The suicide bombing on a CIA base in Afghanistan last week was carried out by a Jordanian doctor who was an al-Qaida double-agent, Western intelligence officials told NBC News.
Initial reports said that the attack, which killed seven CIA officers, was carried out by a member of the Afghan National Army.
According to Western intelligence officials, the perpetrator was Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, 36, an al-Qaida sympathizer from Zarqa, which is also the hometown of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian militant Islamist believed responsible for several devastating attacks in Iraq.
Al-Balawi was arrested by Jordanian intelligence more than a year ago. He had moderated the main al-Qaida chat forum before his arrest and was known online as Abu Dujanah al-Khurasani.
“Abu Dujanah was an active member of jihadi forums,” said Evan Kohlmann, who tracks jihadi Web sites for NBC News. “He was actually an administrator on the now-defunct Al-Hesbah forum, previously al-Qaida's main chat forum.”
The Jordanians believed that al-Balawi had been successfully reformed and brought over to the American and Jordanian side. They set him up as an agent and sent him to Afghanistan and Pakistan to infiltrate al-Qaida.
His specific mission, according to officials, was to find and meet Ayman al Zawahiri, al-Qaida’s No. 2, also a physician.
However, a Taliban spokesman, quoted on the Al-Jazeera Web site, said al-Balawi misled Jordanian and U.S. intelligence services for a year. The spokesman, Al-Hajj Ya'qub, promised to release a video confirming his account of the Afghanistan attack.
After he arrived in Afghanistan last year, al-Balawi was interviewed by one of al-Qaida’s main Internet sites, the Vanguards of Khurasan, on the subject of martyrdom.
“When you ponder the verses and hadiths that speak about jihad and its graciousness, and then you let your imagination run wild to fly with what Allah has prepared for martyrs, your life become cheap for its purpose, and the extravagant houses and expensive cars and all the decoration of life become very distasteful in your eyes,” he told the interviewer.
He added, “They say 'there's love that kills.' And I only see that as truthful in the love for jihad, as this love is either going to kill you in repentance should you choose to sit away from jihad, or will kill you as a martyr for the cause of Allah if you choose to go to Jihad, and the human must choose between these two deaths.”
Last week, according to the Western officials, al-Balawi reportedly called his handler to say he needed to meet with the CIA’s team based in Khost, Afghanistan, because he said he had urgent information he needed to relay about Zawahiri.
Close relations with Jordanian intelligence
His handler was a senior intelligence official, identified in Jordanian press accounts as Sharif Ali bin Zeid.
But bin Zeid was not just a Jordanian intelligence officer; he was also a member of the Jordanian royal family and was a first cousin of the king and grandnephew of the first king Abdullah.
Bin Zeid’s prominent role offers rare insight into the close partnership between American and Jordanian intelligence officials and how crucial their relationship has become to the overall counterterrorism strategy.
"We have a close partnership with the Jordanians on counterterrorism matters," a U.S. official told The Washington Post. "Having suffered serious losses from terrorist attacks on their own soil, they are keenly aware of the significant threat posed by extremists."
Jordan's official news agency, Petra, said bin Zeid was killed "on Wednesday evening as a martyr while performing the sacred duty of the Jordanian forces in Afghanistan" and provided no further details about his death.
Meanwhile, Al-Jazeera reported that al-Balawi's family refused to speak to the media on instructions from Jordanian security services.
Sources close to the family told Al-Jazeera's Web site that Jordanian Intelligence arrested the perpetrator's younger brother and ordered his father not to set up a condolence tent for his son so that it would not turn into a gathering place for jihadist sympathizers.
Key base for CIA
According to Western officials, bin Zeid, along with the seven CIA officers, were killed when al-Balawi, the formerly trusted informant turned double-agent, detonated his suicide belt at Camp Chapman.
Some of the officers had flown in from Kabul for what was thought to be an important meeting.
The base was used to direct and coordinate CIA operations and intelligence gathering in Khost, a hotbed of insurgent activity because of its proximity to Pakistan's lawless tribal areas, former CIA officials said. Among the CIA officers killed was the chief of the operation, they said. Video: Double agent
Six other people were wounded in what was one of the worst attacks in CIA history.
A senior U.S. intelligence official told NBC the CIA is "looking closely at every aspect of the Khost attack."
"The agency is determined to continue pursuing aggressive counterterrorism operations. Last week’s attack will be avenged. Some very bad people will eventually have a very bad day,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Qari Hussain, a top militant commander with the Pakistani Taliban who is believed to be a suicide bombing mastermind, said last week that militants had been searching for a way to damage the CIA's ability to launch missile strikes on the Pakistani side of the border.
Using remote-controlled aircraft, the U.S. has launched scores of such missile attacks in the tribal regions over the past year and a half, aiming for high-value al-Qaida and other militant targets. The most successful strike, in August, killed former Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud at his father-in-law's home.
The Washington Post reported Friday that the CIA base has been at the heart of overseeing this covert program. The newspaper cited two former intelligence officials who have visited Chapman as saying that U.S. personnel there are heavily involved in the selection of al-Qaida and Taliban targets for the drone aircraft strikes.
Richard Engel is NBC News Chief Foreign Correspondent; Robert Windrem is a senior NBC News Producer.