The Triple Agent: The al-Qaeda Mole Who Infiltrated the CIA is a true story based on extensive research and told in an immensely compelling way. Two-time Pulitzer-winning author/journalist Joby Warrick begins his prologue at the CIA base Khost, formerly a Russian air base in Afghanistan, where high level terrorist hunters of the CIA are awaiting the arrival of the rising star in their assets, Humam Khalil al-Balawi, a former believer who had written scathing posts online in favour of jihad, now believed to be turned to work for the Jordanian Mukhabarat (secret police) and to have infiltrated al-Qaeda on their behalf. They’ve been waiting for him for more than a week and his arrival sets off alarm bells for the security team watching him step out of the black sedan walking clumsily with a crutch and one hand under his cloak.
Then Warrick fills in the backstory, carefully and in detail, giving fascinating bios of the people involved as they come into the plot, their characteristics, families, achievements, and ambitions. The fourteen people awaiting al-Balawi’s arrival are as diverse in their personalities as they are in their backgrounds. Several have misgivings about the whole mission and the reliability of the man himself, while others are so convinced and excited about the possible revelation of the location of the top three al-Qaeda leaders that a birthday cake has been prepared for al-Balawi. A cake that will never be served.
Warrick reveals much of the workings of the CIA, the Mukhabarat, the difficulties in crossing borders in the middle east, the terrorist hunters who sat at computers day after day, and the problems they had in anticipating al-Qaeda attacks that he boils down to “tactical mistakes . . . [were due to] the agencies’ inability to conceive of the inconceivable”. In 62 years, double agents and informants had lie, defected, defrauded, disappeared, and absconded with funds but “not one had ever blown himself up”. The upshot in the aftermath was that political sensitivities were no longer a prime consideration and chances were taken on sometimes less than 100% certain information. But skills were honed, lessons learned, and tactics improved. Bin-Laden was tracked down and killed and al-Qaeda set back.
While many of Warrick’s sources are anonymous, he has been assiduous about corroborating essential facts. He’s interviewed more than two hundred people in all the pertinent locations, had access to documents, emails, and texts shared by intelligence officials and operatives, as well as recollections of members of both the GW Bush and Barack Obama administrations. It also gives a lot of insight into the mind of a jihadist. It is a story that moves along swiftly, yet with suspense, and with you investing more and more into the lives of the characters who played vital, and for some, self-sacrificing parts in the events that play out here. This is a story you won’t be able to put down. * * * * *