The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has appointed a senior counterterrorism officer with a strong background in the Middle East to lead the US administration’s handling of Iran, signalling a new hardline approach to Tehran, sources tell Al Jazeera.
Known as the “Dark Prince”, “Ayatollah Mike”, and the “Undertaker” within the halls of the CIA, Michael D’Andrea ran the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center between 2006 and 2015. He also oversaw its covert programmes to hunt and kill “terrorist” suspects around the world with drones, particularly in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen.
One former CIA official, who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorised to talk to the press, said the appointment of D’Andrea is the first signal that the Trump administration is mapping out an aggressive strategy to deal with Iran.
Former CIA case officer Robert Baer, who said he knows D’Andrea by reputation, was more blunt. “All I can say is that war with Iran is in the cards [after D’Andrea‘s appointment],” Baer said.
According to former CIA officials, the agency has never officially confirmed D’Andrea‘s identity, despite his naming in a New York Times story in 2015.
The former CIA officer, who has worked with D’Andrea, told Al Jazeera his appointment shows the Trump administration is going to be “very aggressive with Iran”.
D’Andrea is a convert to Islam and is married to a Muslim woman whom he met during his work in the Middle East. He is reportedly in his late 50s or early 60s and has worked undercover in Iraq, Egypt, and other countries, officials said.
D’Andrea joined the CIA in 1979 and was deployed to Africa immediately after he left its training facility in Virginia known as “the Farm”.
He was the most senior CIA officer in Baghdad during the Iraq War in 2003. In 2006, he was called back to CIA headquarters to lead the Counterterrorism Center, succeeding its outgoing chief Robert Grenier.
He is known within the CIA as “abrasive” and a “workaholic”, sources said. Jordanian intelligence officials described D’Andrea as “highly professional” but “ruthless”.
A CIA spokesman declined to comment on this report.
During his visit to Saudi Arabia, President Donald Trump and his Saudi hosts pledged to forge ahead with a strategic partnership against armed groups in the region. Trump also signalled a hardline policy towards Iran.
Saudi Arabia views Iran as the biggest threat to its national security and regional stability. During Trump’s visit, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson described Tehran’s influence in the Middle East as “malign”, adding Iran posed “threats” on all sides of Saudi Arabia’s borders.
The US and Saudi Arabia announced last may the signing of a memorandum of understanding establishing a Terrorist Financing Targeting Center (TFTC), which will be headquartered in the Saudi capital, Riyadh.
The centre will target threats coming from organisations such as al-Qaeda, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS), and Hezbollah, which is linked to Iran and other armed groups.
D’Andrea was in charge of the Counterterrorism Center in 2009 when a Jordanian double-agent doctor, Humam al-Balawi, blew himself up at a CIA base in Khost, Afghanistan – killing seven CIA officers and a Jordanian intelligence official who was his handler.
Balawi was recruited by Jordanian intelligence, the Mukhabarat, and was presented to the CIA as having direct connections to al-Qaeda’s top leadership.
D’Andrea – who spent decades hunting down Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders – believed he finally was able to plant a high-level source inside al-Qaeda’s inner circle, sources told Al Jazeera, but that proved deadly wrong.
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