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

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

3.9 31
by Joby Warrick

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In December 2009, a group of the CIA’s top terrorist hunters gathered at a secret base in Afghanistan to greet a rising superspy: Humam Khalil al-Balawi, a Jordanian who had infiltrated the upper ranks of al-Qaeda. For months, he had sent shocking revelations from inside the terrorist network and now promised to help the CIA assassinate Osama bin Laden&rsquo


In December 2009, a group of the CIA’s top terrorist hunters gathered at a secret base in Afghanistan to greet a rising superspy: Humam Khalil al-Balawi, a Jordanian who had infiltrated the upper ranks of al-Qaeda. For months, he had sent shocking revelations from inside the terrorist network and now promised to help the CIA assassinate Osama bin Laden’s top deputy. Instead, as he stepped from his car, al-Balawi detonated a thirty-pound bomb, instantly killing seven CIA operatives and giving the agency its worst loss of life in decades.
Now, with breathless momentum and rare inside access, Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter Joby Warrick takes us deep inside the CIA's war against al-Qaeda for an unforgettable portrait of both Humam Khalil al-Balawi and the veteran agents whose fierce desire to avenge 9/11 led to a terrible miscalculation.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Warrick is a brilliant reporter. . . . A gripping true-life spy saga.” —Los Angeles Times
“Riveting and harrowing, laden with deception and duplicity, The Triple Agent is a remarkable, behind-the-curtain account of the CIA’s darkest day in Afghanistan.” —Rajiv Chandrasekaran, author of Imperial Life in the Emerald City
“Absolutely first-rate, breakthrough reporting.” —Bob Woodward, author of Obama’s Wars
“A fast-paced and compelling narrative that reads like a Hollywood screenplay. [Warrick] provides a rare look at the careers and personal lives of CIA officers, including the courageous women who played key roles. . . . Spellbinding.” The Philadelphia Inquirer

“Warrick has reconstructed, in vivid and telling detail, the sequence of events that led Humam al-Balawi to kill seven CIA operatives in a suicide attack in Afghanistan in December 2009. . . . It is a chilling tale, told with skill and verve.” The Economist
The Triple Agent is a superlative piece of reporting and writing. . . . Unforgettable. The Triple Agent is one of the best true-life spy stories I have ever read.” —David Ignatius, columnist for the Washington Post and author of Bloodmoney
“A startling and memorable account of daring, treachery, and catastrophe in the CIA’s war against al-Qaeda. . . .  A powerful and fast-paced story of our time.” —David E. Hoffman, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Dead Hand
“An extraordinary story of intrigue and betrayal. . . . Warrick shows how the pressure for results led the CIA to take shortcuts when it came to handling an agent who some feared, correctly, was too good to be true.” —Foreign Affairs
“Potent, swift. . . . Warrick is very, very good. He burrows deep inside not only the CIA, which might be expected, but also the Mukhabarat and ISI, Pakistan’s main spy agency.” —The Washington Post
“A fascinating . . . postmortem on the 2009 ambush on the American compound at Knost, Afghanistan. . . . Riveting. . . . Sketches careful, illuminating portraits of those who died.” —The Plain Dealer
“Warrick demonstrates the initiative that has marked his newspaper career. . . . An alarming narrative, especially because of its understated, never-shrill tone.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Riveting. . . . A must-read.” —Associated Press
“Insightful and riveting. . . . Mr. Warrick adds a wealth of new detail to a narrative that reads like the best spy fiction.” The Washington Times
“[An] accessible and fast-paced debut. . . . [Warrick] gives this story a cinematic feel with suspenseful foreshadowing, rich character development . . . and a remarkable amount of heart.” Publishers Weekly

“A grim reminder that the U.S. war on terror as it has been conducted is deadly, expensive, and mostly futile.” —Houston Chronicle

The Triple Agent is by turns harrowing and heartbreaking, fascinating and frightening. . . . . A tale that reads like a thriller and stretches from the dusty back alleys of Waziristan to the plush executive floor at Langley.” —James Bamford, author of the bestselling The Puzzle Palace, Body of Secrets, and The Shadow Factory
“Were Shakespeare alive, he would find ample material for a high tragedy among the players in . . . The Triple Agent. All the ingredients are there, including betrayal, shame, heroism, and more than one person with a recklessly determined hubris worthy of King Lear himself.  Yet as those who have operated in the world of human intelligence will viscerally feel, this is not cathartic fiction, but a factual account of a modern day human intelligence operation gone terribly wrong, involving real men and women, with all the failings thereof.” —Foreign Policy

Steve Hendricks
Spy books these days are apt to start with an episode that, chronologically speaking, belongs in the middle of the book but that is so enthralling, the reader can't help but read on to see how it all ends…Joby Warrick makes a pluckier start in The Triple Agent. He begins with his climax…and trusts in his skill to go back and fascinate readers without the "How does it end?" bait. His trust is well placed. He carries off The Triple Agent with admirable drama.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Warrick, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist for the Washington Post, untangles the knotty story of Humam Khalil al-Balawi, the Jordanian al-Qaeda double agent responsible for the 2009 suicide bombing of a facility in Khost, Afghanistan, in this accessible and fast-paced debut. A rising star in American espionage, al-Balawi had seemed to insinuate himself into the highest levels of al-Qaeda with remarkable swiftness and ease and had committed to assassinating Osama Bin Laden's deputy. Instead, his real mission was accomplished when he detonated a bomb strapped to his chest, killing seven CIA operatives, the agency's greatest loss of life in decades. Warrick builds a case for the military and institutional miscommunications that failed to sniff out al-Balawi's deceptions with meticulous detail and the atmosphere of a political thriller. While he introduces a who's who of terrorist figures and organizations and ably conveys the high-pressure world of international espionage in the bureaucracy of the CIA, he also gives the story a cinematic feel with suspenseful foreshadowing, rich character development—especially of the murdered agents and their families—and a remarkable amount of heart. (Aug.)
Library Journal
This is a true story that reads like a thrilling spy novel. Warrick (Washington Post), a Pulitzer Prize winner whose specialty is covering intelligence, presents a riveting account of Humam Khalil al-Balawi, the presumptive Jordanian double agent recruited by the CIA in Washington's war against al-Qaeda. For some time, al-Balawi had been sending invaluable, firsthand information to the CIA about the inner workings of al-Qaeda and its top leadership. Al-Balawi had purportedly become a confidant of al-Qaeda's elusive No. 2 leader, Egyptian physician Ayman al-Zawahiri. The "double agent" had promised to provide the CIA with its biggest victory in its war on terrorism by delivering al-Zawahiri. After a waiting period, a special CIA team was to meet with the mysterious double agent in a secret spot in Khost, Afghanistan, to receive the much anticipated information about al-Zawahiri. On December 30, 2009, al-Balawi entered the location, but instead of delivering the anticipated intelligence, he detonated a 30-pound bomb strapped to his chest, killing himself and seven CIA agents. VERDICT Warrick's straight journalistic report, without editorializing, is highly recommended both to those who follow the U.S. war on terror and to all readers of spy and espionage thrillers, whether fictional or not. [See Prepub Alert, 1/10/11.]—Nader Entessar, Univ. of South Alabama, Mobile
Kirkus Reviews

The story of how the Central Intelligence Agency continued its record of failure in the so-called war on terrorism, with fatal consequences.

In his debut, Pulitzer Prize–winning Washington Post intelligence reporter Warrick focuses on Dec. 30, 2009, when CIA officials, U.S. military personnel and Pakistani and Afghani operatives gathered at a well-protected base in Khost, Afghanistan, to meet a Jordanian pediatrician who had seemingly become a valued spy for the Americans inside Muslim terrorist networks. But as the book's title suggests, Humam Khalil al-Balawi, despite supposedly careful vetting by CIA and Pakistani experts, was actually on the side of the anti-American warriors willing to sacrifice their lives in order to kill Westerners. Once inside the base, Balawi ignited a bomb strapped to his chest, killing seven CIA personnel. Although the classified-information obstacles and polished lies of master spies make accurate reporting on such embarrassing fatalities extremely difficult, Warrick demonstrates the initiative that has marked his newspaper career to share details that are mostly attributed and seem credible. An able storyteller, Warrick provides enough background on each key character to make them come alive. With so much focus on Osama bin Laden since 9/11—especially the failures ofpresidents Bush and Obama to fulfill their vows that he will be captured—it is easy for readers to forget that many other faith-based operativesfrom al-Qaeda and related organizations know how tolure American personnel into deathtraps. Warrick demonstrates the skills of those operatives while quietly exposing the lack of wisdom continually demonstrated by American government and military officials.

An alarming narrative, especially so because of its understated, never-shrill tone.

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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5.26(w) x 7.80(h) x 0.61(d)

Read an Excerpt

Khost, Afghanistan—December 30, 2009

For ten days the CIA team waited for the mysterious Jordanian to show up. From gloomy mid-December through the miser­able holidays the officers shivered under blankets, retold stale jokes, drank gallons of bad coffee, and sipped booze from Styrofoam cups. They counted distant mortar strikes, studied bomb damage reports, and listened for the thrum of Black Hawk helicopters ferrying wounded. And they waited.
     Christmas morning arrived on a raw wind, and still they sat. They picked at gingerbread crumbs in the packages sent from home and stared at the ceramic Nativity figurines one of the offi cers had set up in lieu of a tree. Then it was December 30, the last dregs of the old year and the tenth day of the vigil, and finally came word that the Jordanian agent was on the move. He was heading west by car through the mountains of Pakistan’s jagged northwestern fringe, wearing tribal dress and dark sunglasses and skirting Tal­iban patrols along the treacherous highway leading to the Afghan frontier.
     Until now no American officer had ever seen the man, this spec­tral informant called “Wolf,” whose real name was said to be known to fewer than a dozen people; this wily double agent who had pene­trated al-Qaeda, sending back coded messages that lit up CIA head­quarters like ball lightning. But at about 3:00 p.m. Afghanistan time, Humam Khalil al-Balawi would step out of the murk and onto the fortified concrete of the secret CIA base known as Khost.
     The news of his pending arrival sent analysts scurrying to final­ize preparations. Newly arrived base chief Jennifer Matthews, barely three months into her first Afghan posting, had fretted over the details for days, and now she dispatched her aides to check video equipment, fire off cables, and rehearse details of a debriefing that would stretch into the night.
     She watched them work, nervous but confident, her short brown hair pulled to the side in a businesslike part. At forty-five, Matthews was a veteran of the agency’s counterterrorism wars, and she understood al-Qaeda and its cast of fanatical death worshippers bet­ter than perhaps anyone in the  CIA—better, in fact, than she knew the PTA at her kids’ school back home in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Hard-nosed and serious, Matthews was one of the agency’s rising stars, beloved by upper management. She had leaped at the chance to go to Khost in spite of the quizzical looks from close friends who thought she was crazy to leave her family and comfortable suburban life for such a risky assignment. True, she would have much to learn; she had never served in a war zone, or run a surveillance operation, or managed a routine informant case, let alone one as complex as the Jordanian agent. But Matthews was smart and resourceful, and she would have plenty of help from top CIA managers, who were following developments closely from the agency’s Langley, Virginia, headquarters. Their advice so far: Treat Balawi like a distinguished guest.
     Matthews signed off on a security plan for the visit, though not without carping from some of the Special Forces veterans in her security detail. Her primary concern was not so much for the agent’s physical safety—the men with the guns would see to that—but rather for preserving his secret identity. The CIA could not afford to allow him to be seen by any of the scores of Afghans working at the base, except for the trusted driver who was now on his way to pick him up. Even the guards at the front gate would be ordered to turn away to avoid the risk that one of them might glimpse Balawi’s face.
     Matthews picked a secure spot for the meeting, a gray concrete building in a part of the base that served as the CIA’s inner sanc­tum, separated by high walls and guarded by private security con­tractors armed with assault rifles. The building was designed for informant meetings and was lined on one side by a large awning to further shield operatives from view as they came and left. Here, sur­rounded by CIA officers and free from any possibility of detection by al-Qaeda spies, the Jordanian would be searched for weapons and wires and studied for any hint of possible deception. Then he would fill in the details of his wildly improbable narrative, a story so fantastic that few would have believed it had the agent not backed it up with eye-popping proof: Humam al-Balawi had been in the presence of al-Qaeda’s elusive No. 2 leader, the Egyptian physician Ayman  al-Zawahiri, one of the twisted brains behind dozens of ter­rorist plots, including the attacks of September 11, 2001. And now Balawi was going to lead the CIA right to Zawahiri’s door.
     When the debriefing was over, a medical offi cer would check Balawi’s vitals, and a technical team would outfit him for the dan­gerous mission to come. Then everyone could relax, have a bite to eat, perhaps even a drink.
     And there would be a surprise, a birthday cake.
     The Jordanian had just turned thirty-two on Christmas Day, a trivia plum that Matthews had been pleased to discover. In fact his special birth date had very nearly caused him to be named Isa—Jesus, in Arabic—before his parents changed their minds and decided instead on Humam, meaning “brave one.” And now this same Humam was speeding toward Khost with what could well be the agency’s greatest Christmas present in many a season, an intelli­gence windfall so spectacular that the president of the United States had been briefed in advance.
     As she waited for the Jordanian, Matthews’s head swirled with questions. Who was this man? How did anyone get close to Zawa­hiri, one of the most reclusive and carefully protected humans on the planet? So much about the Balawi case was confusing. But Mat-thews had her orders, and she would not fail or flinch.
     Balawi would be given a fitting reception. There were no birth­day candles at the CIA’s forward base in violent eastern Afghanistan. But the Jordanian would have his cake.
     That is, if he ever showed up.

By 3:30 p.m. the entire team was ready and waiting outside the interrogation building. Another thirty minutes dragged by without news from the Jordanian, and then an hour, and now the sun was slumping toward the tops of the mountain peaks west of Khost. The temperature dropped, and the nervous adrenaline congealed into plain nervousness.
     Had something happened? Had Balawi changed his mind? There were no answers and nothing to do but wait.
     The group of men and women beneath the metal awning had grown to fourteen, an oddly large gathering for an informant meet­ing. Normally, the imperative to shield a spy’s identity dictates that no more than two or three officers are ever allowed to see him. But as was quickly becoming clear, there was nothing normal about the Balawi case. There was a sense of destiny, of history being made, one CIA participant in the events later recalled. “Everyone,” the offi cer said, “wanted to be involved in this one.”
     Gradually the officers segregated themselves into small groups. The security detail, two CIA employees, and a pair of guards work­ing for the private contractor Xe Services LLC, commonly known as Blackwater, stood near the gate, talking in low voices, M4s slung over their backs. Three of the men were military veterans, and all four had become chummy. Pipe-smoking Dane Paresi, a former Green Beret and one of the oldest in the group at forty-six, had joined Blackwater after a career that included stints in multiple hell­holes, most recently Afghanistan, where his conduct under fi re had earned him the Bronze Star. Iraq veteran Jeremy Wise, thirty-five, an ex-Navy SEAL with an infectious grin, had signed up with the security contractor to pay the bills after leaving active service and was struggling to figure out what to do with his life. Security team leader Harold E. Brown Jr., thirty-seven, was a former army intel­ligence officer and devoted family man who taught Roman Catholic catechism classes and led Cub Scouts back in Virginia. Scott Roberson, thirty-eight, had been a narcotics detective in Atlanta in a previous life, and he was looking forward to becoming a father in less than a month.
     Nearer to the building, two men in civilian jeans and khakis chatted with the ease of longtime friends. Both were guests at Khost, having flown to Afghanistan from Jordan to be present at Balawi’s debriefing. The big man with ink black hair was Jorda­nian intelligence captain Ali bin Zeid, a cousin of King Abdul­lah II of Jordan and the only one in the group who had ever met Balawi. Darren LaBonte, an athletic ex–Army Ranger who sported a goatee and a baseball hat, was a CIA officer assigned to the agen­cy’s Amman station. The two were close friends who often worked cases together and sometimes vacationed together along with their wives. Both had been anxious about the meeting with Balawi, and they had spent part of the previous day blowing off steam by snap­ping pictures and puttering around on a three-wheeler they had found.
     A larger group clustered around Matthews. One of them, a strik­ing blonde with cobalt blue eyes, had been summoned from the CIA’s Kabul station for the meeting because of her exceptional skills. Elizabeth Hanson was one of the agency’s most celebrated targeters, an expert at finding terrorist commanders in their hiding places and tracking them until one of the CIA’s hit teams could move into place. She was thirty but looked even younger, bundled up inside a jacket and oversize flannel shirt against the December chill.
     The wind was picking up, and the late-afternoon shadows stretched like vines across the asphalt. A frustrated boredom set in, and offi cers fidgeted with their cell phones.
     Paresi set down his weapon and tapped out an e-mail to his wife. Mindy Lou Paresi was airborne at that moment, flying back to Seattle from Ohio with the couple’s youngest daughter after holiday visits with family. As he often did, Paresi would leave a message that his wife would see when she landed, just letting her know that he was OK.
     “E-mail me when you get to the house,” he wrote. “I love you both very much.”
     Jeremy Wise stepped away from the others to make his phone call. The Arkansas native was feeling strangely anxious, so much so that he wondered if he was coming down with something. He dialed his home number, and when the answering machine picked up, the disappointment clearly registered in his voice. “I’m not doing very well,” he said, speaking slowly. He hesitated. “Tell Ethan I love him.”
     Bin Zeid was the only one with a direct line to Balawi, and his phone had been distressingly silent. The big man now sat quietly, clutching his mobile between thick fingers. It was bin Zeid who had gone over the arrangements with the agent—Balawi had been his recruit after all—and now the possibility of failure loomed over him like a leaden cloud. On top of it all, both he and his CIA part­ner, LaBonte, had personal reasons for wanting out of Afghanistan in a hurry. LaBonte’s entire family, including his wife and their baby daughter, was waiting for him in an Italian villa they had rented for the holidays, and the delays had already eaten up most of his vaca­tion. Bin Zeid, who was newly married, had made plans to spend New Year’s Eve with his wife back in Amman.
     When his phone finally chirped, it was a text message from dark-haired Fida, asking her husband if he was positive he would be home the following evening. Bin Zeid tapped out a terse reply. “Not yet,” he wrote.
     Just after 4:40 p.m. bin Zeid’s phone finally rang. The number in the caller ID belonged to Arghawan, the Afghan driver who had been dispatched to the border crossing for the pickup. But the voice was Balawi’s.
     The agent apologized. He had injured his leg in an accident and had been delayed, he said. Balawi had been anxious about his first meeting with Americans, and he asked again about the procedures at the gate. I don’t want to be manhandled, he kept repeating.
     You’ll treat me like a friend, right? he asked.
     By now a column of dust from Afghawan’s red Outback was already visible from the guard tower. The driver was moving fast to thwart any sniper who might happen to have a scope trained on the road in time to see an unescorted civilian vehicle heading for the American base. In keeping with the CIA’s instructions and, coincidentally, with Balawi’s wishes, there would be no fumbling or checking IDs at the gate. On cue, the Afghan army guards at the front gate rolled back the barriers just enough to let Arghawan roar past. The Afghan driver then veered sharply to the left and followed a ribbon of asphalt along the edge of the airfield to a small second gate, where he was again waved through.
     Now Matthews could see the station wagon entering the com­pound where she and the others were waiting. Matthews had asked bin Zeid and LaBonte to greet Balawi while she and the other officers kept a respectful distance, spread out in a crude reception line beneath the awning. She began making her way to a spot at the front of the line, straightening her clothes as she walked.
     Security chief Scott Roberson and the two Blackwater guards unslung their rifles and made their way across the gravel lot, but the arriving Outback cut them off. The car rolled to a halt with the driver’s door positioned directly in front of the spot where Matthews was standing. Arghawan was alone in the front seat, his face nearly obscured by the thick film of dust that coated the windows. The figure sitting directly behind him in the backseat was hunched for­ward slightly, and Matthews strained to make out the face. The engine was cut, and in an instant Roberson was opening the rear door next to Balawi.
     The man inside hesitated, as though studying the guards’ weap­ons. Then, very slowly, he slid across the seat away from the Ameri­cans and climbed out on the opposite side of the car.
     Now he was standing, a short, wiry man, perhaps thirty, with dark eyes and a few matted curls visible under his turban. He was wearing a beige, loose-fitting kameez shirt of the type worn by Pash­tun tribesmen and a woolen vest that made him look slightly stout around the middle. A long gray shawl draped his shoulders and covered the lower part of his face and beard. The man reached back into the car to grab a metal crutch, and as he did, the shawl fell away to reveal a wispy beard and an expression as blank as a marble slab.
     As the others watched in confused silence, the man started to walk around the front of the car with an awkward, stooped gait, as though struggling under a heavy load. He was mumbling to himself.
     Bin Zeid waved to Balawi but, getting no response, called out to him.
     “Salaam, akhoya. Hello, my brother,” bin Zeid said. “Everything’s OK!”
     But it wasn’t. Blackwater guards Paresi and Wise had instinc­tively raised their guns when Balawi balked at exiting on their side of the car. Paresi, the ex–Green Beret, watched with growing alarm as Balawi hobbled around the vehicle, one hand grasping the crutch and the other hidden ominously under his shawl. Paresi tensed, fin­ger on the trigger, eyes fixed on the shawl with instincts honed in dozens of firefights and close scrapes. One shot would drop the man. But if he was wrong—if there was no bomb—it would be the worst mistake of his life. He circled around the car keeping the ambling figure in his gun’s sight. Steady. Wait. But where’s that hand?
     Now he and Wise were shouting almost in unison, guns at the ready. “Hands up! Get your hand out of your clothing!” Balawi’s mumbling grew louder. He was chanting something in Arabic.
     “La ilaha illa Allah!” he was saying.
     There is no god but God.
     Bin Zeid heard the words and knew, better than anyone, exactly what they meant.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

JOBY WARRICK covers intelligence for the Washington Post, where he has been a reporter since 1996. He is a winner of the Pulitzer Prize and has appeared on CNN, Fox, and PBS.

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The Triple Agent: The al-Qaeda Mole who Infiltrated the CIA 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 31 reviews.
KenCady More than 1 year ago
The suicide bomb carried into a CIA meeting by a supposed informant caught the government off-guard, too eager to believe what they thought was a gift. The author tells the story with interest and objectivity. I found it to be highly interesting reading. As always, we hope our government is doing the right thing, but the right thing becomes so hard to discern.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I could not put this book down. HIGHLY recommended.
TMac2000 More than 1 year ago
Though nonfiction, this book reads like a first-rate spy novel. I hate to use the cliche, but it's a real page-turner.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Excellent account by a Pulitzer prize winning reporter of how the CIA was betrayed by one of Al-Qaeda's recruits. This awesome reporting details how the CIA's over-eagerness to weed out Al-Qaeda's top leadership led to deadly results.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
To get more understanding than is given on the news was a gift.
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I liked this book allot. It tells a really interesting story. I recommend
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It resonates when a story is brilliantly written. I was captivated right away. The opening chapter dragged me in and hooked me all the way. Read finished it today and looking forward to reading more later. It is an intuitively observed story with great characters, amazing descriptions and a suspenseful plot.The story flows smoothly. It has been a beautiful summer so far, coming from reading Triple Agent, Double Cross. The Triple Agent is a respectable story that I am glad I read
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