The Case of Dr Al-Balawi 162

There is a very great deal that we can learn from the case of Dr Al-Balawi, the suicide bomber who took out seven CIA agents in Afghanistan.

The first relates to intelligence. Dr Al Balawi had become a trusted CIA informant, believed by the CIA to be helping them to target al-Qaida elements on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Except that we now know he was a dedicated al-Qaida all along.

Presumably much of the intelligence he had been providing was deliberately false and misleading. This yet again illustrates the point I have made repeatedly about the unreliability of “humint” – intelligence gained from informants.

As British Ambassador, I saw in Uzbekistan a continued stream of intelligence from the Uxbek torture chambers, accepted by the CIA and MI6 but which, in many cases, I knew to be false. The Uzbek government wished to retain Western support and subsidies by exaggerating their role in fighting al-Qaida; that was their purpose in providing the false intelligence. The Western security services and governments wished to exaggerate the threat of al-Qaida for domestic political purposes: that was their purpose in accepting it.

Torture is not the only source of unreliable “Humint”. Double agents like Dr Al-Balawi are another, A very high proportion of this intelligence is bought for cash, and that is the most unreliable of all. The dirty dossier on Iraqi WMD was full of tall stories for which you and I as taxpayers paid dodgy informants millions of dollars.

Yet we used unreliable humint as the basis for a war in Iraq that killed hundreds of thousands. We use it to take out wedding parties with bomb attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We use it to keep people detained without charge for years in Guantanamo, in Afghanistan, in Belmarsh, and we use it to deliver people up to torturers around the World.

We should know by now that the intelligence services and politicians no longer care if the intelligence is true: they want intelligence that justifies the actions they want to take anyway, and that keep on stream the mega profits that their friends are making from the War on Terror.

So Dr Al Balawi’s case gives us an invaluable insight into the world of intelligence.

But it does more than that. Why would a medical doctor, a happily married professional man with two children, become a “terrorist”. The answer is crystal clear.

Al-Balawi “started to change,” says his wife, after the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The failed underpants bomber was said by eye-witnesses to be shouting about Afghanistan: Dr Al-Balawi was motivated by our illegal invasion of Iraq. Violence begets violence – it is a truth as old as man.

Our unconscionable attacks on weaker nations, and our increasing complicity in the slow genocide of the Palestinians, are bound to provoke reaction, however weak that reaction may be compared to our own ability to kill en masse. The notion peddled by politicians and mainstream media, that we invade countries abroad to keep us safe at home, should be met with the derision it deserves.

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162 thoughts on “The Case of Dr Al-Balawi

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  • Jaded.

    Craig, I see you still persist in using the term ‘Al Qaeda’. Would you please define how you are using it for my mind?

  • writerman

    Why are the terrorists attacking us? What motivates them really? Essentially the establishment view is that they hate us for our freedoms and way of life, and that they are irrational, perverted, and brainwashed.

    Yet, the terrorists themselves repeatedly say the opposite, they are reacting to western policies that oppress them and lead to massive loss of life, destruction, and suffering in their countries, and specifically in the open wound that is Palestine.

    Western leaders seem both ignorant, hypocritical, violent, self-servinging, and adopt grotesquely different, and double-standards, accross the board. Our rhetoric arbout freedom and progress and democracy, is for domestic consumption only; it’s our actions that really count not our words, and the difference between our pretty words and our ungly, violent actions, is striking; to anyone who isn’t lobotomized or blind.

    One only has to examine the vast difference between western firepower and how effective our terrorism is, compared to the enemy, in relation to the recent Israeli onslaught on Gaza. Gaza, in a nutshell, is what the West really is, when one strips away the rhetorical gloss, the ritualized language about “freedom” and “democracy” and “human rights.”

    Our ability to slaughter civilians on a massive scale, with impunity, is obvious. We kill the enemy in ratio that’s close to 1-100. After Gaza who on earth is surprised when people in the Middle East and beyond are “radicalized?” Are actions radicalize them for God’s sake!

    Given the level of violence aimed at the countries we deem “savage” and “barbarian”, or outside of “cilization” it’s surprising we aren’t under attack more often. But then, the paltry nature and effectiveness of the “terrorist threat” indicates the true and real weakness of the enemy, and how overwhelming powerful are military capabilities are in contrast.

  • Ruth

    ‘We should know by now that the intelligence services and politicians no longer care if the intelligence is true: they want intelligence that justifies the actions they want to take anyway,…..’.

    I would go further and say that many of the ‘terrorist’ victims of torture are picked up by agencies not because of any association with terrorism but to provide evidence that there are terrorists.

  • Ruth

    Dr Dr Al Balawi didn’t kill women and children; he killed the aggressors. It’s unfortunate he had to kill himself.

  • Control


    I understand your point of view but as Bob Baer has pointed out what this case shows is not so much the problem of humint but the over reliance by western intelligence services on sigint. The fact the cia have had to rely on the jordanians for a useable asset speaks volumes.

    One of the problems I have with this post in particular are your sloppy generalisations:

    ‘We should know by now that the intelligence services and politicians no longer care if the intelligence is true’

    Craig, come on, we both now you cannot talk about an intelligence agency in that manner. ‘It’s like saying what is the MI6 view on X?’ – An agency made up of thousands of individuals will have a wide variety of opinions. You do yourself and your readers a disservice when you talk about the intelligence services not caring if it is true or not. Do you really mean this? That every single employee does not care about the validity of the information they are obtaining? Or are you talking about the people at the top?

    I could make a similar accusation about the FO but it wouldn’t be true. Less of the broad brush if you please!


  • Craig


    I don’t think it is a generalisation. To take the example of the Dirty Dossier” on the Iraqi WMD, there was a clear direction given to the intelligence agencies right from No 10 that the intelligence should be fixed around the policy. The integroty of the system has disappeared – the agencies (and the FCO too) are now committed to telling the story the politicians want to hear, not to discovering the truth.

  • Tom Welsh

    I was amused by media references to Dr Al-Balawi’s “treachery”. None of the journalists or analysts seemed to register that, on the contrary, what he really did was to fake treachery in order to strike back at those promoting and benefiting from it.

    The fundamental – and insoluble – problem that the Americans face is that of defeating a movement rooted in a culture of which they know nothing. Most Americans pride themselves on living in ways that contrast starkly with that of the average Afghan or Pakistani. Many times I have seen Americans refer to Asian countries as “shitholes” and the like, epitomizing their uncomprehending disdain for people who don’t shower twice a day, perfume themselves, overeat, drive around in big shiny cars, and festoon themselves with electronic gadgets.

    So how is the US government to obtain humint? If any American were to gain enough “local knowledge” and experience to go undercover in Afghanistan, he would automatically become suspect in the eyes of his masters as having “gone native”. So they are reduced to buying information from intermediaries – who are not averse to the incredibly rich revenue stream represented by US government funds in one of the world’s poorest countries.

    No wonder the alternative of sitting in an air-conditioned office and dropping bombs by remote control has come to seem so attractive. Unfortunately this is the very antithesis of intelligence-led warfare.

  • Mark Golding - Children of Iraq


    ‘That every single employee does not care about the validity of the information they are obtaining? Or are you talking about the people at the top?’

    I can only assume you know nothing about the structure, hierarchy and modus operandi of the intelligence services.

    At the operator level it is getting the information without leaving a trace that is priority, not content. The operator must have that unique ability of being able to ‘talk oneself out of a situation’ with maximum credibility.

    That is an important focus in the recruiting strategy after competency and it is that ability which is tested in any applicant.

  • Mark Golding - Children of Iraq


    I wholeheartedly agree with your first paragraph but one must be careful not to paint all Americans with the same brush.

    Yes we Brits are naturally good at being ‘friendly to the natives’ at the honest level, although, and I’m being cynical, not so good at adopting a disguise and posing as Arabs planting bombs as we did in Iraq. Bad move!

    Again I agree with your last paragraph; the curse of myopic, hyper-threading heuristic and deadly flying machines remotely controlled by ‘gamers’ sat in leather backed swivelling chairs is a nasty reality of the 21st century.

  • Control


    I understand what you are saying and clearly there is an argument to say that after the Cold War the intelligence services had to find something to do and being reliant on the politicians mean there is some inevitable amount of horse trading.

    It seems unfortunate however that because i) people like Ali Campbell thought they had a legitimate role in the framing of a defence/intelligence question ii) that b**stard John Scarlett signed off the dirty dossier knowing full well it was a piece of political propoganda, that you would suggest the intelligence services have lost all integrity (that is, all employees are without integrity).

    Craig, your opinion is not that far from David Cornwell in respect of the politicisation of the intelligence services.

    ‘Yes. Here, in Britain, we’ve watched this same process happening. The thing about spying is that it’s simple. It sees itself as a pure science, exactly as very good journalistic reporting is. As with journalism, there are two absolutely sacred areas. One is the sanctity of sources and the other is the objective truth. What we saw here, in the preparation of that disastrous dossier that so embarrassed Colin Powell in the United Nations, was the attempted corruption, if you like, of pure intelligence and, at a certain level, the politicization of the intelligence arm. When you do that as a politician you actually deprive yourself of true objectivity. You say, “I know there are weapons of mass destruction out there, so go and damn well find them!” That’s no way to give a brief. You’ve got to say, “Come to me and tell me what you’ve found.”‘

    and on the money problem

    ‘Your intelligence budget for the CIA alone is, I think, $30 billion a year. The result is a huge proliferation of junk. The art of refining that and turning it into a lucid statement you can write on a postcard and put in front of a busy politician really is very, very difficult stuff. The intelligence business is threatened by exactly the same bad people that your business is threatened by. In good journalism, you’ve got people back from the field who are sitting behind desks who can smell a rat when it comes in. They can identify the young Turk who has just been taken on by the foreign desk who wants to make his name and may be fabricating. They can look at information obtained and think, “Well that may be planted so that we’ll think that way. But is it really true?”

    ‘In the intelligence world, with so much money around, there are tremendously sophisticated peddlers who are just making stuff up, feeding information to the empty areas of your head and taking huge sums of money for it and disappearing into the smoke. And I think some of the intelligence services fell for some of that stuff.’

    It’s not an easy problem to fix but how do you suggest you could get back integrity?

    Mark, respectfully I think you miss the point I was trying to make. Of course the person on the ground cares about the content. You don’t think they know if they are ‘buying’ rubbish intel because they are getting the HMG chequebook out?


  • JimmyGiro

    We all do and say what we believe to be right, because there is no reason to contradict oneself; therefore good people do good things, and bad people do bad things.

    Evil is not bad people being persuaded to do bad things, for that is the natural state of bad people, but the false-witness that persuades good people to do bad things.

    Therefore our government is evil by dint of false-witness.

  • Arsalan Goldberg

    I think they trusted him because he said, “Trust me, I’m a doctor”.

    They should learn from me, my wife is a doctor and I never trust her. She keeps telling me to eat lentils and beans saying they are healthy and trust me I’m a doctor crap. But the fact is if I did eat beans, being Muslim I’d probably get arrested for the gas that will leak out of my underpants. It is a good thing I don’t smoke because if I did and that caused my pants to catch fire I could get done for being another Abdul Muttalib.

  • Roderick Russell


    Craig says – “We should know by now that the intelligence services and politicians no longer care if the intelligence is true: they want intelligence that justifies the actions” The truth is, as my own case so aptly demonstrates, that what we have is a Secret Police and not an Intelligence Service; so it is hardly surprising that they distort the truth and torture innocents. One cannot be effective in both roles since the job requirements are different.

    In fact the job requirements are mutually exclusive. An intelligence service is about the quiet collection of truthful information and its analysis; an intelligence service’s objective is getting at the truth. Contrast that with a secret police service who are agent provocateurs, spreaders of lies, torturers, threateners, and murderers; their objective is to hide the truth (and terrorize the enemies) for whatever nomenclatura controls them.

    As you know my own experience of our so-called intelligence services (defamatory lies, intimidation, harassment, threats) proves that MI5/6 in the UK, and CSIS in Canada are a very good secret police; I don’t think it is fair to expect them to be an effective intelligence service as well.

  • Jaded.


    ‘Craig, I see you still persist in using the term ‘Al Qaeda’. Would you please define how you are using it for my mind?’

    That’s a fair question to ask and i’m surprised you haven’t responded. I’ll just assume you are perfectly happy with the MSM take on it then…

  • Anonymous

    im just wondering how many people died from the cold weather in the uk this winter, and how much money compared to that spent on the wars was spent on the elderly?

  • Tom Welsh

    “…one must be careful not to paint all Americans with the same brush”.

    Very true, Mark, and I don’t as a rule. (Sorry if I hurriedly gave the wrong impression). I know quite a few Americans who are clever, empathetic, and kind.

    What I really meant was that it’s the ignorant redneck tendency who exist in sufficient numbers to dominate political discourse and – most important – voting patterns. Mark Twain admitted this when he said that “War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography”.

    Americans are brought up to believe that their country is special – unique, indeed – mostly because they are. It must be very hard indeed to resist the obvious inference that others (i.e. foreigners) are inferior.

  • Larry from St. Louis

    “If any American were to gain enough “local knowledge” and experience to go undercover in Afghanistan, he would automatically become suspect in the eyes of his masters as having “gone native”.”

    Tom, you must be the product of the British university system.

    “Mark Twain admitted this when he said that “War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography”.”

    Again, not very clever.

    You need to take some sort of remedial course in logic and skepticism.

  • ingo

    I’ll second Stephens laudations, Craig, a thoughtfull post, albeit sad in its conclusion.

    Dr. Dr. Al Balawi seems to have been a serious thinker and a principled fighter at that.

    Not annonimous bombing from great hight, he made sure that his target was the right one.

    Oh hallo Larry, nowhere else to go?

  • mirrorman

    @ control ~

    You seem to cast doubt that a large number of people in a huge organisation (such as the intelligence services) could be knowingly and deliberately distorting or suppressing “the truth” of what they discover.

    It doesn’t work like that. The BBC is a perfect case in point here. After the dodgy dossier affair, when Andrew Gilligan got a rocket for disclosing the true facts, the top suits (I mean the TOP suits) at the BBC were hauled into No. 10 and given a right royal roasting by the PM’s staff, A Campbell brandishing the white-hot branding iron. They were told, in no uncertain terms, that if the BBC ever stepped out of line again, heads would roll ~ possibly even the heads of the Top Suits.

    Since that moment ~ and we can date it very precisely ~ the BBC has retreated into its shell of timidity and denial and obfuscation, not daring to even breathe a word of criticism against the establishment (the disgraceful refusal to run the charity appeal for the people of Gaza was a very obvious symptom of this). Now, the BBC does employ many editors and journalists of integrity, but in this new climate these people have to find a new accommodation between themeselves and the stories they report. Most of them don’t want to give up glamorous, well-paid, high-prestige jobs working for a world-famous broadcaster (would you? when your life-long career goal has been to work for them?) so they bend to the editorial climate of the moment, and tell themselves that they are being professional “unbiassed and impartial” reporters of the news, which means choosing those bits of the news the establishment are comfortable with (we’re winning in Afghanistan) and ignoring or downplaying other stories (the Israeli armed aggression against the civilian population of Gaza). This truth is self-evident. Can you imagine an assault on a civilian population by a lethal force of arms anywhere else in the world that wouldn’t have produced a storm of outrage and condemnation from the BBC and the rest of the media? But Israel and the Palestinians are a different matter. They don’t count as much as us Westerners.

    The way the BBC hacks justify their jobs and salve their consciences is not by deliberatley lying, but by bending the truth here and there, omitting certain facts and emphasising others, reaching an accommodation which allows them to remain good guys and in work. The same happens in the intelligence services. Bright, caring people who have sold out but still convince themselves they are doing a good job for the country. It takes a great deal for a man to believe something is true when his livliehood depends on his not believing it.

  • writerman

    Just to put the “terror threat” to our way of life in an alternative and polemical perspective. For what it’s worth.

    A friend of mine who has invested heavily in shipping, told me, rather defensively, as she is very “green”, that around 40 huge container ships arrive in the port of San Diego in California everyday, and about fifty others are on their way in and out of California.

    Supposedly, according to some research she’s done, these 90 to 100 ships pollute the atmosphere to an extraordinary degree, pumping out CO2, and a variety of poisons into the atmosphere, doing more environmental damage than the rest of California’s transport system combined.

    In LA alone, it’s said that 10,000 extra deaths and 100,000 cronic illnesses can be laid at the door of these “death ships” yet what’s done about it? What about the threat to our way of life from 10,000 deaths a year?

  • arsalan Goldberg


    British degrees are known as the world’s best while American degrees are known as the world’s worst. It is a well known fact that an America degree is worth about the same as 2 or 3 British A Levels.

    America is a gangster republic, it was built for murder and theft and all it has done since its creation is murder and theft.

    It was created by committing genocide against the people who were their first and then stealing their land and wealth.

    And since it was created it declared war and and every year since its creation to steal more by killing more.

    So if Tom Welsh has a British education, then he is all the better for it, and if you Larry have an American University education, you would have been better off home schooled.

  • Jaded.

    Good post mirrorman. I tend to sum up the BBC as propagandising ‘themes’. You hear the odd bit of dissent or counterargument, but the ‘themes’ are now set in stone. For example, 9/11 muslim job; 7/7 muslim job; ‘War On Terror’; bank charges here to stay; climate change; Tony Blair is important etc.. They just play the pipes of the Establishment.

  • mirrorman

    “But Israel and the Palestinians are a different matter. They don’t count as much as Westerners.”

    I meant, of course, that the Palestinians don’t count as much as Westerners. The Israelis count for much more in Western eyes.

  • Steve Radley


    But I thought the Muslims were responsible 7/7 – why on Earth do you think they didn’t do 7/7?

    And do you think climate change is a hoax? Why?

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