September 21, 2011

Book Review: The Triple Agent: The al-Qaeda Mole Who Infiltrated the CIA

Joby Warrick. The Triple Agent: The al-Qaeda Mole Who Infiltrated the CIA (New York: Doubleday, 2011), 235 PP. $27.95

On December 30, 2009, a team of CIA operatives gathered at a remote base along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border to meet the first lead in the years in the hunt for al Qaeda’s senior leaders. The source, a Jordanian doctor named Humam Khalil al-Bilawi, was thought to have infiltrated the senior ranks of al Qaeda in Pakistan. Tragically, the lead turned into disaster when Bilawi, in fact an al Qaeda operative, detonated a suicide vest killing ten people, including eight CIA operatives and guards, a senior Jordanian intelligence officer and an Afghan employee of the CIA.

In The Triple Agent: The al-Qaeda Mole Who Infiltrated the CIA, Joby Warrick untangles the complicated web of CIA operations in Pakistan and tells the story of how Humam al-Bilawi mounted the deadliest attack against the CIA since 9/11. The book illuminates the closed world of U.S. counterterrorism operations and the bloody fight against al Qaeda and its associated movements in the tribal badlands of western Pakistan.

The circuitous route that carried Humam al-Bilawi to Forward Operating Base Chapman is indicative of the nature of the transnational threat posed by al Qaeda and associated movements (AQAM) today. Bilawi began as a fiery online agitator, writing from his home in Amman, Jordan under the pseudonym, Abu Dujanah al-Khorasani. His comments caught the eye of Jordan’s intelligence service, the Mukhabarat, leading to his arrest. Within three days, the Mukhabarat released Bilawi, but only after coaxing him into agreeing to work for the intelligence service in its counterterrorism efforts.

Just a few months later, the lonely doctor from Amman was on his way to Pakistan to infiltrate the al Qaeda network. Bilawi’s online record served as his jihadist passport through the murky world of violent extremism in western Pakistan. He was able to use his online persona to gain credibility amongst not only al Qaeda, but the Pakistani Taliban and local fighters in Pakistan. Within months, the agent began sending detailed information to his Jordanian handler, which was immediately shared with American agents from the Central Intelligence Agency. Substantive leads, such as those being produced by Bilawi triggered alarm bells inside the U.S. government, gaining the immediate attention of senior leaders and pushing for an expedited operation to meet with Bilawi to prepare him to paint senior al Qaeda figures for targeted strikes from drones and other aircraft in the CIA’s expanding war in Pakistan.

Beyond the rich reporting in Warrick’s book detailing the inner workings of Bilawi’s case management,The Triple Agent highlights the unprecedented operational nature of the Central Intelligence Agency. Warrick quotes former director of the CIA in describing his tenure as director of the CIA as being the “combatant commander in the global war on terror.” The story itself, that of secret CIA bases along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, paramilitary operations against al Qaeda and targeting officers working hand in hand with drone pilots and lawyers denotes an organization on a war footing. Both the Bush and Obama administrations have repeatedly turned to the CIA as their first choice in counterterrorism.

The CIA and the Jordanian Mukhabarat pressed Bilawi to meet in the secret CIA base at FOB Chapman due to the primacy of human intelligence in modern counterterrorism. As we’ve learned in the aftermath of the bin Laden raid, al Qaeda and its allies rely on networks of trusted intermediaries to pass messages, coordinate activities and hide from the prying eyes of outsiders. To break these closed circles, trusted agents, such as Bilawi are extremely valuable. CIA officers justifiably showed extreme interest in Bilawi as the first intelligence reports trickled back from him, providing clear eyes-on-target data of drone strikes and senior terrorist leaders operating in the FATA. This information was deemed so vital that the President of the United States was updated as to the status of the case.

As the deaths of eight Americans tragically remind us, the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan is costly to both sides. The enormous sacrifices made by the men and women of the CIA, U.S. military and the civilians there to support them serve as testament to the costs of the continuing war against AQAM. The officers running this campaign on the ground are not immune to the dangers of this war and are rather the prime targets as AQAM seeks to strike back against U.S. intelligence agencies.

The sophistication of the Bilawi operation highlights the dangers and adaptability of al Qaeda and its allies. Despite enormous amounts of pressure mounted by drone strikes, Pakistani military operations and the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, al Qaeda and its allies, specifically the Pakistani Taliban were able secretly turn a foreign operative against his handlers. The deception crossed multiple groups, including al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban and actively manipulated the American interest in gathering intelligence on militant leaders and the on-the-ground impact of drone strikes. The operational art and security of the December 30, 2009 attack indicate that the organization had a deep bench of well practiced operatives to plan and carry out the operation.

Al Qaeda does not operate in a vacuum in western Pakistan. Instead, the group functions as part of a broader insurgent system made up of local, national and international jihadist groups. The primary backbone of this system is the local Haqqani Network, a powerful group responsible for the most deadly attacks on the U.S. in Afghanistan. Another large component of the jihad milieu in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas is the Pakistani Taliban, formally called the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, a confederation of 27 militant groups intent on waging war against the Pakistani state and promoting much of al Qaeda’s violent extremist ideology. Within this arena, al Qaeda shelters its fighters and plots its continued war against the west. These groups are intermixed and interpersonal connections allow fighters to circulate within the same space. Bilawi was astonishingly successful in navigating the wilds of this insurgent system, capitalizing on his online credentials, medicinal knowledge and guile to accomplish what no genuine American spy (that we know of) has done: infiltrate the senior-most ranks of al Qaeda.

Coming away from The Triple Agent the reader is left with an immense appreciation for the courage and sacrifice of our intelligence operatives at the front line in the fight against al Qaeda. However, the book raises serious questions regarding the role and scope of the CIA’s operational arm at the forefront of our counterrorism effort. Since 2001, the CIA has been the tip of the spear for operations in Pakistan, taking aim at al Qaeda’s most senior leaders with drone strikes and other operations. What is the end game for this campaign and how can American officials and the public hold an open discourse about such a highly sensitive program? Additionally, what is the correct balance between pursuing our enemies wherever they may lie and avoiding alienating the Pakistani leadership and public through the use of unilateral strikes?

Lastly, Joby Warrick does a tremendous public service by shining a light on the nature of the current war in Pakistan and shatters the illusion that the drone campaign is a clean way to wage war. In fact, just as in any conflict, the stakes are high and the foe is constantly adapting. Following the December 30, 2009 attack at FOB Chapman, the CIA conducted an extensive investigation into its tradecraft leading up to the calamity. That investigation found that many traditional precautions were skipped over in anticipation of the most promising lead against al Qaeda in years. The tragedy that day serves as a reminder of the stakes at hand as the United States and especially the CIA enter its second decade pursuing those who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks and their allies throughout the world.