Something doesn’t add up in this (otherwise very good & detailed) Washington Post piece about Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, the al-Qaeda double agent who killed seven CIA & Blackwater operatives at FOB Chapman in Khost Province.
The beginning of the piece is a fascinating explication of how al-Balawi went from internet irhabi to actual murderer. Basically, the Jordanian security service known as the General Intelligence Directorate or GID — a stalwart U.S. intelligence ally; an Outlaw to the CIA’s Tupac — monitored Balawi’s posts and in early 2009 called him in for what the Post describes as “three days of questioning.” GID threatens “to have Balawi jailed and end his medical career, and they hinted they could cause problems for his family” unless he agrees to go to Pakistan to infiltrate al-Qaeda’s inner circle for GID. From there, according to the narrative presented in the piece, Balawi is secretly twirling his moustaches and thinking The fools! Little do they know what I truly want is to meet Sheikh Usama! I shall use this pathetic ruse against them!
But if you read further into the piece, his family has a different explanation for how Balawi became a killer:
After his arrest and interrogation last January, family members said, Balawi appeared sullen and preoccupied. He stopped using the computer — to which he had seemed so tied.
“He came out a changed person,” his father said in an interview. “They should have left him alone. They should not have played with his mind.” He said his son would never have moved beyond rhetoric had he not been forced to leave Jordan.
My emphasis. Before the elder Balawi’s father’s quote appears, the Post offers this defense of the GID’s tradecraft: “Persuasion works better than coercion, and that’s something the Jordanians understand completely.”
Uh, well. I won’t pretend I know what happened during the three days the GID had Balawi in custody. But the GID has a long and documented history of torture. According to Human Rights Watch, one GID technique is to take bamboo sticks to the legs and soles of the feet — a practice called falaqa — with the occasional added garnish of the “salt and vinegar walk,” in which the GID forces you to take your bleeding feet for a stroll down a hallway doused in salt and vinegar. They also do stress positions. “Persuasion works better than coercion,” eh, Mr. Anonymous Intelligence Official?
Now, again: I have no evidence that Balawi was tortured. None at all. And if his family is claiming he was tortured, I haven’t seen it. But the alternative explanation for Balawi’s turn from internet gangster to murderer is that the GID abandoned their typical standards and rushed their new asset into Pakistan, and several Jordanian officials quoted in the piece can’t understand the GID’s decision-making.
To be very very clear: Balawi was an extremist before the GID picked him up. I read Evan Kohlmann’s translation of Balawi’s September 2009 Vanguards of Khorasan interview. Like any good fanatic and conspiracy theorist, he leavens a number of specific grievances — Gaza, Iraq — with the potent yeast of a deranged worldview. So we’re not talking about whatever happened in the GID interview making him a bad guy. We’re talking about what would make him go from a bad guy on the internet to a suicide murderer, which is a decisive psychological step. Radicalization occurs in phases. It’s important to ask: what would make this guy so dedicated to revenge against his handlers or their (alleged) American sponsors that he’d blow himself up at Khost? For a Salafist internet extremist like Balawi, getting tortured by the GID might be what flips the switch.