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Book Review: The Triple Agent: The al-Qaeda Mole Who Infiltrated the CIA by Joby Warrick

Published by Doubleday (2011)
Reviewed by Benjamin Wittes
Monday, August 29, 2011 at 12:08 PM

The Triple Agent: The Al-Qaeda Mole who Infiltrated the CIA, by Washington Post reporter Joby Warrick, ranks among the very best pieces of narrative journalism I have read related to the history of America’s conflict with Al Qaeda. Like the other books in that category—George Crile’s Charlie Wilson’s War, Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower, and Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars—Warrick has pulled off a truly remarkable feat of reporting, bringing together a rich constellation of sources on a sensitive matter and telling a story that, prior to his efforts, had remained obscure despite our all having known it was there.

Unlike these other books, however, Warrick’s story does not deal with the big sweep of modern history. It is not about anything as broad as the history of Al Qaeda, much less modern Afghanistan or its confrontation with the Soviet Union. The Triple Agent, rather, is the story of a single suicide attack on the CIA base at Khowst in late 2009 by a supposed American-Jordanian agent arriving for a meeting—an attack which killed, among others, several CIA officers and contractors and a Jordanian intelligence officer and royal family member.

The book’s many virtues begin with its lack of pretense. There is no political agenda here, no broad thesis the events Warrick recounts are made to support. Those looking for shrill denunciations dressed up as investigative intelligence reporting will be disappointed. Warrick is simply telling a story, albeit a tragic one with broad implications.

The outlines of this story are simple enough. The CIA and Jordanian intelligence operatives cultivated what they thought was a mole in Al Qaeda—a doctor whom the Jordanians caught posting vile material to a jihadist web site and thought they had flipped. Their mole sent back tantalizing material suggesting that he had penetrated Al Qaeda’s inner core, thereby dangling before the highest levels of the Obama administration and the CIA the possibility of locating and nailing Ayman Al-Zawahiri. The supposed mole, however, turned out to be not just a double agent but a triple agent; the material he sent back was all bait. And when we fell for it and a meeting was finally arranged at the base at Khowst, he came with a suicide vest, detonated it, and thereby inflicted one of the greatest injuries the CIA has sustained in its modern history.

What makes Warrick’s book at once so electrifying and informative is the detail he brings to this story. His reconstruction of the events, both on the ground in Jordan and Afghanistan and at the decision-making level in Washington, bristle with the energy of a thriller. Yet at the same time, his portraits of those killed, deeply enriched by substantial input from their families, are intimate and moving. These portraits are made all the more moving by the fact that he does not spare some of these characters their flaws or the mistakes they made in the debacle that took their lives. Indeed, the ultimate tragedy really boiled down to a question of operational security—a decision to have so many important people standing within the potential blast radius of a bomb before subjecting someone known to have been hobnobbing with Al Qaeda to so much as a pat down. While Warrick does not condemn the base commander, CIA officer Jennifer Matthews, for this decision, the implication of his narrative is clearly that this was a terrible blunder on her part—one that cost many lives in addition to her own.

Beyond the many fine character studies, Warrick’s portrayal of the depth of the security cooperation between the United States and Jordan will surprise all but those most knowledgeable about the intelligence community. And his description of the tradecraft of counterterrorism, both in Jordan and in the United States, will enrich anyone’s understanding of how these operations happen—how they go right, and how they go wrong. Along the way, Warrick gives the best description I have yet read of why and how the drones program accelerated so dramatically between the late Bush administration and the early Obama administration. The Triple Agent is a short volume, but it’s a short volume that does a huge amount of work.

One of its most interesting labors is Warrick’s unsentimental effort to get inside the mind of the bomber, Humam Khalil al-Balawi. Balawi left behind a lot of writing and videos, and being a supposed asset of Jordanian intelligence, he also had a long record of correspondence and interviews with his handler. What’s more, he got his start as a kind of jihadist blogger; indeed, the Jordanians initially picked him up because he was becoming a celebrity in certain online jihad circles. So there’s a fair bit of material with which a resourceful reporter can reconstruct what he did and what he was thinking at various times. What’s more, Warrick seems to have spent a lot of time with his family, just as he did with the families of those Balawi killed. And the book reflects access in the Jordanian intelligence community as impressive as Warrick’s access in the American intelligence community. The result is that his portrait of Balawi is almost as rich as his portrait of Balawi’s victims. And he deftly uses him to shed important light on the inside of the Pakistani Taliban and on the Al Qaeda figures with whom Balawi interacted.

It is the convention, I know, in overwhelmingly positive book reviews to find something to criticize before closing. But with only a little embarrassment, I’m going to defy that convention. At a narrative level, I couldn’t put this book down. At an informational level, I learned a great deal on a subject about which I thought I knew a lot. And at an emotional level, The Triple Agent quite literally brought tears to my eyes over what this country lost that day and reminded me how great the sacrifice can be in even invisible wars. I recommend this book without reservation.

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