Did the Saudis or the Yemenis Expose the Involvement of a Double Agent?

There’s a remarkable moment in this CNN story reporting on the concern within the US that someone leaked the fact that a double agent was involved in foiling the UndieBomb plot. After quoting Peter King saying “a major investigation” would be launched to find the source, the CNN cites what must be a Saudi source confirming the double agent story.

The mole, who volunteered as a suicide bomber for the terrorist group, was actually working as an intelligence agent for Saudi Arabia, a source in the region familiar with the operation told CNN.

The man left Yemen, traveled through the United Arab Emirates and gave the bomb and information about al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to the CIA, Saudi intelligence and other foreign intelligence agencies, the source said.

The agent works for Saudi intelligence, which has cooperated with the CIA for years, the source said.

“Indeed, we always were the ones managing him,” the source told CNN. [my emphasis]

After all, a “source in the region familiar with the operation” who asserts “we always were the ones managing him” would seem to have to be Saudi, given that the Saudis were running him.

Now there seem to be two things going on. If I’m not mistaken, King was calling for an investigation into the source who leaked the news of the foiled plot more generally. That’s suspect because of who had that story first: the AP. In other words, Peter King, a good buddy of Ray Kelly and a big booster of the NYPD’s efforts to profile Muslims wants to know who Adam Goldman and Matt Apuzzo’s sources are.


Note, too, that whereas the AP reported that the Administration planned to announce the foiled plot,

The AP learned about the thwarted plot last week but agreed to White House and CIA requests not to publish it immediately because the sensitive intelligence operation was still under way. Once officials said those concerns were allayed, the AP decided to disclose the plot Monday despite requests from the Obama administration to wait for an official announcement Tuesday.

The LAT quotes US intelligence officials suggesting they weren’t going to make it public.

U.S. intelligence officials had planned to keep the bomb sting secret, a senior official said, but the Associated Press learned of the operation last week. The AP delayed posting the story at the request of the Obama administration, but then broke the news Monday.

“When the AP got it and started talking about it, it caused all kinds of problems with the operation,” said a U.S. official who would not be quoted by name discussing the classified operation. “The investigation never went to its full conclusion.”

AP spokesman Paul Colford said the news agency held off publishing until U.S. officials told the AP that security concerns were allayed.

“We were told on Monday that the operation was complete and that the White House was planning to announce it Tuesday,” he said.

Which suggests that the focus on the source of the leak may have elicited a revisionist story from the Administration.

Now the focus has shifted to the source who exposed the role of the double agent–a potentially far bigger secret. A lot of people have treated the LAT as the first story for the double agent story. But that’s not true–that article credits ABC with breaking the story.

The disclosure that a double agent had infiltrated an Al Qaeda bomb cell in Yemen, which was first reported by ABC News, could endanger future counter-terrorism operations, U.S. officials said.

While the ABC story cites US officials, among others, it also cites an “international intelligence official” as well as “officials” and “authorities” named generically (as well as John Brennan on the record, rather uncharacteristically trying to protect “the equities that are involved with it”).

In a stunning intelligence coup, a dangerous al Qaeda bomb cell in Yemen was successfully infiltrated by an inside source who secretly worked for the CIA and several other intelligence agencies, authorities revealed to ABC News.

The inside source is now “safely out of Yemen,” according to one international intelligence official, and was able to bring with him to Saudi Arabia the bomb al Qaeda thought was going to be detonated on a U.S.-bound aircraft.


And what Brennan knows and did not say, according to officials, is that several other elements of the plot were under investigation, including possible additional bombers and other kinds of bombs.

In other words, in spite of the fact that there appears to be a hunt for the US based sources that leaked this information, it is possible if not likely that ABC got it from foreign sources first, and only after that got US officials (which could include members of Congress and others outside of the Executive Branch) to comment. Note, however, that in the video above, Nic Robertson seems to suggest even the Saudi quoted in the CNN article didn’t confirm the story for him until after ABC and others had already reported it.

That’s relevant because of what happened with Jabir al-Fayfi, who tipped Saudis off to the toner cartridge plot in October 2010. The Saudis didn’t hide Fayfi’s return, sending a plane to pick him up in Sanaa, and then boasting that he had turned himself in.

Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief, Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, tipped off the US about the attempted attack. The Saudi newspaper al-Watan reported that Saudi security officials had given US investigators the tracking numbers of the packages.

Saudi Arabia announced earlier this month that al-Fayfi had turned himself in. He had previously been captured by US forces in Afghanistan following the 2001 invasion and held at Guantánamo Bay until early 2007, when he was released to Saudi Arabia.

There, he was put through the kingdom’s rehabilitation program for militants. But soon after his release from the programme, he fled to Yemen and joined al-Qaida there, according to the Saudi interior ministry.

In September, he contacted Saudi authorities saying he wanted to turn himself in. A private jet was sent to the Yemeni capital, San’aa, to retrieve him, Saudi security officials told the Saudi-owned daily al-Hayat at the time.

Then the Yemenis announced very publicly that Fayfi was the source of the information on the plot, concluding he was a double agent.

Yemen has revealed that a former Guantánamo Bay detainee who fled to the country from Saudi Arabia after his release by the US tipped off authorities about the plot to send bombs on cargo planes.


The Yemeni security officials said they suspected the Saudis had planted al-Fayfi in al-Qaida in Yemen as a double agent.

In short, both the Yemenis and the Saudis seemed to want to get Fayfi’s story out there, in part or in its entirety.

There are several reasons they might do this.

Whoever it was–thought particularly if it was a Yemeni source–leaking this might reflect a desire to protect AQAP. Note the LAT mentions Inspire’s report that AQAP was able to upgrade its bomb lab thanks to supplies seized from military depots in the last year. As Jeremy Scahill reported earlier this year, AQAP managed to seize Zinjibar last May–along with a tanks, artillery, and ammunition–at a minimum through neglect, if not outright sabotage.

“Saleh himself actually handed over Zinjibar to these militants,” asserts Abdul Ghani al Iryani, a well-connected political analyst. “He ordered his police force to evacuate the city and turn it over to the militants because he wanted to send a signal to the world that, without me, Yemen will fall into the hands of the terrorists.” That theory, while unproven, is not baseless. Since the mujahedeen war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s and continuing after 9/11, Saleh has famously milked the threat of Al Qaeda and other militants to leverage counterterrorism funding and weapons from the United States and Saudi Arabia, to bolster his power within the country and to neutralize opponents.

A Yemeni government official, who asked to remain anonymous because he is not authorized to speak publicly about military issues, admitted that troops from the US-trained and -supported Republican Guard did not respond when the militants entered the town. Those forces are commanded by Saleh’s son, Ahmed Ali. Neither did those forces loyal to one of the most powerful military figures in the country, Gen. Ali Mohsen, commander of the 1st Armored Division, move in. Two months before Zinjibar was seized, Mohsen had defected from the Saleh regime and was supporting his overthrow.

So the same people who let Zinjibar be taken (some of them are out of power) might want to make sure AQAP remains a threat that will force the US to spend money there.

Then there’s the issue of Ibrahim al-Asiri. You have to ask how we had a double agent–probably at least the second one–receiving a bomb first or second hand from Asiri. And yet as far as we know he hasn’t been killed in a drone strike. How is it that we didn’t collect the intelligence to target Asiri as part of this operation?

It may be that whoever leaked all this wants to protect Asiri. But it may also be that the “officials” who told the ABC that “several other elements of the plot were under investigation,” might have been leaking in response to the earlier leak to the AP (and to the Administration’s plans to announce the foiled plot publicly). That is, if someone like the Saudis feel the CIA leaked the foiled plot story or the Administration planned to announce it to grab credit for themselves, they might in turn not only want to clarify that they were in charge of the op, but make it clear that all the publicity has ruined follow-on operations like killing Asiri.

It’s all a big mess.

But it seems likely that this leak involved multiple sources, with multiple motives. And it seems at least possible that some of those leaking–our foreign “partners”–may not be motivated by protecting the US in the least.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

11 replies
  1. Brian Silver says:

    Thanks for poking around and semi-sorting the “big mess.” While the term “Great Game” is usually applied to international intrigue in Central Asia, you’re pointing to an obvious Great Game of the Arabian Peninsula (GGAP) whose contours and players are not yet clear. But we have to consider that 9/11 and al Qaida themselves are outgrowths of the GGAP, spread to the fertile training and hunting grounds of Central Asia.

  2. emptywheel says:

    @Brian Silver: Yeah, that’s it exactly, Great Game, exacerbated by the fact that we are both entirely dependent on the Saudis for intelligence on Yemen AND significantly reliant upon them to keep the dollar alive.

  3. pdaly says:

    The numerous goals at cross purposes in this war on terrorism are difficult to keep straight.

    This, however,
    “they [Saudis] might in turn not only want to clarify that they were in charge of the op, but make it clear that all the publicity has ruined follow-on operations like killing Asiri.”

    the US could easily work around. Now that AQAP has found out that Asiri is a double agent, “AQAP” (or a CIA black op acting conveniently like a group from AQAP) does some wetwork and rubs out Asiri.

    So the CIA gets to kill Asiri in secret while simultaneously publically condemning his ‘preventable death, if only we had tighter government secrecy to protect our sources and methods.

    See? We are trying to save lives. Press is bad.’

  4. MadDog says:

    I wouldn’t be surprised if both Adam Goldman’s and Matt Apuzzo’s communications are being actively worked on for “community of interest” leads by the US government.

    However, I suspect the US government is only going after the first leaker to Goldman and Apuzzo. All other leakers on the subject since then are likely to get a free pass.

    And btw, just now on the CBS Evening News, correspondent and former FBI assistant director John Miller, reported that the Undercover Undiebomber 2.0 had been recruited over 2 years ago, and had volunteered to infiltrate AQAP in Yemen as a wannabee suicide bomber.

  5. MadDog says:

    “…After all, a “source in the region familiar with the operation” who asserts “we always were the ones managing him” would seem to have to be Saudi, given that the Saudis were running him…”

    Given the timestamp 1:23 PM EDT of your post EW, it looks like that the CNN story has since been updated to confirm a number of things you were only able to speculate on. For example:

    “The agent who penetrated al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and returned from Yemen with the group’s new “airline bomb” was always under Saudi control and was not a double-agent, two sources briefed by Saudi counterterrorism officials have told CNN…

    …One source said that from the very beginning, the infiltrator was working for Saudi intelligence. The other said Saudi intelligence was involved “from A to Z.” The source added that the agent involved had moved in the “jihadist orbit” in Saudi Arabia before being recruited…

    …The whole operation was personally overseen by Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the head of Saudi counterterrorism, one source said…”

    And then there is this:

    “…One source said Saudi counterterrorism officials were upset that details of the operation had emerged in the United States because they had a network of agents inside AQAP who could be compromised by leaks from Washington.

    The sources also questioned suggestions that the infiltrator’s information led to the successful drone strike over the weekend that targeted Fahd al-Quso, a leading figure in AQAP. The Saudi agent did not meet al-Quso while in Yemen, according to one source…”

  6. MadDog says:

    Via Reuters:

    “House intelligence committee Chairman Mike Rogers on Wednesday said he was concerned that the Obama administration did not brief members of Congress earlier about the foiled underwear bomb plot and said it raised a whiff of election-year politics…

    …Rogers, a Republican who heads the House panel that conducts oversight of U.S. intelligence agencies and operations, said not informing Congress about covert operations would break the law and he was starting a preliminary review. Rogers said he was first informed about the foiled plot on Monday and it should have been brought to his attention much earlier…


    …”If it wasn’t covert action, it was close to covert action, which means the committees are supposed to be notified and involved and we weren’t and that troubles me. I’ve never seen this before by the way,” Rogers said…”

    I’m betting that the US intelligence community will call Rogers’ bluff. They’ll tell Rogers that this was a Saudi operation and therefore the US IC had no requirement to brief Congress on somebody else’s covert operation.

    At which point Rogers will fold like a cheap suit.

  7. MadDog says:

    The Christian Science Monitor has a piece about “How the Saudis are driving the US drone war in Yemen How great the Saudis are”:

    After underwear plot, Saudi officials cite headway against AQAP

    “Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), based in Yemen, remains a major threat but drone strikes are making significant headway against the franchise, say Saudi interior ministry officials, who are working to cut off Saudi funding of the group and prevent the recruitment of Saudi operatives…”

  8. MadDog says:

    More news from the Los Angeles Times on the “investigation”:

    Underwear bomb news reports prompt inquiry, official says

    “The director of national intelligence has ordered an internal inquiry on how reporters learned of the successful penetration of Al Qaeda in Yemen by a double agent working for Saudi intelligence and the CIA, a senior intelligence official said Wednesday…

    …CIA officials would not say if they had filed a criminal referral to the Justice Department alleging illegal disclosure of classified information. The agency normally submits a so-called crime report if significant classified information appears in the news media, a former senior CIA official said…

    …The Justice Department can launch a leaks investigation without a referral from the CIA. A Justice Department official would not say whether such an inquiry has begun, though other officials said one was highly likely. The Wall Street Journal reported on its website Wednesday that an FBI investigation began several days ago…

    …An investigation in the current case probably would be more complicated since numerous news organizations, including the Associated Press, ABC News, Los Angeles Times, New York Times and Washington Post, all reported what U.S. officials say were highly sensitive details of a secret intelligence operation.”

  9. MadDog says:

    @MadDog: And speaking of Saudi driven US drone strikes in Yemen, this from Reuters:

    Missiles kill eight militants in Yemen: residents

    “Missile strikes killed eight militants early on Thursday outside a town in southern Yemen which is a stronghold of al Qaeda-linked insurgents fighting government forces for more than a year, residents said.

    The strikes near the town of Jaar appeared to have been launched from the sea and some senior militants were believed to be among the dead, the residents told Reuters…”

  10. spanishinquisition says:

    @MadDog: So you’re saying they’d actually expose Obama’s election year lie – amongst many others – of having his administration claim credit for another country’s work. It would be nice if the intelligence community exposed Obama for the liar he is, but I doubt they’d do it.

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