INTERNATIONAL TERRORISM MONITOR--- PAPER NO. 604
Forward Operating Base Chapman is located on the Khost airfield, which is about 4 kms from the Khost town in Afghanistan and 32 kms from the Pakistani border. This field, which was constructed by the Soviets in the 1980s for use against the Afghan Mujahideen, is now reportedly being used by the US for its air operations against Al Qaeda and against the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban. It has been reported that it is one of the bases from which the unmanned Drone flights of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) are periodically launched to attack Al Qaeda and Taliban hide-outs in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan. The base, which is named after Nathan Chapman, the first US soldier killed in Afghanistan after US forces went into action against Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban after 9/11, reportedly houses a unit of the US State Department, which monitors reconstruction work in the Khost area. It is learnt that an unspecified number of officers belonging to the US intelligence work under the cover of State Department staff in this unit. Seven CIA officers working in this unit, including a woman officer, who was their head, were killed in a suicide blast on December 30,2009.
2. There were three claims of responsibility after the blast---- one from the Afghan Taliban and the other two from the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) as the Pakistani Taliban is known. The claim on behalf of the Afghan Taliban was made by telephone to journalists on December 31,2009, by one Zabiullah Mujahid, who claimed to be a spokesman of the Afghan Taliban. He was quoted by the media as saying:" The Taliban (Afghan) took responsibility for the attack.Yesterday evening on a base near the old airport in Khost city a suicide bomber by the name of Samiullah committed a suicide attack by detonating his vest and killed 16 Americans." His claim has not been corroborated so far.
3.Another person described as a senior commander connected to the Afghan Taliban was reported to have claimed on January 2, 2010, that the bombing was in retaliation for the U.S. Drone strikes in the Afghan-Pakistan border region. He added: "We attacked this base because the team there was organizing Drone strikes in Loya Paktia and surrounding area." The area mentioned by him is in Afghan terrritory near Khost. His claim has not been corroborated either.
4.A correspondent of the Associated Press claimed to have met Qari Hussain Mehsud, a senior commander of the TTP, who is in charge of its suicide squad and its suicide bomber training centre in South Waziristan, on January 1,2010. Qari Hussain reportedly told him as follows: The TTP had been searching for a way to damage the CIA's ability to launch missile strikes on the Pakistani side of the border. A"CIA agent" contacted Pakistani Taliban commanders and said he'd been trained by the agency to take on militants, but that he was willing to attack the U.S. intelligence operation on the Taliban's behalf. He did not specify the nationality of the "agent." "Thank God that we then trained him and sent him to the Khost air base. The one who was their own man, he succeeded in getting his target."
5. On January 3,2010, sections of the media received an E-mail message purporting to be from Hakimullah Mehsud, the Amir of the TTP, identifying the suicide bomber as a Jordanian national. The message reportedly said: " We claim the responsibility for the attack on the CIA in Afghanistan.It was a revenge for the killing of Baitullah Mehsud and the killing of Al Qaeda's Abdullah by CIA.The suicide bomber was a Jordanian national. This will be admitted by the CIA and the Jordanian Government." It is not yet known who he was referring to as Abdullah of Al Qaeda.
6.Sections of the Jordanian and US media, including the "Washington Post, have identified the suicide bomber as Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, a 36-year-old Al Qaeda sympathiser from Zarqa, Jordan, arrested by the Jordanian intelligence over a year ago and persuaded to work for the Jordanian intelligence and collect intelligence about Al Qaeda in the Af-Pak region. He was sent to Afghanistan and told to work under the control of a person who has been named by the Jordanian media as Ali bin Zeid. The nationality of the handler is not clear. Was he an officer of the Jordanian Intelligence working with the CIA at the Chapman base? Possibly, but there is no confirmation.
7.It would seem that this joint operation by the CIA and the Jordanian Intelligence had been going on for nearly a year. At some point during this period, al-Balawi was reported to have contacted the Pakistani Taliban and offered to help them in retaliating against the CIA base. The Pakistani Taliban accepted his offer and played him back on the CIA after training him as a suicide bomber. It is reported that the suicide attack of December 30,2009, killed the seven CIA officers, the bomber himself and his handling officer, who had taken him to the CIA base for debriefing. Since he had been meeting the CIA officers for some time in the past and had apparently won their confidence, he was not frisked. The TTP seems to have decided to use him to wipe out the CIA officers after ascertaining from the bomber that the CIA was not in the habit of frisking him whenever he went to the base.
8. The disaster, which has struck the CIA, underlines the dangers of joint operations and over-trusting sources, however productive they may be. The CIA had apparently gone by the assessment of the Jordanian intelligence regarding the dependability of al-Balawi without having the Jordanian assessment verified independently either by CIA's sources or through the intelligence agencies of Israel, which would have been in a good position to verify his dependability. The practice of not frisking him has proved to be suicidal. The dangers of his being won over by the Taliban or his volunteering to assist the Taliban seem to have been overlooked.
9. The account of the circumstances under which the TTP managed to penetrate the CIA base through a Jordanian national, if correct, speak well of the operational capabilities of the TTP and the weaknesses of the US agencies while operating against a Muslim adversary. The conflicting claims of the Afghan Taliban show that the Pakistani Taliban and its Afghan counterpart are not always on the same wavelength and do not necessarily keep each other informed of their operations. (5-1-10)
(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail: email@example.com )