World and Nation

U.S. Saw a Path to Qaida Chiefs Before Bombing

Before detonating a suicide bomb in Afghanistan last week, a Jordanian militant was considered by U.S. spy agencies to be the most promising informant in years about the whereabouts of al-Qaida’s top leaders, including Ayman al-Zawahri, the terrorist group’s second-ranking operative.

U.S. intelligence officials said Tuesday they had been so hopeful about what the Jordanian might deliver during a meeting with CIA officials last Wednesday at a remote CIA base in Khost that top officials at the agency and the White House had been informed that the gathering would take place.

Instead, the discovery that the man, Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, also known as Humam Khalil Mohammed, was a double agent and the killing of seven CIA operatives in the blast were a major setback to a spy agency that has struggled to gather even the most ephemeral intelligence about the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden and Zawahri.

New details about the Khost attack emerged Tuesday as the Obama administration took steps to strengthen security measures after failing to detect a Christmas airline bombing plot. The two episodes illuminate the problems the United States still faces in understanding the intentions of al-Qaida and its affiliates.

With the Jordanian double agent, U.S. intelligence officials proved to be overly optimistic about someone they had hoped could help them penetrate al-Qaida’s inner circle. In the other case, spy agencies were too lax in piecing together information about a young Nigerian man who officials say tried to blow up an American jetliner as it descended into Detroit.

The Jordanian militant for months had been feeding a stream of information about lower-ranking Qaida operatives to his Jordanian supervisor, Capt. Sharif Ali bin Zeid, to establish his credibility and apparently to help broker a meeting with CIA operatives in Afghanistan.

“He had provided information that checked out, about people in al-Qaida whom he had access to,” said a senior intelligence official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the CIA’s contacts with the Jordanian are classified. “This was one of the agency’s most promising efforts.”

U.S. officials said that Balawi had strengthened his bona fides in recent months by posting strident, anti-American essays in jihadi Web forums under the name Abu Dujana al-Khorasani. Officials now concede that those essays represented his true beliefs.