Only one location made sense for the meeting, wrote Sharif Ali bin Zeid, a Jordanian intelligence officer who was Balawi’s handler, in an e-mail to his agent. It was the American base at Khost, just across the Afghan border. Balawi could travel there quickly and return to Pakistan before anyone missed him. Khost offered complete security and protection from accidental discovery by Taliban spies.
But Balawi seemed uninterested in coming to the CIA base. As he well knew, going to Khost would be akin to breaking into a prison. There would no chance for an ambush or kidnapping, and no al-Qaeda fighters waiting for the command to attack. Even if he could somehow smuggle a gun onto the base, he would almost certainly be disarmed or killed before he could squeeze off a single round.
Not possible, he wrote back.
A visit to the CIA base did offer one way to strike a blow against Jordanian intelligence and possibly the Americans as well. But this option would be a solo mission and a one-way trip. To succeed, he would have to somehow make it past layer after layer of security, starting with multiple rings of Afghan and American guards, followed by pat-downs, bomb-sniffing dogs and metal detectors. His likeliest victims might well be the low-paid Pashtun wretches who stood sentry outside the base.
Balawi’s feelings about a possible suicide mission can be deduced from the urgency of his efforts to avoid Khost. Through early December 2009, and continuing for weeks after bin Zeid arrived at the American base, he begged the Jordanian intelligence officer to come to him instead, in the town of Miranshah on the Pakistani frontier. Next he offered Ghulam Khan, a checkpoint on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border on the highway that runs from Miranshah to Khost. The answer from bin Zeid was the same: Come to Khost.
His options dwindling as December neared its end, Balawi sat down one evening to write, as though he could somehow exorcise his doubts by putting them on paper.
“I have often wished to know what is going on in the head of a martyr before the martyrdom-seeking operation,” he wrote. “It is now my turn today to fulfill the wishes of others.”
He began to list his private fears, pausing to admit deep misgivings about the value of suicide attacks. The problem, he acknowledged, is that one could “only do it once in your life,” and there was a real chance that he would fail and squander his life for nothing. A harder question was whether he could go through with it. How would he feel in those final seconds, with only a slight twitch of his finger separating him from annihilation?
“Do you not fear to be cowardly at the last moment,” he asked himself, “and be unable to press the button?”
On Dec. 28, Balawi e-mailed a brief note to his countryman bin Zeid. You win, he wrote. I’ll meet your driver in Miranshah.
Afterward Balawi and two al-Qaeda associates drove to a field to record some video footage of the Jordanian firing a few rounds from an AK-47, the gun jerking upward as bullets kicked up dust spouts in the distance. Then he went to his room to put on the suicide vest. He tightened straps that bore the weight of 30 pounds of explosive and metal. He put on his khameez shirt and gray patou, the shawl-like blanket that doubles as a cloak and mobile prayer mat, and walked back outside, where his friend with the video camera was waiting beside a white hatchback.
Balawi sat in the driver’s seat as the camera rolled. He had decided that his martyr’s message should be in English, to ensure the widest audience if the video made its way to the Internet, and he had chosen lines intended to project a kind of cinematic, bad-guy toughness, as though he were a Hollywood mobster delivering an ultimatum.
“We will get you, CIA team. Insha’Allah — God willing — we will bring you down,” he said. “Don’t think that just by pressing a button and killing mujaheddin, you are safe,” a reference to missile strikes from CIA drones. “Insha’Allah, we’ll come to you in an unexpected way.”
Balawi raised his left hand to reveal what appeared to be a wristwatch beneath his sleeve. “Look, this is for you: It’s not a watch, it’s a detonator,” he said.
But the tough-guy routine was falling short. Balawi seemed agitated and bitter, and he turned his head from the camera whenever he finished a thought. His eyes were red as he spit out his last words.
“This is my goal: to kill you, and to kill your Jordanian partner, and Insha’Allah, I will go to al-Firdaws — paradise,” he said. “And you will be sent to hell.”
With the final phrase his voice cracked, as though he were straining to fight back tears. Balawi looked away, and the image went dark.