KABUL, Afghanistan – A suicide bomber who killed seven CIA officers and contractors and wounded six others at an isolated CIA base in eastern Afghanistan on Wednesday was a Taliban infiltrator dressed in an Afghan army uniform, according to U.S. officials and a Taliban claim of responsibility.
It was the deadliest attack on the intelligence agency since the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, in April 1983. An eighth American was also killed.
The victims were working out Wednesday evening when the bomber stepped into the outpost’s gym and triggered his explosive vest, the Taliban and U.S. military officials said Thursday.
The CIA confirmed the deaths of the seven, whom one U.S. official described as a “mix” of CIA employees and contractors. CIA director Leon Panetta said in a statement that the families of the dead had been notified, but that the victims’ names and what they were doing in Afghanistan wouldn’t be released “due to the sensitivity of their mission.”
A U.S. intelligence official, who requested anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity, said that one of the dead was the female chief of the CIA’s Forward Operating Base Chapman near the Pakistani border and key militant infiltration routes from Pakistan into Afghanistan.
“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.
How the Taliban penetrated the base is under investigation. The Taliban said the bomber was a member of the Afghan army, but U.S. officials said they didn’t know if that was true. Afghan uniforms are frequently stolen, but CIA officials said that simply wearing an Afghan army uniform wouldn’t be enough to gain access to the base.
Officials were particularly surprised that Wednesday’s attack took place at FOB Chapman, which a U.S. military official, who requested anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity, told McClatchy Newspapers was “more secure than most.” Whether the CIA workers were targeted also was unknown.
In addition to the CIA base, FOB Chapman is the headquarters for a State Department Provincial Reconstruction Team that works with local Afghan officials on development projects.
The attack, and a separate bombing in southern Afghanistan Wednesday that killed five Canadians, one of them a journalist, underscored the Taliban’s growing range and aggressiveness at a time of year when hostile action generally slows.
The suicide bomber’s possible status as a member of the Afghan army also raised concerns. A key U.S. strategy in Afghanistan is increasing the size of the Afghan army – a goal that could make it easier for Taliban sympathizers to join an expanding force as it seeks recruits.
The attack also is likely to exacerbate tensions between U.S. and Afghan troops, who live adjacent to one another and often conduct joint missions. Privately, soldiers already talk about their distrust of the Afghans.