man wants to forget jihad, … a martyr operation in Mosul (Iraq) broadcast on a radio station will remind him of jihad. Or, better yet, a man could very well be reminded of jihad from a new word from Sheik Osama (bin Laden) in a news bar.”
Al-Balawi came from a nomadic Bedouin clan from Tabuk, in western Saudi Arabia, which has branches in Jordan and the West Bank. He was born in Kuwait in 1977 and lived there until Iraq’s 1990 invasion of the rich Gulf nation when the family moved to Jordan. He graduated with honors from an Amman high school and studied medicine in Turkey. He had two daughters from his marriage to a Turkish journalist, his family said.