The bombing, just as President Barack Obama’s surge is gathering pace, represented the biggest loss of life suffered by the US intelligence agency since an attack in Beirut in 1983. The CIA said on Thursday a further six agents had been injured in the attack.
Claiming credit for the attack, a Taliban spokesman said the bomber was “an Afghan national army officer wearing a suicide vest”.
It is believed he exploded his suicide vest close to a gym in Forward Operating Base Chapman in Khost province, close to the Pakistan border.
Among those killed was the CIA base chief, a mother of three, who would have directed and co-ordinated operations and intelligence gathering in the province.
The strike was a major breach of security for the heavily protected CIA officers and contractors, who shared the former military base with Afghan security forces. It will also disrupt CIA operations in Afghanistan and the Pakistani tribal area of North Waziristan, an al-Qaeda stronghold.
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Before Wednesday’s attack, 90 CIA officers had been killed in the line of duty during the agency’s 62-year history. They are commemorated by stars on a Memorial Wall inside the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia.
The inscription on the memorial reads: “We are the nation’s first line of defence. We accomplish what others cannot accomplish and go where others cannot go.”
Only 55 of the dead have been officially named; the identities of the 35 others remain secret.
In April 1983, a Hizbollah suicide car bomb detonated outside the US embassy in Beirut killing more than 60 people, including eight CIA personnel.
“It’s heartbreaking for the organisation and for the families,” said Gary Berntsen, a former CIA paramilitary officer who commanded the agency’s forces in eastern Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks.
“With service in the CIA comes significant risks. But the mission out there is one we believe in and this will not cause us to withdraw. The Agency is committed to the fight there.”
The CIA has disclosed that four of its officers have been killed in Afghanistan in the past eight years. One of them was Johnny “Mike” Spann, a paramilitary officer who was killed during a riot at the Qala-i-Jangi compound near Mazar-i-Sharif in November 2001. A former US marine corps officer, he killed three men with his pistol before he was beaten to death.
In recent weeks, the CIA has been bolstering its presence in Afghanistan as US troops bolster their numbers from 68,000 to nearly 100,000 as part of a force surge announced by President Obama.
Khost, which was a major al-Qaeda base until 1998, is in a key strategic position on a route between Afghanistan and Pakistan. As well as recruiting and “handling” local spies, the CIA operates remote-controlled drones to attack insurgent fighters and conducts electronic surveillance.
“As part of the military surge there is also a surge of intelligence officers,” said Mr Berntsen. “You have to assume that if they were downrange pushed that far forward in an area like that it’s likely that a number of them would have been paramilitary officers.”
It is not known how many of the eight dead were CIA officers and how many were contractors. Some of their identities might never be revealed.
At least eight others were wounded, some of them severely, in the attack and one Afghan civilian was killed. The audacious attacks would have required a high level of planning and very good intelligence.
Infiltration of bases by Afghan security forces working for the Taliban is a major concern for American and British forces. On Tuesday, an Afghan soldier killed an American soldier and wounded two Italians in the western Badghis province.
In October, an Afghan police officer killed three Grenadier Guards and two Military Police when he opened fire inside their patrol base near Nad-i-Ali in central Helmand.