LONDON (Reuters) - The killing of CIA employees in Afghanistan by a suicide bomber lauded online as a militant James Bond suggests al Qaeda’s south Asian allies have developed an unprecedented capacity to disrupt the West’s spy efforts.
The attack by a Jordanian double agent also shows militants are keener on killing Western spies than infiltrating them, underlining the daunting challenge for Western services seeking to plant an informant among al Qaeda’s senior ranks.
The agent, Humam Khalil Abu Mulal al-Balawi, blew himself up on December 30 inside Forward Operating Base Chapman, a well-fortified U.S. compound in Khost province in southeast Afghanistan, killing seven CIA officers and a Jordanian officer.
The attack, the second-most deadly in CIA history, pleased a global community of al Qaeda propagandists thrilled to discover Balawi was the author under a pen name of some of the most celebrated anti-Western commentaries on the Internet.
“Our James Bond — who is he? He is Abu Dujana! His motto: Let me die or live free!” Qaeda supporter Asadullah Alshishani wrote in one posting, referring to Balawi’s online pen name.
The attack followed the failed December 25 downing of a U.S. airliner over Detroit, the November 5 killing of 13 at a U.S. army base by a gunman linked to a Yemen-based preacher and a string of arrests of suspected militants in the United States in 2009.
Counter-terrorism experts say the incidents show the resilience of the globally-scattered hubs of sympathizers, financiers and supporters that Osama bin Laden has fostered as he has come under increasing pressure from U.S. drone attacks in South Asia, where he is believed to be hiding.
Investigators are studying possible links between the December 30 attack and at least two local al Qaeda allies — Pakistan’s own Taliban insurgents and the Haqqani network associated with the Afghan Taliban group fighting U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
A spate of militant propaganda about the attack has only intensified this focus.
Al-Jazeera television reported that shortly before his suicide attack Balawi had made a video urging revenge for the death of the Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, killed by a pilotless U.S. aircraft last year.
Pakistan television station AAJ showed what it said was a video of Balawi sitting with Baitullah’s successor, Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud, and reported he shared U.S. and Jordanian state secrets with militants.
“The attack and the statements being made about it show that links to local partners are at the very core of al Qaeda’s mission,” said Brynjar Lia, a research professor at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment.
“If al Qaeda had not ingratiated itself with local groups it would have exposed itself to grave dangers,” he said, in a reference to the dependence of al Qaeda’s mostly Arab leaders on their more militarily powerful south Asian hosts for security.
Former intelligence officials have said Balawi was recruited by Jordanian intelligence to infiltrate al Qaeda and the Taliban and give Washington an intelligence advantage it has sought with special urgency since the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Balawi had associated with Islamists in the past, but U.S. and Jordanian spy agencies believed he had been successfully “de-radicalized.”
Analysts said it appeared the CIA understandably hoped he might be someone with the credibility, savvy and boldness to infiltrate senior al Qaeda ranks and operate undetected.
But the agency’s desire for a well-placed agent may have led it to cut corners on security, some commentators have said.
A Western counter-terrorism official said the attack had shown that al Qaeda “is not playing an intelligence game, which would have meant keeping its man alive in our system. It’s at war, and it wants to deal a death blow.
“We are the ones playing the intel game. Were we so desperate for a major breakthrough with that effort that we got carried away?”
CIA Director Leon Panetta denied there had been complacency.
“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,” he wrote 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 West’s need for sources is likely to ensure that Western intelligence maintains its ties to Jordan, analysts said.
“If the Jordanians are as good as we think they are, the U.S. would be mad to sever the relationship,” former U.S, intelligence officer Robert Ayers told Reuters.
For analysts’ view click on [nLDE6061Q5]
For quotes on the bombing click on [nLDE609099]
For factbox on double agents click on [nLDE60909G]
(For more Reuters coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan, see: here)
Editing by Dominic Evans