In the vast American embassy in the hills outside the Jordanian capital Amman a senior US Special Forces officer runs an equally special office. He buys information from Jordanian army and intelligence officers – for cash, of course – but he also helps to train Afghan and Iraqi policemen and soldiers. The information he seeks is not just about al-Qa'ida but about Jordanians themselves, about the army's loyalty to King Abdullah II as well as about the anti-American insurgents who live in Jordan, primarily Iraqi but also Iraqi al-Qa'ida contacts with Afghanistan.
It's easy to buy army officers in the Middle East. The Americans spent much of 2001 and 2002 buying up the warlords of Afghanistan. They paid for Jordanian troops to join their own occupation army in Iraq – which was why the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad was ruthlessly bombed by Washington's enemies.
What the CIA's double agent Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi did – like so many al-Qa'ida followers, he was a doctor – was routine. He worked for both sides, because America's enemies long ago infiltrated Washington's "allies" in the Arab intelligence forces. Even Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who effectively led the al-Qa'ida side of the insurgency in Iraq and was himself a Jordanian citizen, maintained contacts within Amman's General Intelligence Department, whose own senior officer, Sharif Ali bin Zeid, was killed along with seven Americans this week in the CIA's greatest disaster since the Beirut US embassy bombing of 1983.
There is, however, nothing romantic about espionage in the Middle East. Several of the CIA men killed in Afghanistan were in fact hired mercenaries while the Jordanian "mukhabbarat" spooks, for whom both bin Zeid and al-Balawi worked, use torture routinely on Jordan's supposed enemies; indeed, they tortured men who were equally routinely "renditioned" to Amman by the CIA under the Bush administration.
The mystery, however, is not so much the existence of double agents within the US security apparatus in the Middle East, but just how a Jordanian "mole" could be of use in Afghanistan. Few Arabs speak Pushtun or Dari or Urdu, although a larger percentage of Afghans would speak Arabic. What it does suggest, however, is that there have been much closer links between the anti-American Iraqi insurgents based in Amman and their opposite numbers in Afghanistan.
Hitherto regarded as a purely inspirational transfer of operations, it is now clear that – despite the vast landmass of Iran between the two states – Iraqi and Afghan/al-Qa'ida operatives have been collaborating. In other words, just as the CIA blithely assumed that it could make friends with and trust the local intelligence men in the Muslim world, so the insurgent groups could do the same. The presence of an anti-American Jordanian spy in Afghanistan – one who would sacrifice his life so far from home – proves how close are the links between America's enemies in Amman and in eastern Afghanistan. It would not be going too far to suggest that anti-American Jordanians have connections that reach as far as Islamabad.
If this seems far-fetched, we should remember that just as the CIA first supported Arab fighters against the Soviet army in Afghanistan, it was Saudi money which paid them. In the early Eighties, Saudi Arabia's own intelligence commander held regular meetings with Osama bin Laden in the Saudi embassy in Islamabad and with the Pakistani secret service, which gave logistical help to the "mujahedin" and then to the Taliban – as it still does today. If the Americans believe that the Saudis are not sending money to their enemies in Afghanistan – or to their equally fundamentalist enemies in Iraq and Jordan – then the CIA hasn't much idea of what is going on in the Middle East.
But this, unfortunately, is probably the case. The American desire to be loved as well as feared has long misled their intelligence services into trusting those who are ostensibly their friends, while bestialising those who are their supposed enemies. This is exactly what happened in Lebanon before a Shia Muslim suicide bomber blew up the US embassy in Beirut in 1983, when almost the entire staff of the CIA's operations in the Middle East were meeting inside. Most were killed. The entrance to the CIA's offices in their seafront embassy was closely guarded. But their local operatives in Lebanon included men and women working for both the Israelis and the early version of the Hizbollah. US embassy intelligence staffers dated Lebanese women who had no security clearance.
But the Jordanian-American axis was different. Here, the CIA were operating in an almost totally Sunni Muslim environment, among Jordanians who, while accepting CIA money, had many reasons to oppose Washington's policies, and the Jordanian King's. A large minority of the Jordanian "muhabarrat" are originally Palestinians and believe that America's uncritical, fawning support for Israel has destroyed their "nation" of Palestine and is crushing their people. The CIA's desire to trust its "local hires" is not unlike the British faith in their Indian sepoys on the eve of the Indian Mutiny. "Their" local regiments would never oppose the Raj; "their" Indian officers would remain loyal. But they did not.
Balawi's Jordanian victim, bin Zeid, was given a "martyr's" funeral in the presence of his cousin King Abdullah himself. Let's see who turns up to the burial of his murderer – if there is anything left to bury.