Why Would the US Shield Fahd al-Quso in February 2012 But Drone Kill Him in May 2012?

On February 10, 2012, the government went out of its way to hide Fahd al-Quso’s ongoing involvement in terrorist attacks against the US. Three months later, on May 6, 2012 — the day before the AP published its story about CIA thwarting an UndieBomb attack — the government killed Quso in a drone strike.

DOJ’s narrative of UndieBomb 1.0 hides Quso’s role in it

On February 10, 2012, as part of his sentencing, DOJ submitted a narrative telling one version of how Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to bomb Northwest Flight 253 over Detroit. In it, the government tied Abdulmutallab (who, after all, had pled guilty to a conspiracy to commit terrorism) to three AQAP figures: It claimed Anwar al-Awlaki, among other things, gave Abdulmutallab his final instructions that the attack be directed at a US plane and the bomb be set off over US soil. It explained how AQAP bomb-maker Ibrahim al-Asiri constructed the bomb and personally trained Abdulmutallab on its use. And it noted that while Abdulmutallab was training with AQAP, he met Samir Khan who (the narrative helpfully noted in a footnote) would go on to publish Inspire.

The narrative DOJ submitted on February 10 did not mention Fahd al-Quso by name.

Watering trees with UndieBomber 1.0

That’s odd, because Quso reportedly did play a role in Abdulmutallab’s attack. According to a March 2011 AP story, Quso may have been the last person Abdulmutallab met with before he set off on his attack.

Before Abdulmutallab set off on his mission, he visited the home of al Qaeda manager Fahd al-Quso to discuss the plot and the workings of the bomb.

Al-Quso, 36, is one of the most senior al Qaeda leaders publicly linked to the Christmas plot. His association with al Qaeda stretches back more than a decade to his days in Afghanistan when, prosecutors said, bin Laden implored him to “eliminate the infidels from the Arabian Peninsula.”

From there he rose through the ranks. He was assigned the job in Aden to videotape the 1998 suicide bombing of the USS Cole, which killed 17 sailors and injured 39 others, but fell asleep. Despite the lapse, he is now a mid-level manager in the organization. Al-Quso is from the same tribe as radical U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who had an operational role in the botched Christmas attack.

In December, al-Quso was designated a global terrorist by the State Department, a possible indication that his role in al Qaeda’s Yemen franchise has grown more dangerous.

Al-Quso was indicted on 50 terrorism counts in New York for his role preparing for the Cole attack and served more than five years in prison in Yemen before he was released in 2007. On the FBI’s list, al-Quso ranks behind only bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri among the most sought-after al Qaeda terrorists.

After meeting with al-Quso, Abdulmutallab left Yemen in December 2009 and made his way to Ghana, where he paid $2,831 in cash for a round-trip ticket from Nigeria to Amsterdam to Detroit and back. [my emphasis]

Indeed, Abdulmutallab’s tie to Quso is one of the only aspects of Abdulmutallab’s trip in Yemen that has been independently verified.

In his book, Dirty Wars, Jeremy Scahill notes,

A local tribal leader from Shabwah, Mullah Zabara, later told me he had seen the young Nigerian at the farm of Fahd al-Quso, the alleged USS Cole bombing conspirator. “He was watering trees,” Zabara told me. “When I saw [Abdulmutallab], I asked Fahd, ‘Who is he?'” Quso told Zabara the young man was from a different part of Yemen, which Zabara knew was a lie. “When I saw him on TV [after the attack], then Fahd told me the truth.” [first bracket original, second bracket mine]

Later in the book, Scahill reports that Zabara was assassinated this January by unknown killers.

Is Fahd al-Quso Abu Tarak?

The details of Quso’s ties to Abdulmutallab — particularly that the Nigerian was watering trees on Quso’s farm — make me wonder whether Quso isn’t the person Abdulmutallab called Abu Tarak in his initial confession on Christmas Day 2009.

In his opening argument in the abbreviated Abdulmutallab trial, AUSA Jonathan Tukel described what Abulmutallab initially confessed after he was captured. Along with all the things later attributed to Awlaki and Asiri, Tukel said Abdulmutallab described having daily talks with Abu Tarak about jihad.

He told the FBI that he and Abu-Tarak spoke daily about jihad and martyrdom and supported al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.

In a narrative on Abdulmutallab’s commitment to jihad also submitted for the sentencing based on his personal reviews of Abdulmutallab’s interrogation reports, DOJ expert Dr. Simon Perry suggested that Abdulmutallab was living with Abu Tarak when in Yemen, though he says that was in Sanaa, not Shabwah.

While residing at Abu Tarak’s residence in Sana, Yemen he was mainly confined to his residence and discouraged from any communication with the outside world (phone, email). During this period, UFAM spoke regularly with Abu Tarak and three other individuals who visited him daily, speaking with them about Jihad and martyrdom.

In any case, regardless of whether or not Quso is Abu Tarak, or whether Abu Tarak is an amalgam of AQAP figures, it seems clear that Quso played some role in Abdulmutallab’s preparation.

And yet DOJ chose not to mention that this guy — who had been trying to attack the US since the October 12, 2000 USS Cole attack — was among the notable AQAP figures who prepared Abdulmutallab to attack the US.

Was DOJ hiding that they knew how to infiltrate AQAP?

Whatever Quso’s role in UndieBomb 1.0, the implication of the timing is clear: he was central to the UndieBomb 2.0 plot. Indeed, it is almost certain that CIA asked AP to delay publishing their story to give time to kill Quso, who had just sent our mole off with another UndieBomb.

In other words, one plausible explanation for why DOJ did not confirm what other reports made clear is that it did not want to tip Quso off to what Abdulmutallab told them about him. That is, if they were already planning the op against him, they wouldn’t want him to know they knew how Abdulmutallab had found him 2.5 years earlier.

That is just one possibility, of course.

But if that’s the case — if DOJ obscured Quso’s role in the government’s most extensive accusations that Anwar al-Awlaki had an operational role in targeting the US — then are the claims about Awlaki true?

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.

16 replies
  1. Alex Seredin says:

    It is obvious that CIA uses the willing people, as long as they are useful to them, and dumps them when they outgrow their usefullness. Mind you this is how all spy organizations work. Brutal elimination of the spies by the CIA is definitely outlandish

  2. orionATL says:

    one obvious answer is implied in the end of your analysis:

    – the u.s.g was anxious to not muddy the waters while trying to pin the bomb plot on awlaki while knowing he was not a primary agent in the bombing plot,

    i.e., so doj could continue framing al-awlaki in order to justify his murder to the congress and the public.

    letting this cat out of the bag would certainly earn a leaker holder’s “one of the two or three worst breaches” label.

    – the doj was defending itself against suits by awlaki’s family and public interest groups and did not want to provide these entities with any info that might be useful to their legsl causes

    – this might be related to what has been a puzzle to me – why ag holder would ever have been advised of (“read into” in security jargon) the infiltration/plot.

  3. Snoopdido says:

    Sounds like the Obama administration’s animus towards the AP and its sources predates UndieBomb 2.0 and actually began with UndieBomb 1.0.

  4. john francis lee says:

    maybe undiebombs of all versions were CIA stings? and Fahd al-Quso was the CIA’s guy in the stings? and now that the stings were done … so is al-Quso?

    I think the reason they keep the dimwit Brennan on board is because they imagine him to enjoy ‘altar boy’ status – built up in part by the NYTimes Terror Tuesday articles – killing for god, or dog, I forget which – ‘golly, it’s so agonizing, but someone has to do it, and Obama can ! and Brennan takes the fall … I mean helps.’

    Brennan’ll be droned himself shortly. Just like al-Quso. He who lives by the dog dies by the dog.

  5. orionATL says:


    sept 30,2011 al-awlai and s. khan killed by u.s.g. dronefire

    mid-october, 2011 awlaki’s 16 yr old so killed by u.s.g. dronefire

    feb 10,2012 nutty nigerian sentenced with much attention paid to and blame for the attack attributed to preacher al-awlaki.

    may, 2012 the real oprational leader behind the nutty nigerian’s attempt -quso – is assassinated.


    – did the u.s.g. know ahead of time that the nigerian’s bomb would not work?

    – did an infiltrator into aqap have a hand in the bomb’s not working?

    – was the entire bomb plot allowed to proceed in order to present a pretext for killing al-awlaki?

    the first attempt to kill al-awlaki ( by the yemeni airfarce) was dec 24, one day before the nigerian tried to light up the christmas sky over detroit.

  6. peasantparty says:

    “Was DOJ hiding that they knew how to infiltrate AQAP?”

    The DOD and CIA would say: Ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies, or If I tell you, I’ll have to kill you.

    Now remember that the DOD and CIA were heavily involved with Bin Ladens and their group. Also remember they hired Bin Laden and his group for many counter insurgencies. The Bin Laden family has always been friends with the top echelon of political heads and DOD heads.

    Yes, the DOD and CIA know how to infiltrate and often pay them to help destabilize areas they want targeted. Here is the big deal with the DOJ, because the AUMF has brought the DOJ into the war machine where it would normally not be. It has also caused the DOJ along with DOD to re-write the Army Field Manual which Marcy has already covered. This has caused all sorts of on the ground problems and probably why a good deal of the General’s butted heads and refused the DOD and DOJ in the first place.

    The problems they face now is that locals are beginning to trust AQAP more than the US because of drone killings and the CIA/JSOC screw ups!

  7. Snoopdido says:

    This is off topic, but I guess the AP’s Kimberly Dozier was paying attention to Emptywheel when she hazarded a guess that perhaps Attorney General Holder was tipping his hand regarding the status of the Benghazi attackers – FBI ID’s Benghazi suspects but no arrests yet (http://hosted.ap.org/dynamic/stories/U/US_BENGHAZI_ATTACK?SITE=AP&SECTION=HOME&TEMPLATE=DEFAULT):

    “The U.S. has decided that the evidence it has now would be enough for a military operation to seize the men for questioning, but not enough for a civilian arrest or a drone strike against them, the officials said. The U.S. has kept them under surveillance, mostly by electronic means. There was a worry that the men could get spooked and hide, but so far, not even the FBI’s release of surveillance video stills has done that.”


    “Finally, the U.S. could send a military team to grab the men, and take them to an offsite location such as a U.S. naval ship – the same way al-Qaida suspect Ahmed Warsame was seized by special operations personnel in 2011 in Somalia. He was then held and questioned for two months on a U.S. ship before being read his Miranda rights, transferred to the custody of the FBI and taken for trial in a New York court. Warsame pleaded guilty earlier this year and agreed to tell the FBI what he knew about terror threats and, if necessary, testify for the government.

    The U.S. has made preparations for raids to grab the Benghazi suspects for interrogation in case the administration decides that’s the best option, officials said. Such raids could be legally justified under the U.S. law passed just after the 9/11 terror attacks that authorizes the use of military force against al-Qaida, officials said. The reach of the law has been expanded to include groups working with al-Qaida.”

  8. Snoopdido says:

    @Snoopdido: I wonder if Attorney General Holder is one of the sources for Kimberly Dozier’s article?

    Remember that Holder testified in Congress that he had recused himself from the AP leak investigation because both that he had been read into the underlying UndieBomb 2.0 operation as well as because he had contacts with AP.

    Is this Holder trying to calm the troubled waters with AP by giving them an exclusive about the status of bringing the Benghazi attackers to justice?

  9. ess emm says:

    The U.S. has made preparations for raids to grab the Benghazi suspects for interrogation in case the administration decides that’s the best option…

    Huh? What? Ali Harzi excepted, why are there no worries about tipping these guys off?

  10. Snoopdido says:

    Another off topic article worth viewing from the Washington Post – Petraeus’s role in drafting Benghazi talking points raises questions (http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/petraeuss-role-in-drafting-benghazi-talking-points-raises-questions/2013/05/21/db19f352-c165-11e2-ab60-67bba7be7813_print.html):

    “What Petraeus decided to do with that request is the pivotal moment in the controversy over the administration’s Benghazi talking points. It was from his initial input that all else flowed, resulting in 48 hours of intensive editing that congressional Republicans cite as evidence of a White House coverup.

    A close reading of recently released government e-mails that were sent during the editing process, and interviews with senior officials from several government agencies, reveal Petraeus’s early role and ambitions in going well beyond the committee’s request, apparently to produce a set of talking points favorable to his image and his agency.

    The information Petraeus ordered up when he returned to his Langley office that morning included far more than the minimalist version that Ruppersberger had requested. It included early classified intelligence assessments of who might be responsible for the attack and an account of prior CIA warnings — information that put Petraeus at odds with the State Department, the FBI and senior officials within his own agency.”

  11. Snoopdido says:

    @ess emm: It makes me wonder whether the source’s purpose of leaking to Kimberly Dozier was in fact deliberately designed to spook the suspected Benghazi attackers. Get them communicating with their other fellow attackers. Get them running as a sign of guilt.

  12. jim says:

    Why? Good Question. Why would the US hook Tamurlan up with Brian Glynn Williams, send him off on that junket at the Jamestown Institute, help him find Makhmud Nidal, a fugitive that the Russian security services couldn’t find – and then blow big holes in his center mass? Why would the US maintain communication with ObL three months after 9/11, protect his known associates from immigration and law enforcement scrutiny, exfiltrate his relations and key co-conspirators – and then execute him while he is hors de combat?

    It’s a tragic waste of talent, that’s what it is. It is just so tragic when CIA assets precisely controlled with compromise, blanket surveillance, and conditional support go so suddenly, tragically wrong with no warning whatsoever, again and again.

  13. Jane says:

    @orionATL: actually the dec 24 2010 drone attack (one day prior to the nigerians undie bomb attempt) that missed awlaki in yemen was directed at al quso’s farm, ie: awlaki was meeting with al quso and others at al quso’s place in shabwa which is where he was living openly after being released/pardoned for the Cole bombing in 2007 as per several reports by local yemeni sites

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