UndieBomb 2.0’s Handler

In honor of the Queen’s Jubliee, the Times of London’s paywall is down today (with free registration). So now’s a good time to read the paper’s good coverage on Yemen from Iona Craig and others (see her description of one of the civilians injured in Jaar; her description of Brennan’s visit in Yemen just as our Special Forces (and Marines) ramped up the fight in Yemen; or her description of how the local tribe in Lawder is taking on AQAP).

But I wanted to take a look at this story on UndieBomb 2.0 by two other reporters, with some of the more extensive comments about the UndieBomber’s handler. Note, much of the article generally–including some details on how UndieBomber 2.0 infiltrated AQAP–relies on Mustafa Alani, last seen at this blog both pushing the AQAP threat as well as boasting of the important Saudi role in collecting HUMINT on it.

About a year ago [UndieBomber 2.0] moved to Yemen and, like Abdulmutallab before him, enrolled at an Islamic or Arabic language school in Sana’a, the capital, in the hope of being “talent-spotted” by AQAP. He was accompanied by a handler at the school, who briefed Saudi intelligence on a daily basis.

Within three months, Alani said, the organisation had taken the bait — and he was soon being trained at a network of safe houses.

“He received instruction on how to avoid detection at the airport, how to behave,” Alani said. “He was able to convince Al-Qaeda he was genuinely ready to carry out the mission.”

The agent never met Asiri, but the device he described to his handler pointed to a more advanced version of the “underpants” bomb.


The agent was entrusted with the bomb and told by AQAP to reserve a seat on a transatlantic flight. The booking was never made. Instead, he and his handler were whisked out of Yemen and the device was handed over to the CIA on about April 20.

Now, Alani is supposed to be tied closely to Saudi intelligence services. If this story is correct, it’s a remarkably, willful, on-the-record exposure of how the Saudis managed the operation out of a language school in Sanaa. If it is true, it would indicate one of the reasons this leak (which of course was substantially confirmed, at least, by foreign sources) was so damaging: because it exposed the UndieBomber, but also exposed the handler in Yemen.

If it is true, then consider the timeline: UndieBomber and his handler were “whisked out of Yemen” on about April 20. Robert Mueller went for a 45 minute meeting in Yemen having little to do with his core authorities on April 24, suggesting he obtained the UndieBomb and ferried it back to the States. Fahd al-Quso was killed (reportedly netting UndieBomber a $5 million reward) on May 6. The White House informed the AP that some security concerns had been resolved on May 7, which led to their story preempting the White House announcement on May 8.

That is, if the timeline laid out in this story (presumably largely by Alani) is true, then the handler was removed well before the story came out, and we succeeded in targeting Quso over two weeks after UndieBomber and his handler were removed. None of that tells us whether we might have gotten bombmaker Ibrahim al-Asiri had the role of the Saudi infiltrator not been exposed, in part by foreign sources, on May 8.

But it provides one narrative of what happened.

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.

19 replies
  1. MadDog says:

    For what it’s worth, even when I allow the Times of London’s cookies, they still won’t allow me to read their articles without subscribing.

    I guess their digital paywall was down only for a limited time. Rotters!

  2. MadDog says:

    “…Robert Mueller went for a 45 minute meeting in Yemen having little to do with his core authorities on April 24, suggesting he obtained the UndieBomb and ferried it back to the States…”

    Though I hadn’t thought about it previously, but how did Mueller get his hands on the UndieBomb if he was in Yemen?

    Going back to an NYT piece about the “plot” that I referenced in an earlier post, there was this:

    “…In an extraordinary intelligence coup, the double agent left Yemen last month, traveling by way of the United Arab Emirates, and delivered both the innovative bomb designed for his aviation attack and inside information on the group’s leaders, locations, methods and plans to the Central Intelligence Agency, Saudi intelligence and allied foreign intelligence agencies…”

    So where did the double agent hand over the UndieBomb? In the UAE? Or did he travel on to Saudi Arabia?

    If so, did that UndieBomb travel back to Yemen so that Mueller could take it home? Or did Mueller travel to Saudi Arabia to pick it up?

    And just as I surmised that Blabbermouth Brennan’s trip to Yemen on May 13 might have also included a covert trip to meet with the Saudis, I wonder now if Mueller did the same.

  3. MadDog says:

    @MadDog: Ok, going back to the ABC News report, they state the UndieBomb was brought to Saudi Arabia:

    “…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…”

    So again, how did FBI Director Mueller who was in Yemen, manage to bring back the UndieBomb that was in Saudi Arabia?

    The answer is that he probably stopped off in Saudi Arabia, and more than picking up the UndieBomb was on the agenda.

  4. emptywheel says:

    @MadDog: Nah, I’d bet a lot of money it was Mueller. In fact the NPR story that reported on his tripped went into the memory hole after this all broke.

    The UAE story still left open the question of how it got safely back to Quantico. “But it was on a flight!!!” they said.

    Sure, but probably a DOD plane with bomb experts in it.

  5. MadDog says:

    @emptywheel: Well based on that ABC News report, which I agree may or may not be accurate, the UndieBomb wasn’t turned over in Yemen.

    It traveled out of Yemen with the undercover double agent, and then somehow Mueller got it flown back to the US. If Mueller brought it back with him on his plane, then I’ve got to think Mueller stopped off somewhere other than Yemen to pick it up.

    It’s possible that after leaving Yemen with the undercover double agent, the UndieBomb was somehow shipped back to Yemen so that Mueller could fly it home. That circuitous route is not beyond the realm of possibility, but would make for some really comedic operational behavior, but I don’t put anything past our intelligence organizations.

    Your surmise that it flew here on a DOD plane is a strong likelihood. Did Mueller fly on that plane too, or was he aboard another plane such as a US “executive” jet like the Gulfstreams the big boys like to fly? The DOD runs a bunch of those too.

  6. Have You Read This says:

    Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency

    Is Barack Obama an idealist or a ruthless pragmatist? He vowed to close Guantánamo, put an end to coercive interrogation and military tribunals, and restore American principles of justice, yet in his first term he has backtracked on each of these promises, ramping up the secret war of drone strikes and covert operations. Behind the scenes, wrenching debates between hawks and doves — those who would kill versus those who would capture — have repeatedly tested the very core of the president’s identity.

    Top investigative reporter Dan Klaidman has spoken to dozens of sources to piece together a riveting Washington story packed with revelations. As the president’s inner circle debated secret programs, new legal frontiers, and the disjuncture between principles and down-and-dirty politics, Obama vacillated, sometimes lashed out, and spoke in lofty tones while approving a mounting toll of assassinations and kinetic-war operations. Klaidman’s fly-on-the-wall reporting reveals who has his ear, how key national security decisions are really made, and whether or not President Obama has lived up to the promise of candidate Obama. Readers making up their minds about him during the 2012 election year will turn to Kill or Capture to decide.


  7. Further Reading says:

    7 Key Moments in Daniel Klaidman’s ‘Kill or Capture’ About Obama’s Drone War

    Daniel Klaidman has reported extensively for Newsweek and The Daily Beast on Obama’s hunt for terrorists. Read seven of the key moments in his new book on the subject, Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency.


  8. P J Evans says:

    I suspect that if Mueller and the Undiebomb were on the same plane, that it had been disarmed well beforehand. And that the Saudis have all the design data they want.

  9. MadDog says:

    @P J Evans: Given that the UndieBomb was a brew of chemicals that were to be mixed together and the mad chemist is a staple of our science lore, I’d personally wouldn’t want it in my carryon.

  10. Feeding The Newz Cycle says:

    Jeremy Scahill Says Obama’s Targeted Drone Strikes In Yemen Constitute ‘Murder’

    “If you go to the village of Al-Majalah in Yemen, where I was, and you see the unexploded clusterbombs and you have the list and photographic evidence, as I do – the women and children that represented the vast majority of the deaths in this first strike that Obama authorized on Yemen – those people were murdered by President Obama, on his orders, because there was believed to be someone from Al Qaeda in that area. There’s only one person that’s been identified that had any connection to Al Qaeda there. And 21 women and 14 children were killed in that strike and the US tried to cover it up, and say it was a Yemeni strike, and we know from the Wikileaks cables that David Petraeus conspired with the president of Yemen to lie to the world about who did that bombing. It’s murder – it’s mass murder – when you say, ‘We are going to bomb this area’ because we believe a terrorist is there, and you know that women and children are in the area. The United States has an obligation to not bomb that area if they believe that women and children are there. I’m sorry, that’s murder.”



  11. Laura Bassett says:

    David Axelrod Denies Attending ‘Kill List’ Meetings

    Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod said on Sunday that reports of him attending President Obama’s weekly “Terror Tuesday” meetings are blatantly false.

    Axelrod’s alleged presence at weeekly vetting meetings raised concerns that the administration was dangerously blurring campaign politics with national security.

    Axelrod emphatically denied the accusation on CBS’ “Face the Nation” Sunday morning. “I’m flat out asserting that that is not true,” he said. “There were meetings, I know there were weekly meetings dealing with terrorist threats and planning around it, but I did not attend those meetings.”


  12. MadDog says:

    OT – Via MSNBC – Ratcheting up the pressure on Pakistan to give in on the GLOC access and reopen shipping of US material through Pakistan, I suspect a message is being sent:

    US drone strikes in Pakistan kill 27 people in three days

    “Rockets fired from a U.S. drone killed 15 people in northwest Pakistan on Monday, intelligence officials said, an attack likely to add to tensions between Washington and Islamabad amid a standoff over NATO supply routes to Afghanistan.

    The strike, the third in three days, targeted a militant hideout in the Hasukhel village of the North Waziristan tribal region, officials said.

    A senior Pakistani official based in Mir Ali told NBC News the drone had fired four missiles on a “big” compound in the village.

    It brought the death toll from drone attacks in Pakistan in the past three days to 27. Pilotless U.S. drones hit targets in the South Waziristan tribal region on Saturday and Sunday.

    Local villagers in Hasukhel old NBC News that six U.S. aircraft were seen flying over the area during the attack on the house.

    The United States and Pakistan are deadlocked in difficult negotiations for the re-opening of overland supply routes to NATO forces in Afghanistan. No breakthrough is in sight…”

    Nothing says “Give it up or else!” like a fleet of US drones shooting Hellfires into one’s living room.

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