Cover blown but king of spooks keeps quiet on the Western front
January 8, 2010
KING ABDULLAH of Jordan looked suitably solemn at the funeral for Captain Sharif Ali bin Zeid, the intelligence officer killed in Afghanistan by his own agent-turned-suicide bomber.
But signs suggest the king has been badly discomfited by the unprecedented public exposure of his nation's work with the CIA.
It is no secret that Jordan is the most pro-Western country in the Arab world. Squeezed between Iraq in the east and Israel in the west, it has always been pragmatic about both while remaining a close US ally.
Its General Intelligence Department, known as the Mukhabarat, is admired by professionals and sometimes compared to Israel's Mossad secret service, although its reputation for ruthlessness has brought harsh criticism from human rights groups.
The department became a big player in the post-September 11 effort by Western intelligence agencies - spearheaded by the CIA - to penetrate jihadist groups. Jordan's best known coup was providing information for the US missile strike that killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian from Zarqa, north-east of Amman, who became leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq and who was responsible for the videotaped beheadings of hostages including the Briton Ken Bigley.
Intelligence officers work with their US counterparts to interrogate suspected terrorists and have co-operated with renditions to and from Guantanamo Bay. CIA officers are stationed inside the department's sprawling Amman HQ, which, it seems likely, was home to the operation involving Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, the al-Qaeda agent who killed seven CIA staff and Bin Zeid, his handler, in Khost, Afghanistan.
While the discreet relations between the CIA and Jordan have long been familiar to intelligence aficionados, they were not widely known - until now.
''The CIA connection … has now been put out in the public sphere for all to see - especially the Arab street,'' wrote a Jordanian blogger. ''The Jordanian Government will likely go on as if nothing ever happened, believing that Jordanians have no access to information. But [as] practically every Jordanian household has al-Jazeera and a million other channels, this is one piece of information that isn't going to be kept quiet.''
Jordanian officials and the official media reported on Bin Zeid's death and funeral, but described his role as part of a previously unknown ''humanitarian mission'' in Afghanistan. No mention has been made of co-operation with the CIA.
The line from Amman is that Balawi was an informant rather than a triple agent who had been recruited and handled by the Mukhabarat - a clear effort to limit the damage caused by this shadowy affair.
But Balawi's family in Zarqa have been warned not to discuss him with the media, although his mother told Agence France-Presse he was not an ''extremist'' - hardly surprising considering the embarrassing implications.