January 5, 2010 / 8:47 PM / 8 years ago

Strike on CIA base tests U.S. assessment of al Qaeda

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<p>A U.S. Army cadet reads a book entitled "Kill Bin Laden" as he waits with other cadets for President Obama to deliver an address on U.S. policy and the war in Afghanistan at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, December 1, 2009.Shannon Stapleton</p>

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Revelations that a double agent linked to al Qaeda may have carried out last week's bombing at a CIA base in Afghanistan suggests the group has achieved a new level of sophistication and may not be as weakened as U.S. officials had thought.

Current and former intelligence officials said on Tuesday the CIA had launched a sweeping investigation into the unprecedented security breach, how the suspected suicide bomber, Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, was recruited by Jordanian intelligence and whether any other agents working with the Americans may be moles.

Former U.S. intelligence officials said investigators were exploring a wide range of leads, including possible links between the bomber and the network of Afghan Taliban commander Jalaluddin Haqqani, one of the CIA's highest priority targets.

Balawi was recruited by Jordanian intelligence to try to infiltrate al Qaeda and the Taliban in large part because of his past association with Islamists, a former intelligence official said, citing Balawi's previous involvement in a pro-al Qaeda websites and blogs.

U.S. and Jordanian spy agencies thought that Balawi had been successfully "de-radicalized," and he was allowed to enter the CIA base without security checks because he had produced information about al Qaeda without incident for months, the former official said.

The CIA is looking closely at Balawi's background.

Family members said Balawi, a doctor, was a member of a large Bedouin Palestinian clan that settled in Zarqa, a hotbed of Islamic radicalism in Jordan where many dispossessed Palestinians moved after Israel's creation in 1948. He ran a clinic in an impoverished refugee camp, they said.

The CIA has refused to comment on the investigation into the bombing.

The attack, the second-most deadly in CIA history, was a propaganda boost for militant groups. It was a rare case of an Islamist blogger taking spectacular direct action, something that could inspire others.

Seven CIA officers and contractors were killed in last Wednesday's bombing inside Forward Operating Base Chapman, a well-fortified compound in Khost province near the southeastern border with Pakistan.

Mixed Messages

U.S. commanders have singled out the Haqqani network as one of the biggest threats to American forces in eastern Afghanistan, and the CIA has made it a top priority to target the group using unmanned drone aircraft.

The CIA's increasing use of unmanned drones along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border has been condemned by human rights groups and has fueled anti-American sentiment.

U.S. intelligence officials have been sending mixed messages about al Qaeda's capabilities in Afghanistan, Pakistan and beyond for months.

Last week, Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair played down the group's ability to organize sophisticated attacks, citing Christmas Day's attempted bombing of a U.S. passenger plane by the network's wing in Yemen.

The group's use of "inexperienced individuals" was evidence that al Qaeda has been "diminished", he said, referring to the Nigerian accused of trying to blow up the Detriot-bound plane. The bomb malfunctioned.

Walid Phares, an expert on jihadist groups with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, said Balawi's case showed the extent to which U.S. spy agencies underestimated how effective al Qaeda and other groups are at "indoctrinating" their supporters and training them on methods of "camouflage" to cloak their allegiances.

"This is a real wake-up call," Phares said.

A former U.S. intelligence official acknowledged that the CIA base's infiltration "demonstrates how tough it is to ever know who or what you are dealing with."

According to relatives, Balawi's family came to Jordan from present day Israel, and many of his close relatives were middle class and well educated. His father, a pharmacist, runs two pharmacies in Zarqa.

Balawi, 36, studied medicine in Turkey and ran a clinic in a crowded Palestinian refugee camp adjoining Zarqa where unemployment is high and many live in deep poverty.

Balawi was under surveillance by the Mukhabarat, Jordanian intelligence. He was frequently called in for questioning before he left Jordan almost a year ago on the pretext that he was heading back to Turkey to finish his studies.

Additional reporting by Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman; Editing by Cynthia Osterman

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