CIA bomber appears in video with Pakistani Taliban leader

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 9, 2010 

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan _ Pakistani officials fear that a video that appears to link the suicide bomber who struck a CIA base in Afghanistan last week to the Pakistani Taliban will prompt the Obama administration to step up pressure on them to take more aggressive action against extremists and intensify U.S. drone attacks on targets in Pakistan.

In the video, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Hakimullah Mehsud, is sitting alongside the attacker, Jordanian Humam Khalil Abu Mulal al Balawi, with automatic weapons on their laps, against a dark backdrop and an Islamic verse. The video appears to indicate that the Pakistani Taliban played a significant role in the attack on the U.S. base and to provide new evidence of the Pakistani group’s ties to al Qaida.

In a fiery posthumous message, al Balawi said he was acting against Jordanian intelligence and the CIA, and to avenge the death of the previous Pakistani Taliban chief, Baitullah Mehsud, who was killed by a U.S. missile strike in his native South Waziristan last August.

"We say that we will never forget the blood of our Emir (leader) Baitullah Mehsud, God's mercy on him," al Balawi said in Arabic in the video, which was broadcast on Al Jazeera, the Middle Eastern channel, and other stations. "To retaliate for his death in the United States and outside the United States will remain an obligation on all emigrants who were harbored by Baitullah Mehsud."

In a version of the video clip that was screened on Pakistani television, al Balawi said in English that he was offered "millions of dollars" to work for the CIA.

Al Balawi was a double agent, a jihadist who'd been recruited by Jordanian intelligence to assist the CIA in its hunt for al Qaida leaders who are thought to be based in Pakistan’s tribal areas near the Afghan border. U.S. and Jordanian intelligence officers thought he'd turned against the militants, but he blew himself up inside a U.S. base in Khost, Afghanistan, just across the border from Pakistan, where intelligence officers were collecting intelligence on Afghan and Pakistani militants and on al Qaida, and using some of it to target missile strikes by pilotless drone aircraft. The blast killed seven CIA officers, including the base chief.

The drone attacks have intensified since the bombing in Khost, with the seventh missile strike since the suicide bombing coming Saturday in North Waziristan, part of the tribal area and a region where Washington is pressing Pakistan to launch an offensive.

North Waziristan is a refuge for the Taliban and al Qaida, as well as for the Haqqani network, which is considered the most dangerous Afghan insurgent group and was a major target of the bombed CIA base.

The Pakistani Taliban, the Afghan Taliban and al Qaida all have claimed responsibility for the Khost bombing, while some U.S. and Pakistani officials suspect that the Haqqani network was involved.

"It is not as if a smoking gun has been produced. He was a double agent. He had to meet these people (Hakimullah Mehsud) to establish his credentials," said a senior Pakistani security official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "Why, all of a sudden, is this video produced? Pakistan is being implicated for actions later on."

Pakistan launched a military offensive against Hakimullah Mehsud’s group in South Waziristan in October, but Mehsud and his followers appear to have fled to North Waziristan or other parts of the tribal area. Pakistan so far has resisted pressure from Washington to expand the operation to North Waziristan, saying it can't open too many fronts. Some critics have suggested that Pakistan doesn’t want to take on the Haqqani network, which uses North Waziristan and historically has been close to the country's security establishment.

The CIA has been criticized for allowing al Balawi onto the base in Khost without being searched, a violation of security protocols in Afghanistan and also what in intelligence parlance is called "tradecraft," which holds that meetings with agents such as al Balawi should be limited to one or perhaps two CIA officers and never held in agency stations or bases.

Intelligence officials in Washington said it appears that whoever recruited, trained and directed al Balawi practiced good tradecraft, however. He provided accurate information on lower-ranking jihadists _ perhaps political rivals, men suspected of disloyalty or otherwise expendable _ to establish credibility with his Jordanian and CIA case officers, then baited his trap by suggesting that he had intelligence on a high-value target, bin Laden's top lieutenant, Ayman Zawahiri.

CIA Director Leon Panetta defended his officers in a piece to be published Sunday in The Washington Post. "This was not a question of trusting a potential intelligence asset, even one who had provided information that we could verify independently. It is never that simple, and no one ignored the hazards. The individual was about to be searched by our security officers _ a distance away from other intelligence personnel _ when he set off his explosives," Panetta wrote.

Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.

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