The Khost Attack and the Intelligence War Challenge

As Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi exited the vehicle that brought him onto Forward Operating Base (FOB) Chapman in Khost, Afghanistan, on Dec. 30, 2009, security guards noticed he was behaving strangely. They moved toward al-Balawi and screamed demands that he take his hand out of his pocket, but instead of complying with the officers’ commands, al-Balawi detonated the suicide device he was wearing. The explosion killed al-Balawi, three security contractors, four CIA officers and the Jordanian General Intelligence Department (GID) officer who was al-Balawi’s handler. The vehicle shielded several other CIA officers at the scene from the blast. The CIA officers killed included the chief of the base at Khost and an analyst from headquarters who reportedly was the agency’s foremost expert on al Qaeda. The agency’s second-ranking officer in Afghanistan was allegedly among the officers who survived.


Al-Balawi was a Jordanian doctor from Zarqa (the hometown of deceased al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi). Under the alias Abu Dujanah al-Khurasani, he served as an administrator for Al-Hesbah, a popular Internet discussion forum for jihadists. Jordanian officers arrested him in 2007 because of his involvement with radical online forums, which is illegal in Jordan. The GID subsequently approached al-Balawi while he was in a Jordanian prison and recruited him to work as an intelligence asset.


Al-Balawi was sent to Pakistan less than a year ago as part of a joint GID/CIA mission. Under the cover of going to school to receive advanced medical training, al-Balawi established himself in Pakistan and began to reach out to jihadists in the region. Under his al-Khurasani pseudonym, al-Balawai announced in September 2009 in an interview on a jihadist Internet forum that he had officially joined the Afghan Taliban.


A Lucky Break for the TTP

It is unclear if al-Balawi was ever truly repentant. Perhaps he cooperated with the GID at first, but had a change of heart sometime after arriving in Pakistan. Either way, at some point al-Balawi approached the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the main Pakistani Taliban group, and offered to work with it against the CIA and GID. Al-Balawi confirmed this in a video statement recorded with TTP leader Hakeemullah Mehsud and released Jan. 9. This is significant because it means that al-Balawi’s appearance was a lucky break for the TTP, and not part of some larger, intentional intelligence operation orchestrated by the TTP or another jihadist entity like al Qaeda.


The TTP’s luck held when a group of 13 people gathered to meet al-Balawi upon his arrival at FOB Chapman. This allowed him to detonate his suicide device amid the crowd and create maximum carnage before he was able to be searched for weapons.


In the world of espionage, source meetings are almost always a dangerous activity for both the intelligence officer and the source. There are fears the source could be surveilled and followed to the meeting site, or that the meeting could be raided by host country authorities and the parties arrested. In the case of a terrorist source, the meeting site could be attacked and those involved in the meeting killed. Because of this, the CIA and other intelligence agencies exercise great care while conducting source meetings. Normally they will not bring the source into a CIA station or base. Instead, they will conduct the meeting at a secure, low-profile offsite location.


Operating in the wilds of Afghanistan is far different from operating out of an embassy in Vienna or Moscow, however. Khost province is Taliban territory, and it offers no refuge from the watching eyes and gunmen of the Taliban and their jihadist allies. Indeed, the province has few places safe enough even for a CIA base. And this is why the CIA base in Khost is located on a military base, FOB Chapman, named for the first American killed in Afghanistan following the U.S. invasion. Normally, an outer ring of Afghan security around the base searches persons entering FOB Chapman, who the U.S. military then searches again at the outer perimeter of the U.S. portion of the base. Al-Balawi, a high-value CIA asset, was allowed to skip these external layers of security to avoid exposing his identity to Afghan troops and U.S. military personnel. Instead, the team of Xe (the company formerly known as Blackwater) security contractors were to search al-Balawi as he arrived at the CIA’s facility.


A Failure to Follow Security Procedures

Had proper security procedures been followed, the attack should only have killed the security contractors, the vehicle driver and perhaps the Jordanian GID officer. But proper security measures were not followed, and several CIA officers rushed out to greet the unscreened Jordanian source. Reports indicate that the source had alerted his Jordanian handler that he had intelligence pertaining to the location of al Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri. (There are also reports that al-Balawi had given his handlers highly accurate battle damage assessments on drone strikes in Pakistan, indicating that he had access to high-level jihadist sources.) The prospect of finally receiving such crucial and long-sought information likely explains the presence of the high-profile visitors from CIA headquarters in Langley and the station in Kabul — and their exuberance over receiving such coveted intelligence probably explains their eager rush to meet the source before he had been properly screened.


The attack, the most deadly against CIA personnel since the 1983 Beirut bombing, was clearly avoidable, or at least mitigable. But human intelligence is a risky business, and collecting human intelligence against jihadist groups can be flat-out deadly. The CIA officers in Khost the day of the bombing had grown complacent, and violated a number of security procedures. The attack thus serves as a stark reminder to the rest of the clandestine service of the dangers they face and of the need to adhere to time-tested security procedures.


A better process might have prevented some of the deaths, but it would not have solved the fundamental problem: The CIA had an asset who turned out to be a double agent. When he turned is less important than that he was turned into — assuming he had not always been — a double agent. His mission was to gain the confidence of the CIA as to his bona fides, and then create an event in which large numbers of CIA agents were present, especially the top al Qaeda analyst at the CIA. He knew that high-value targets would be present because he had set the stage for the meeting by dangling vital information before the agency. He went to the meeting to carry out his true mission, which was to deliver a blow against the CIA. He succeeded.


The Obama Strategy’s Weakness

In discussing the core weakness in the Afghan strategy U.S. President Barrack Obama has chosen, we identified the basic problem as the intelligence war. We argued that establishing an effective Afghan army would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, because the Americans and their NATO allies lacked knowledge and sophistication in distinguishing friend from foe among those being recruited into the army. This problem is compounded by the fact that there are very few written documents in a country like Afghanistan that could corroborate identities. The Taliban would seed the Afghan army with its own operatives and supporters, potentially exposing the army’s operations to al Qaeda.


This case takes the problem a step further. The United States relied on Jordanian intelligence to turn a jihadist operative into a double agent. They were dependent on the Jordanian handler’s skills at debriefing, vetting and testing the now-double agent. It is now reasonable to assume the agent allowed himself to be doubled in an attempt to gain the trust of the handler. The Jordanians offered the source to the Americans, who obviously grabbed him, and the source passed all the tests to which he was undoubtedly subjected. Yet in the end, his contacts with the Taliban were not designed to provide intelligence to the Americans. The intelligence provided to the Americans was designed to win their trust and set up the suicide bombing. It is therefore difficult to avoid the conclusion that al-Balawi was playing the GID all along and that his willingness to reject his jihadist beliefs was simply an opportunistic strategy for surviving and striking.


Even though encountering al-Balawi was a stroke of luck for the TTP, the group’s exploitation of this lucky break was a very sophisticated operation. The TTP had to provide valuable intelligence to allow al-Balawi to build his credibility. It had to create the clustering of CIA agents by promising extraordinarily valuable intelligence. It then had to provide al-Balawi with an effective suicide device needed for the strike. And it had to do this without being detected by the CIA. Al-Balawi had a credible cover for meeting TTP agents; that was his job. But what al-Balawi told his handlers about his meetings with the TTP, and where he went between meetings, clearly did not indicate to the handlers that he was providing fabricated information or posed a threat.


In handling a double agent, it is necessary to track every step he takes. He cannot be trusted because of his history; the suspicion that he is still loyal to his original cause must always be assumed. Therefore, the most valuable moments in evaluating a double agent are provided by intense scrutiny of his patterns and conduct away from his handlers and new friends. Obviously, if this scrutiny was applied, al-Balawi and his TTP handlers were still able to confuse their observers. If it was not applied, then the CIA was setting itself up for disappointment. Again, such scrutiny is far more difficult to conduct in the Pakistani badlands, where resources to surveil a source are very scarce. In such a case, the intuition and judgment of the agent’s handler are critical, and al-Balawi was obviously able to fool his Jordanian handler.


Given his enthusiastic welcome at FOB Chapman, it would seem al-Balawi was regarded not only as extremely valuable but also as extremely reliable. Whatever process might have been used at the meeting, the central problem was that he was regarded as a highly trusted source when he shouldn’t have been. Whether this happened because the CIA relied entirely on the Jordanian GID for evaluation or because American interrogators and counterintelligence specialists did not have the skills needed to pick up the cues can’t be known. What is known is that the TTP ran circles around the CIA in converting al-Balawi to its uses.


The United States cannot hope to reach any satisfactory solution in Afghanistan unless it can win the intelligence war. But the damage done to the CIA in this attack cannot be overestimated. At least one of the agency’s top analysts on al Qaeda was killed. In an intelligence war, this is the equivalent of sinking an aircraft carrier in a naval war. The United States can’t afford this kind of loss. There will now be endless reviews, shifts in personnel and re-evaluations. In the meantime, the Taliban in both Pakistan and Afghanistan will be attempting to exploit the opportunity presented by this disruption.


Casualties happen in war, and casualties are not an argument against war. However, when the center of gravity in a war is intelligence, and an episode like this occurs, the ability to prevail becomes a serious question. We have argued that in any insurgency, the insurgents have a built-in advantage. It is their country and their culture, and they are indistinguishable from everyone else. Keeping them from infiltrating is difficult.


This was a different matter. Al-Balawi was Jordanian; his penetration of the CIA was less like the product of an insurgency than an operation carried out by a national intelligence service. And this is the most troubling aspect of this incident for the United States. The operation was by all accounts a masterful piece of tradecraft beyond the known abilities of a group like the TTP. Even though al-Balawi’s appearance was a lucky break for the TTP, not the result of an intentional, long-term operation, the execution of the operation that arose as a result of that lucky break was skilfully done — and it was good enough to deliver a body blow to the CIA. The Pakistani Taliban would thus appear far more skilled than we would have thought, which is the most important take away from this incident, and something to ponder.


“This report is republished with permission of STRATFOR”

The explosives-laden underwear

The explosives-laden underwear–worn by an airline passenger who had previously been flagged as a potentially dangerous fanatic, and who had paid cash for his ticket and had no checked luggage–was the terrorist’s weapon of choice, one that could have blown a hole in the side of Northwest Airlines’ Detroit-bound Flight 253 on Christmas Day, killing hundreds of innocents. But it is not a weapon to be effectively countered with the deployment of hundreds of thousands of American combat troops. Nor can it be stopped by the hundreds of billions of dollars worth of planes, subs and missiles deployed in the  war Zones.

In response to the 9/11 hijackers, armed with simple hand held weapon cost a couple hundred dollars at most, US threw millions and millions of dollars and, more important, attention at conventional military responses while neglecting the difficult police work and the intelligence evaluation and civilian-focused technology necessary to thwart homeland attacks. Yes, there are evildoers out as they are on move. But they are often the products of the best of Western education who, as examples ranging from the lead 9/11 hijackers–the Hamburg group–to the elite University College London-educated engineer in the latest incident demonstrate, move more easily in urbane Western societies than in Afghan villages.

There is no “war” against terrorism. What George W. Bush launched and Barack Obama insists on perpetuating that it simply does not qualify on any pretext so concocted for such a frustrating war on Terror and making fool of everyone on the earth. Not if by war one means doing the obvious and checking a highly suspicious air traveller like ‘Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s underwear to see if explosives have been sewn in.

Preventing terrorist attacks on the U.S. homeland has nothing to do with occupying vast tracts of land or winning the hearts and minds of backward villagers whom it is falsely depict as surrogates of an evil empire, as US did in Vietnam and is now doing in Afghanistan. What is needed is smart police work to catch these highly mobile fanatics, and that begins with actually reading and then acting on the readily available intelligence data.

It requires detectives with brains and not generals with firepower. (


There is Sure a Silver Lining on the Horizon

By A Khokar   01 January 2010

Pakistan was created on the bases of two nation’s theory to secure a separate ideological homeland for Muslims in the Indian subcontinent. But soon after the inception of Pakistan, this nation plunged into a deluge of turmoil that its two founding fathers Muhammad Ali Jinnah; the Qaid e Azam and PM Liaqat Ali Khan; their sudden deaths overtook them and right in its infancy this country was left at the mercy of its sycophants feudal lord adventurists. The utter lack of resources that Pakistan inherited at the time of partition and acute dearth of required governing structures, to run the country—-adversely put the new leadership rather in delusion and much insecure position.  Fearing a deep despondency among the masses after the sad demise of two leaders and expected anarchy in the country, they preferred to become a protégée of past western colonial powers to stay afloat—and thus they made their first anchorage on the shores of the United States of America.


The peoples who had offered enormous sacrifices for the freedom of this land and dreamt the dreams to see this land, a welfare democratic state of their own, rather in the face of dangers looming from all sides and threatening their existence, were forced to accept the new feudalistic Raj and its dictatorial leadership in the name of national survival. This is a first unique chapter of the History of Pakistan that its security became the prime factor and ever since, Pakistan is known as a ‘Security State’.

A ‘Security State is antipode or say; a paradox of democracy. It thrives on feudalistic and its totalitarian society. For last long 62 years of age of Pakistan, the factor of Pakistan’s security has willfully been over stated and exploited. No efforts were made to unify its masses as one nation and thus, this land has always stayed in the grip of rivaling and power hungry feudal lords in their respective provinces or the military dictators who followed them.


In democracy, masses they remain the fountains of its power all the times. That sort of chance which would have unified the society into a one single nationalist identity or enabled the democracy to flourish on these lines has intentionally been denied to the commoners. In contrast, the security issues of this country were always implied to dominate everything else so that it stays as a ‘Security State ’. It is seen that no leader has ever been allowed to survive long who showed his desire that rein of power be dished out to its real owners; the people of Pakistan and seats of power be taken away from dictatorial circle and brought to the public arenas.


A Security States demand that some very strong power pillars be built to support and keep it propped up. Rightly so the polarization of feudal power lords is promoted for the vested interests and supported. Military as its the symbol of power enjoys a prime position. Come what may, the power full feudal lords as well as commoners are obliged to support the military and see that under all the circumstances it stays strong and invincible. Thus military in Pakistan has always stayed beyond any kind of accountability and no wonder that with the connivance of above said powerful pillars has always stayed in control of this country. It is said that countries they own their military but in Pakistan, the military had a state of its own.


On the other hand, the democracy promotes the political culture and sense of harmony in the society. The human rights are taken care of and creative literacy flourishes. But unfortunately, in Pakistan, this specie has not seen its growth or was allowed to bloom and bear fruits. Under the circumstantial constraints, whenever the civil government enjoyed a free hand to take charge of the helm of affairs; ironically they indulged in looting and plundering the national wealth. In order to escape any accountability; they were very conveniently allowed to take the very first flight out of the country to escape and fly to their safe havens build out side. Pakistan is the only country in the world, the leaders of which chose to remain on, so called self exile to stay out in their safe havens at their own accord.


May it be Asif ali Zardari the present day President of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif the head of the opposition party, may this be the military dictator ex-president, Pervez Musharraf or anybody else in power; without an exception, they all have got millions of looted money stashed in European banks and their castle like properties are built out there to provide them the refuge and comforts.


But against all the odds; there is a mark change which can be seen started taking place all over in Pakistan. There is a unique awakening found among the masses. The horizon is although over cast with the dense fogs of corruption charges of present government and immense dust and smoke being kicked high by the devastating subversive activities of enemies of Pakistan living within. But at the back, entire horizon seems lit and glowing with a real golden change which is about to burst asunder.

Presently there is everything misty and in Pakistan, no one may like to give any credit for this change to the out gone President Pervez Musharraf or to late Miss Benazir Bhutto that the man, although he was a dictator who came up through a coup and the lady was out on a self exile and has been basking a life of luxury in Europe. But against all the odds, this can’t be denied that they both were able to set a pace for a real change; a change which may take Pakistan out of spellbinds of a ‘Security state’ and switch over to a ‘Welfare Democratic State’. The man arranged and fixed a ladder of democracy for this and asked the lady to come—climbing up.


But sad part of this episode is that the savage forces who do not want to see this change taking place (lest they lose their grip and their evil separatist designs go awry); they savagely exterminated the upcoming leader Benazir Bhutto right at her start line and sent President Pervez Musharraf out the exit door—- humiliated. While, they both are out of the sight— but surely, an initial change has since occurred in Pakistan. After February 2007 elections— a base and a stepping stone for a sure move toward democracy are in place.


Amid a wide spread chaos, the evil forces have since challenged this change. They have come out of their dens and are seen on their rampage.  Target killing, arson looting and carnage through suicidal attacks to undermine the security institutions and break the will of the people for this change is on.  Jammat e Islami, JUI (Fazlur rahman) and Tehrik e Insaf and their cohorts are at the back of this rampage forces to stop, resist this change to take place; transformation of security state Pakistan to‘Welfare Democratic state’.  They want that security issues of nation are heightened and taken to such a peak that military be asked to take over and come stay in power so they have a ready scapegoat to malign. This scenario may help advance their evil designs of declaring an Emirate of their own which has suffered a setback due military ongoing operations in the border belt along Afghan-Pakistan borders. Democracy may not bring forth the required results which is certainly not their cup of tea.


These visionless, slim picking renegade forces are not aware of this fact that their Godfather; the lone super power United States of America; the oppressor is very much present in the area rattling its sabers, to advance its own agenda. US is up against our home land to see it subjugated at its hand. They have infiltrated in our national sovereign defense lines and have created TTP (Tehrik e Taliban) an enemy within, to see that Pakistan is destabilized and fell disintegrated. TTP on the behest of US and its enablers like JI, JUI and TI are at the forefront in carrying out the rampage and the incidents like the Ashura procession attack and torching of top business Bolton Market in Karachi.


The Media which was granted a freedom during Musharraf era is busy bickering about the NRO; (National reconciliation order —a deal struck between both out gone personalities; Pervez Musharraf and Benazir to form a government).  Astonishingly, Media is restricted to its favorite topic being discussed on all channels that how the corrupt successors of Benazir Bhutto with all their baggage, riding on the wings of NRO as its beneficiaries—they came in and took the seats of power., where as our enemies are at their rampage and no investigative generalist are seen in action in this field [1].  Corruption of our present day leaders may be the talk of the day, but this NRO has since been declared ‘void ab initio’ (as it was never there) by Pakistan’s Apex courts adding more of turmoil and chaos but bear no significance.

A full fledge war is going on against the extremist of TTP and their cohorts on all fronts and our Gallant Armed forces are busy out there carrying out various sweeping operations to evict the extremist elements from the society and ensure that this change from ‘Security state’ to a ‘Welfare Democratic State, does take place at all costs. There is sure a silver lining on the horizon, bringing in a golden change in Pakistan.



[1] Meri Dunia lut rahi thi aur main mudhoosh tha

     Tukray,tukray dil kay chunta, kis ko intna housh tha