Cluster Bombs on the Head of a Saudi Pinpoint

Congratulations to the NYT, which offers the superlative version of a story everyone seems to be writing today. It describes a whole host of reasons why we should not trust the Saudis.

That collaboration appears to have intensified over the past two years, despite a long history of mistrust rooted in the role of Saudi hijackers in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The relationship was tested again last year when Saudi leaders responded furiously to American endorsement of the revolt that ousted a Saudi ally, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. American diplomats were surprised and angered in turn soon afterward when Saudi Arabia sent troops to help put down unrest in neighboring Bahrain.

[snip]

The counterterrorism cooperation has not been without bumps, officials from both countries acknowledge.

In 2007, the Federal Bureau of Investigation quietly sent a handful of agents to Saudi Arabia to work with officials there on a classified counterterrorism strategy, according to a senior American official who was briefed on the program. After several months, however, the two sides disagreed on a common strategy, and the F.B.I. agents went home.

Internal State Department cables obtained by WikiLeaks and made available to several news organizations revealed American frustration with Saudi Arabia in curtailing financial supporters of many extremist activities.

“It has been an ongoing challenge to persuade Saudi officials to treat terrorist financing emanating from Saudi Arabia as a strategic priority,” said a classified cable sent by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in December 2009, concluding that “donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.”

But ultimately concludes that in spite of all this evidence, our partnership with the Saudis is working just great.

But when it comes to counterterrorism, the Saudis have been crucial partners, not only for the United States but also for an array of other Western powers.

[snip]

Under pressure from the United States, American officials now say, Saudi Arabia is taking the threat more seriously, holding financiers accountable through prosecutions and making terrorist financing a higher priority.

Like many of these stories, the NYT quotes Mustafa Alani, a counterterrorism analyst at the Gulf Research Center with close ties to the Saudi intelligence establishment, describing the division of labor on counterterrorism: the US conducts electronic surveillance, the Saudis provide HUMINT. And while the NYT gets the prize for the most self-contradictory celebration of US-Saudi counterrorism “cooperation,” my favorite quote from Alani is this one, in the WaPo’s version of the story.

“Even with the drone strikes, the air raids, the Americans need someone on the ground,” Alani said. “The Saudis are the ones who can pinpoint targets for the Americans.”

The Saudis, Alani brags, are responsible for our pinpointed targeting in Yemen. You know? The kind that manages to kill an American teenager but fails to hit its intended target. Or the kind that will become even less pinpointed now that the Saudis have delivered up a bomb plot to convince the President that AQAP is still targeting the US (this CNN story confirms that the bomb plot was delivered up before Obama’s signature strike okay was reported) and therefore needs to be targeted with signature strikes.

But since we’re discussing Saudi pinpointed targeting, let’s look more closely at two other Saudi pinpoints. First, there’s the Saudi strike on a Houthi medical clinic in 2009-2010, which they used to ask for Predator drones. Almost the whole cable is worth reading to see the multiple ways in which Saudi Prince Khaled bin Sultan manipulated us.

USG CONCERNS ABOUT POSSIBLE STRIKES ON CIVILIAN TARGETS

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¶2. (S/NF) Ambassador Smith delivered points in reftel to Prince Khaled on February 6, 2010. The Ambassador highlighted USG concerns about providing Saudi Arabia with satellite imagery of the Yemen border area absent greater certainty that Saudi Arabia was and would remain fully in compliance with the laws of armed conflict during the conduct of military operations, particularly regarding attacks on civilian targets. The Ambassador noted the USG’s specific concern about an apparent Saudi air strike on a building that the U.S. believed to be a Yemeni medical clinic. The Ambassador showed Prince Khaled a satellite image of the bomb-damaged building in question.

 

IF WE HAD THE PREDATOR, THIS MIGHT NOT HAVE HAPPENED

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¶3. (S/NF) Upon seeing the photograph, Prince Khalid remarked, “This looks familiar,” and added, “if we had the Predator, maybe we would not have this problem.” He noted that Saudi Air Force operations were necessarily being conducted without the desired degree of precision, and recalled that a clinic had been struck, based on information received from Yemen that it was being used as an operational base by the Houthis. Prince Khalid explained the Saudi approach to its fight with the Houthis, emphasizing that the Saudis had to hit the Houthis very hard in order to “bring them to their knees” and compel them to come to terms with the Yemeni government. “However,” he said, “we tried very hard not to hit civilian targets.” The Saudis had 130 deaths and the Yemenis lost as many as one thousand. “Obviously,” Prince Khaled observed, “some civilians died, though we wish that this did not happen.”

 

HOW THE TARGETS WERE SELECTED

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¶4. (S/NF) Prince Khaled gave the Ambassador further background, explaining that the targets given to the Saudi Air Force were studied and recommended by a Saudi-Yemeni joint committee headed by Saudi and Yemeni general officers. That joint committee reported to him, and no targets were struck unless they had clearance from this joint committee. “Did they make mistakes? Possibly.” Prince Khaled also reported that the Saudis had problems with some of the targeting recommendations received from the Yemeni side. For instance, there was one occasion when Saudi pilots aborted a strike, when they sensed something was wrong about the information they received from the Yemenis. It turned out that the site recommended to be hit was the headquarters of General Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar, the Yemeni northern area military commander, who is regarded as a political opponent to President Saleh. This incident prompted the Saudis to be more cautious about targeting recommendations from the Yemeni government.

 

CEASEFIRE COMING SOON

———————

¶5. (S/NF) The Ambassador told Prince Khaled that the USG is looking to Saudi Arabia to help bring an end to the Houthi fighting soon. Prince Khaled responded that Saudi Arabia is “looking for ways to end this conflict in a way that fosters good relations.” He said that he met with President Saleh last Wednesday to discuss Houthi ceasefire terms, and they agreed that, so long as the Houthis deliver on the terms they offered, there should be news about a ceasefire “within a week.” As part of the ceasefire arrangements the Yemeni military will be deployed on the Yemeni side of the border to prevent future Houthi incursions into Saudi Arabia. “Then,” Prince Khaled noted, “we can concentrate on Al-Qaida.”

 

COMMENT

——

¶6. (S/NF) Prince Khaled, in addressing the Ambassador’s concerns about possible targeting of civilian sites appeared neither defensive nor evasive. He was unequivocal in his assurance that Saudi military operations had been and would continue to be conducted with priority to avoiding civilian casualties. The Ambassador found this assurance credible, all the more so in light of Prince Khaled’s acknowledgment that mistakes likely happened during the strikes against Houthi targets, of the inability of the Saudi Air Force to operate with adequate precision, and the unreliability of Yemeni targeting recommendations. Based on these assurances, the Ambassador has approved, as authorized in reftel, the provision of USG imagery of the Yemeni border area to the Saudi Government. While the fighting with the Houthis appears to be drawing to a close, the imagery will be of continuing value to the Saudi military to monitor and prevent Houthi incursions across the border as well as enhancing Saudi capabilities against Al-Qaeda activities in this area.

This discussion starts with the US raising concerns about a Saudi request to get satellite images it can use to wage war against Yemen’s Shia insurgents (with the jets we’ve sold it). The problem with giving the Saudis our data is they’ve done things like bomb medical clinics. Khaled effectively says, “well, if you give us Predator drones maybe we won’t kill so many civilians. We wish killing civilians didn’t happen, but the Saudis have to hit the Houthis very hard to bring them to their knees.” That, plus an anecdote about how one time the Saudis avoided bombing a rival to Ali Abdullah Saleh, is all the reassurance US Ambassador James Smith needs before he approves sharing the satellite imagery (even though Khaled has said the fight against the Houthis will be over within a week).

And along the way, Khaled basically admits that al Qaeda has not been the Saudi priority, the Shia insurgency has. Just as cutting the flow of Saudi funds to terrorists has not been a priority.

And about pinpoint strikes in Yemen. Remember the al-Majala strike in December 2009–the one that took place just weeks before the meeting between Prince Khaled and Ambassador Smith (actually, the strike against the Houthi clinic may have taken place within days of the al-Majala strike)? The one where we hit a Bedouin tribe with cluster bombs? The one that remains one of the reasons Yemenis hate Americans?

The Saudis were involved in that pinpoint, too.

[Yemeni Deputy Prime Minister for Defense Rashad al-]Alimi said that the strikes were carried out “using intelligence aid from Saudi Arabia and the United States of America in our fight against terrorism.”

Now, I’m interested in more than why we ended up targeting a camp full of Bedouins and continued to insist we had killed only AQAP family members weeks after the attack. I’m also interested in what we claimed to be targeting (in addition to AQAP leader Nassr al-Wahishi). Immediately after the strike (but before Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab set off the last UndieBomb over Detroit) reports claimed the strike in al-Majala was an attempt to stop an imminent attack against a US target.

On orders from President Barack Obama, the U.S. military launched cruise missiles early Thursday against two suspected al-Qaeda sites in Yemen, administration officials told ABC News in a report broadcast on ABC World News with Charles Gibson.

One of the targeted sites was a suspected al Qaeda training camp north of the capitol, Sanaa, and the second target was a location where officials said “an imminent attack against a U.S. asset was being planned.”

We know–from subsequent reporting–that we had warnings of an attack by a Nigerian and expected the attack around Christmas. But rather than looking for a terrorist on an in-bound flight from Amsterdam, we were bombing Bedouin families in Yemen, believing that’s where the imminent attacker was. And remember–we have every reason to believe that Jabir al-Fayfi was already infiltrated into AQAP by this point; the Saudis had HUMINT from inside the group.

So it’s not just that past Saudi pinpointing has tended to kill so many civilians. But it’s also that at least one catastrophically bad pinpoint–one reason why the terror threat in Yemen continues to grow–not only killed civilians, but had us looking in Yemen rather than in Detroit.

Ah well. What could go wrong, particularly as the Saudis offer us similar pinpointing as we start using drones to hit people in Yemen whose identities we won’t know?

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. jo6pac says:

    Oh the good old days when the so called friends of Amerika are using Amerikan fire power to kill house of saud enemies. I love the Bahrain part like it was suprise to Amerikan govt.

    Then there this.
    Internal State Department cables obtained by WikiLeaks and made available to several news organizations revealed American frustration with Saudi Arabia in curtailing financial supporters of many extremist activities.

    This is sweet news to Amerikan war vendors ears just keeping maken those there enemies. Cycle-O-Paths

    Thanks and it’s still to early in Calli to open a bottle of wine

  2. MadDog says:

    I don’t know how many here read Pat Lang’s Sic Semper Tyrannis blog, and if they do, how frequently, but I stop by there every day to scan his posts, and if interesting, I also then read the commentary.

    Of particular relevance to EW’s post here (and a few others as well), Pat had one yesterday with some very detailed analysis of Yemen, its history, and its state of play:

    The “Double Agent” and the Yemen

    Pat breaks down the various tribal and religious rivalries. I would also recommend the comment in the post from one “MartinJ”.

    The one of the major things I think that is missing from Pat’s and MartinJ’s analysis is the big Saudi thumb on the scale, and for that thankfully, EW more than meets that task!

  3. orionATL says:

    my personal view for a very long time has been that demographics, culture, and economics determine political outcomes.

    there are 20+million saudi citizens and 24 million yemenis. i don’t know the economic conditions of the saudis, but the yemenis as a nation are very poor.

    poor yeminis have little to lose by warring.

    put your money on the yeminis – the more as saudi oil power crumbles.

    it’s an old story –

    the u.s. military has a long history of having a number of very well-educated upper-echelon officers;

    the u. s. military has a long history of ignoring good advice from its very well-educated upper-echelon officers.

  4. MadDog says:

    From the Guardian, another worthwhile read that may show more pieces of the Yemen puzzle:

    Iranian interference pushes young Yemenis towards jihad

    “…His encounter with what turned out to be the Iranians is remarkable in itself, but it illuminates the much bigger tale of foreign interference in Yemen, of how the conflicts between the Gulf states and Iran, the US and al-Qaida have reduced parts of Yemen to rubble and are pushing Yeminis into the arms of the jihadis…”

  5. MadDog says:

    @MadDog: And another Guardian piece worth reading:

    Agent in underwear bomb plot ‘was British’

    …The revelation is politically and legally awkward for MI6 and MI5 whose agents, unlike American ones, are banned from missions that lead to assassinations, such as the US drone attack at the weekend that killed the top al-Qaida operative in the Yemen, Fahd al-Quso. The attack is being attributed to information from the agent.

    Such is the sensitivity that America’s National Public Radio reported that the British government asked the Obama administration not to reveal the role of British intelligence in the mission…”

  6. no says:

    @MadDog:
    Pat Lang is good, but why not try reading someone who’s not white?
    It’s a big world out there. And Juan Cole is not the only educated, articulate, modern, liberal expert on Islam or the Middle East.

    Amazed to find a link to this post from Atrios, but then noticed the author was Jay Ackroyd.
    I’ll take what I can get.

  7. orionATL says:

    @MadDog:

    thanks for that cite, maddog.

    though i rarely go there these days, i like pat lang’s work a lot. it often gets down to the cultural details one needs to know if one is making strategic plans for an area of the world, e.g., iraq. it was that kind of knowledge i was referring to in my comment immediately following yours. whether it was europe (in the old days), southeast asia, the near east, the u.s. military trained and supported knowledgeable intellectual leaders like colonel lang. it seems though that our military does not care so much to listen to these professionals – rather like the bankers didn’t want to listen to their risk management staffs in 2006-07.

    i have to start checking in there more often.

    in any event, while martin’s comment was interesting, my favorite was “basilisk” quoting elliott;

    “It’s never been entirely clear to me what T.S. Eliot intended, but it seems apropos:

    In a wilderness of mirrors. What will the spider do,
    Suspend its operations, will the weevil
    Delay?

    It seems unhelpful to belabor these things.”

    that brought a smile to my face and seems an appropriate epitaph for the “the spy who everybody claimed publicly” caper.

  8. emptywheel says:

    Michelle Shepherd just posted the package of interviews she and a Toronto Star photographer did on Yemen while she was there. Definitely worth a look.

  9. MadDog says:

    @emptywheel: Excellent! It adds more depth to the story of Yemen which is missing from almost every MSM reporter’s work.

    It may be that some of the MSM reporters who do focus on Yemen’s details rarely if ever get the detail past their editor’s cutting room floor.

    In some ways it reminds me of how the MSM typically reports sports for other than its own home teams. Just the basic box scores of runs, touchdowns, baskets made, and the final score.

    So too is the effect of most MSM Yemen reporting. Nothing more than the box score. Number of bad folks killed and who won the battle.

  10. Nathanael says:

    I’m beginning to think Saudi Arabia is the lynchpin, and that when its government falls, that’s when the whole world order will turn over.

    But when will that happen? I think it has to do with oil usage; when the Saudi government can no longer fund everything from oil sales, due to a drop in demand or a constricted Saudi supply or both, then the government collapses

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