Suicide bomber attacks CIA base in Afghanistan, killing at least 7 Americans
The CIA on Thursday confirmed the deaths of seven of its officers in a suicide bombing in eastern Afghanistan, an audacious attack on a key intelligence post that apparently caused the greatest loss of life for the agency since the start of the eight-year-old war.
CIA Director Leon E. Panetta told employees in a memo that the attack late Wednesday also wounded six of their colleagues. At least one other person is believed to have died in what officials described as a suicide bombing by an Afghan assailant who gained access to a secure inner area of an outpost in Afghanistan's eastern Khost Province.
"Those who fell yesterday were far from home and close to the enemy, doing the hard work that must be done to protect our country from terrorism," Panetta said in his message to employees. "We owe them our deepest gratitude, and we pledge to them and their families that we will never cease fighting for the cause to which they dedicated their lives--a safer America."
A Taliban spokesman on Thursday claimed responsibility for the bombing at Forward Operating Base Chapman, and said the bomber was an Afghan National Army officer who had decided to join insurgents in attacking the United States.
That description could not be confirmed with U.S. or Afghan military officials. But a U.S. military official in Afghanistan, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there are Afghan national security forces posted at the base where the attack occurred.
The CIA declined Thursday to provide details on the casualties from the attack or the nature of work at the base, due to the "sensitivity of their mission and other ongoing operations," a spokesman said.
Panetta credited military doctors and nurses with saving the lives of those wounded in the attack, and he announced that flags at CIA headquarters in McLean, Va., would be flown at half-staff to honor the dead.
"Yesterday's tragedy reminds us that the men and women of the CIA put their lives at risk every day to protect this nation," Panetta said. "Throughout our history, the reality is that those who make a real difference often face real danger."
The bold attack struck at the vanguard of U.S. counterterrorism operations in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, killing officials whose job involves plotting strikes against the Taliban, al-Qaeda and other extremist groups that are active on the frontier between the two nations. Khost, where the facility that was targeted is located, borders North Waziristan, the Pakistani tribal area that is believed to be al-Qaeda's home base.
While many details remain vague, the attack appears to have killed more U.S. intelligence personnel than have died in Afghanistan since the U.S.-led invasion began in late 2001. The CIA has previously acknowledged the deaths of four officers in fighting in Afghanistan in the past eight years.
A former senior agency official said it was the worst single-day casualty toll for the agency since eight CIA officers were killed in the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Beirut in April 1983.
"It is the nightmare we've been anticipating since we went into Afghanistan and Iraq," said John E. McLaughlin, a former CIA deputy director who now serves on a board that supports children of CIA officers slain on the job. "Our people are often out on the front line, without adequate force protection, and they put their lives quite literally in jeopardy."
The CIA has been quietly bolstering its ranks in Afghanistan in recent weeks, mirroring the surge of military troops there. Agency officers coordinated the initial U.S.-led attack against the Taliban in Afghanistan in late 2001, and have since provided hundreds of spies, paramilitary operatives and analysts in the region for roles ranging from counterterrorism to counternarcotics. The agency also operates the remote-control aircraft used in aerial strikes on suspected al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters in the lawless tribal provinces on the Pakistan side of the border. The campaign of strikes in Pakistan has not been officially acknowledged, but it has escalated rapidly in the past two years.
Intelligence experts who have visited U.S. bases in the region say the CIA officers at Chapman would have focused mainly on recruiting local operatives and identifying targets.
"The best intelligence is going to come from the field, and that means working closely with the Afghans," said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert and professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service.
The loss of experienced CIA field officers would be particularly damaging to U.S. efforts in the area "because they know the terrain," Hoffman said. "Every American death in a theater of war is tragic, but these might be more consequential given these officers' unique capabilities and attributes."
The bomber and those who aided him must have had very good intelligence to gain access to the secure base without arousing suspicion, he said.
Zabiullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, compared the attack to others recently perpetrated against Westerners by men associated with the Afghan army. "Those Afghans who were working with Americans before, now they are with the mujaheddin [Taliban]," Mujahid said in a written statement. "And now they know Americans are the enemy of our religion . . . they cannot bear it anymore . . . they are ready for operations."
The CIA is notoriously tight-lipped about its agents killed in the line of duty. At the agency's Langley headquarters, 90 such deaths are memorialized by stars on a wall. The inscription on the memorial reads: "We are the nation's first line of defense. We accomplish what others cannot accomplish and go where others cannot go."
The number of U.S. military deaths in Afghanistan this year has reached 310, the highest one-year total since the start of the war. Twelve U.S. troops have been killed since Dec. 1.
Khost has been the scene of several major attacks. In May, an attack killed 13 civilians and injured 36 others. Seven Afghan civilians were killed and 21 were wounded by an improvised explosive device detonated outside the main gate of Forward Operating Base Salerno on May 13.
Also Wednesday, NATO announced that four Canadian troops and a journalist from Canada were killed in an explosion in Kandahar province, one of the most dangerous areas of southern Afghanistan.
The international coalition said the journalist was traveling with the troops on a patrol near Kandahar city when they were attacked Wednesday. The Taliban claimed responsibility for that blast as well.
Kandahar is a hotbed of the insurgency. On Dec. 24, eight people, including a child, were killed when a man driving a horse-drawn cart laden with explosives detonated the cache outside a guesthouse frequented by foreigners. The day before, another Canadian soldier was killed by a homemade bomb in the province.
According to figures compiled by the Associated Press, the latest casualties bring to 32 the number of Canadian forces killed in Afghanistan this year.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai "strongly condemned" both of the Wednesday attacks, according to a statement issued by his office.
"President Karzai shares the grief and extends prayers and deepest condolences to families and friends of the victims and to the people of the United States and Canada," the statement said. It quoted Karzai as saying: "Your sons and daughters have lost their lives for protecting the Afghan people and the humanity against the threat of terrorism. Afghans will never forget your sacrifices."