On December 30th, 2009 a Jordanian double agent traveled to a remote CIA base in Khost, Afghanistan for a meeting with his Jordanian handler. Humam Khalil al-Balawi, a physician, claimed to be treating Ayman al-Zawahiri, the #2 figure in al-Qae’da. It was one of the biggest breakthroughs of the War on Terror, and an abnormally large crowd of CIA agents and contractors had gathered to receive al-Balawi and hear his report. That was a tragic mistake. Moments after dismounting his vehicle, al-Balawi detonated a suicide vest. Seven people died. It was the worst loss in the CIA’s history.
Triple Agent tells the story behind these terrible events. I picked up the book because I had a personal connection to one of the Khost victims, albeit a small one. My wife and I knew the family of Darren LaBonte, a CIA agent who died in the attack. He was stationed in Amman and was a close friend and associate of Ali bin Zeid, the mukhabarat captain who handled al-Balawi. I never met Darren, because he was often traveling for work, but we had met his wife on a couple occasions and she had helped us with some arrangements when we got settled in Amman. We didn’t know her well; just well enough that the news from Khost came as a devastating shock. Until Darren’s death, we had no idea what he did for a living.
The events of Khost are well-known by now, documented and studied and analyzed to death by those who wanted to understand what went wrong. So why read a new book on the subject? I regretted not having had the chance to meet Darren; my wife, for her part, regretted not getting to know his wife better. I hoped that the book would shine some light on this family we had briefly crossed paths with, and give me insight into the world they inhabited. And that, really, turned out to be the book’s strength. It tells the story of the individuals who were at Khost: Darren, Ali bin Zeid, Khost base chief Jennifer Matthews, targeter Elisabeth Hanson, and others. The book uses this dreadful event to humanize and personalize the long war against al-Qa’eda.
The book is a riveting and dreadful read. I kept hoping that a crucial warning would be heard, that a key decision would be changed, that somehow the tragic outcome would be averted. But of course the end of the story was preordained.
For me, the most gut-wrenching moment in the book is when Darren LaBonte and Ali bin Zeid say goodbye to their wives in Amman before flying to Afghanistan for the fateful meeting. They are worried. Darren and Ali do not trust their own agent and are worried that things are moving too fast. Darren’s wife has expressed fear that the agent might turn out to be a suicide bomber. Despite their fears, these two women send their husbands off with courage so remarkable that it deserves special mention:
The women knew the men shared a fascination with ancient warrior culture, for the armies of Athens and Sparta. In ancient Greece the mothers of Spartan warriors exhorted their sons to bravery with the words that Fida Dawani and Racheal LaBonte now spoke to their departing husbands: “Return with your shields or on them.”
That sendoff reminds me of the final pages of Steven Pressfield’s historical novel about Thermopylae, when the Spartan King Leonidas meets a woman named Paraleia a few days before he leads the 300 off to battle. Paraleia is about to be robbed of both her husband and son. King Leonidas says:
“The city speculates and guesses… as to why I elected those I did to the Three Hundred. Was it for their prowess as individual men-at-arms? … I chose them not for their own valor, lady, but for that of their women … When the battle is over, when the Three Hundred have gone down to death, then will all Greece look to the Spartans, to see how they bear it. But who, lady, who will the Spartans look to? To you and the other wives and mothers, sisters and daughters of the fallen. If they behold your hearts riven and broken with grief, they, too, will break. And Greece will break with them. But if you bear up, dry-eyed, not alone enduring your loss but seizing it with contempt for its agony and embracing it as the honor that it is in truth, then Sparta will stand. And all Hellas will stand behind her.”
By telling their stories as accurately and honestly as possible, Triple Agent is a fitting tribute to those lost at Khost–as well as the loved ones they left behind.