-- The suicide bomber who killed seven Central Intelligence Agency employees and contractors and a Jordanian intelligence officer was a double agent the CIA had recruited to provide intelligence on senior al Qaeda leadership, according to current and former U.S. officials and an Afghan security official.
The officials said the bomber was a Jordanian doctor likely affiliated and working with al Qaeda.
The Afghan security official identified the bomber as Hammam Khalil Abu Mallal al-Balawi, who is also known as Abu Dujana al-Khurasani. The Pakistani Taliban also claimed that Mr. al-Balawi was the bomber, Arabic-language Web sites reported Monday.
Mr. al-Balawi was brought to the CIA's base in Khost Province by the Jordanian intelligence official, Sharif Ali bin Zeid, who was working with the CIA, according to the Afghan security official.
The bomber appears to have been invited to an operational planning meeting on al Qaeda, a former senior U.S. intelligence official said. "It looks like an al Qaeda double agent," the former official said. "It's very sophisticated for a terrorist group that's supposedly on the run."
The blast on Dec. 30 killed four CIA officers, including the Khost base chief; three CIA contractors; and Mr. bin Zeid, officials said. Six CIA employees were wounded in the attack.
The Al Jazeera television network reported that the bomber had initially been recruited to provide intelligence on the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden's top deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri. That couldn't be independently confirmed Monday.
The CIA's deputy chief of station from Kabul traveled to the meeting at the CIA Khost base, Forward Operating Base Chapman, according to former intelligence officials, pointing to the meeting's importance. The officer was wounded in the attack, according to people familiar with the matter.
Both the Pakistani Taliban and the Afghan Taliban have claimed responsibility for the attack. The Afghan Taliban fights alongside an array of allied militants including the Haqqani network, an Islamic extremist group that operates in Afghanistan and Pakistan and maintains close ties to al Qaeda.
The U.S. and Jordanian intelligence services have worked closely together for years, said a former senior intelligence official. "There's a confidence level with them," the former official said. Mr. al-Balawi likely was seen as trustworthy because he'd previously provided the U.S. with valuable intelligence, said the former intelligence official. "This is someone they obviously trusted very, very much," the former official said.
Since Mr. al-Balawi was perceived by U.S. authorities as a cooperative intelligence informant, that could explain why he was not more thoroughly searched upon entering Chapman. It also would explain how he gained access to top intelligence officials.
Mr. al-Balawi was an active recruiter and an "elite writer" on al Qaeda's password-protected al-Hisba Web site, where he went by the name Abu Dujana al-Khurasani, according to the monthly journal of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point's Combating Terrorism Center.
In a posting on the site in May of 2007, Mr. al-Balawi sought to persuade people from a variety of backgrounds, including African-Americans, Native Americans, Vietnamese and poor immigrants to join the fight against their "oppressor," the U.S., the West Point analysts found.
Mr. al-Balawi had studied medicine in Turkey with government funding, according to a translation of the Jordanian Web site Jerasa News by the Middle East Media Research Institute. He left Jordan about a year ago after being detained for a few months by Jordanian intelligence officers.
The Jordanian news outlet cited eyewitness reports that Jordanian security forces had arrested Mr. al-Balawi's youngest brother and summoned his father after the blast. They warned his father not to put up a mourning tent, fearing it could attract jihadis, the news outlet said.
Senior U.S. military officials believe that the Khost attack was carried out with the active assistance of the Haqqani network, which has mounted dozens of bloody attacks inside Khost that have turned the province into one of the most violent regions of Afghanistan.
U.S. policy makers worry that any territory that falls under Haqqani control in either Afghanistan or Pakistan could quickly become a new safe haven for al Qaeda, whose senior leaders have known and fought alongside the Haqqani family for decades. The CIA and elite U.S. Special Operations troops have responded to the Haqqani group's offensive in Khost with a stepped-up campaign targeting the militants, and senior officials say more than two dozen Haqqani officials have been killed in recent weeks.
While coordination between the Haqqani network and the Pakistani Taliban is rare, members of both groups have said that they cooperated in the past. "At times they send suicide attackers to our area, and we give them shelter and find targets for them," said a former Haqqani commander in an interview this summer. The commander has since left the group and made peace with the Afghan government.
A U.S. intelligence official declined to speak about the specifics of the attack but said the agency "is looking closely at every aspect of the Khost attack." The official added, "The agency is determined to continue pursuing aggressive counterterrorism operations. Last week's attack will be avenged."
A U.S. intelligence official said the CIA constantly tries to guard against double agents. "Preventing the double cross is something that is as old as the agency itself," the official said.
A former senior intelligence official said that al Qaeda had attempted to run double agents against the CIA prior to 9/11, but such efforts appeared to trail off after the 2001 offensive in Afghanistan that drove them into the tribal regions of Pakistan.
"When you're on the run, you don't have time to sit back and run a double agent."