AMMAN, Jordan — Days after a Jordanian intelligence official was killed in a suicide blast in Afghanistan alongside seven CIA operatives, details about the country’s relationship with the American intelligence service continue to emerge.
Jordanian Army Capt. Sharif Ali bin Zeid, a distant relative of Jordan’s King Abdullah II, had been managing a Jordanian informant that his country’s intelligence service recruited to help track down Al Qaeda’s No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
The informant, Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi — now known as the man who bombed a CIA base in Afghanistan, killing seven intelligence officers — had a long history of involvement with Islamic radicals and hailed from Zarqa, the same town as former Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Jordanian and American intelligence officials believed al-Balawi had given up on fundamentalist ideologies and could penetrate the terrorist organization in Afghanistan.
It appears, however, that Al-Balawi was a double agent and it is suspected that he entered Forward Operating Base Chapman in the Khost Province where he detonated a suicide bomb in front of a CIA building. The attack killed Capt. Zeid and seven CIA officers — the biggest loss for the agency since the 1983 Beirut embassy bombing.
While the bombing demonstrates the capabilities of a still lethal Taliban and Al Qaeda insurgent force, it also reveals the unsung role that small nations like Jordan have played throughout the conflict.
Jordan has long worked to keep its participation in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan secret due to the unpopularity of the conflicts among most Arabs.
Though the country hasn’t taken a direct role in combat operations in either conflict, it has often cooperated with the U.S. military and intelligence officials, as well as provided humanitarian assistance. Most notably, Jordanian intelligence officials provided information that led the U.S. military to Zarqawi in 2006.
Despite the unpopularity of the wars, Jordan’s response to the death of Zeid and its implications has been relatively muted. Hasan Al-Momani, director of the Regional Center on Conflict Prevention at the Jordan Institute of Diplomacy, said that there is a growing acceptance among Jordanians that actions like those the government was undertaking in Afghanistan are vital to the nation’s security.
“If you want to defend your national security, you need to go outside your country. This is a preventive measure,” said Al-Momani.
Located between Israel-Palestine and Iraq, Jordan has long been a transit point and staging area for militants involved in each conflict. Additionally, in 2005 Amman was hit by a coordinated suicide attack which made many Jordanians realize they were not immune to their neighbors’ problems.
Additionally, long before the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, Jordan had begun building a relationship with the CIA. Prior to the Sept. 11 attacks, Jordan was home to the largest CIA station in the world.
“The main goal for Jordan’s diplomacy and activity abroad — in the region and around the world — is to protect its economic and security interests,” said Ihmod Abu Salim, a professor of political science at Mu’tah University in Karak, Jordan. “It’s not acting on behalf of the Western countries or the United States. Now, the whole world cooperates with each other in war against terrorism.”
The CIA has a long history of cultivating relationships with local intelligence agencies, as it has with Jordan. In exchange for funding and access to advanced technology, the CIA often gets access to a local agencies’ human resources that it couldn’t cultivate on its own.
“These local agencies have things that they can lend, as far as cultural understanding, language abilities, demographics, that the CIA doesn’t have,” said Scott Stewart, vice president of tactical intelligence at STRATFOR, a global intelligence company.
While the CIA’s funding of foreign intelligence agencies has come under close scrutiny and some attack in recent years, Stewart said there is usually a relatively even exchange with both agencies benefiting from the agreement.
Additionally, as the U.S. works to pursue groups such as Al Qaeda, well-trained local intelligence agencies are playing an increasingly important role in helping the U.S.
“This is not by any stretch of the imagination any symbolic relationship, specifically when you talk about Jordan,” said Richard Russell, a former CIA analyst and professor of national security affairs at the National Defense University. Jordan’s intelligence agency is widely looked upon as one of the most advanced in the region, said Russell, and it is capable of providing the U.S. with indispensable assistance.
Aside from sharing many common enemies with the U.S., Jordan also has an interest in maintaining close ties with the U.S. because it is one of the largest per capita recipients of U.S. aid in the world.
“Jordan isn’t the only close ally of the U.S. in the region and has an obvious interest in trying to demonstrate that it can be a more valuable partner for the U.S. in areas of direct interest to the U.S. than other allies in the region,” said Mouin Rabbani, a contributing editor to Middle East Report who is based in Amman, Jordan.