Mohammed bin Nayef

The Timing of CIA’s Discovery Its Paramilitary Ops Fail

Mark Mazzetti reports that in 2012 and 2013, CIA did a study that one of its favorite means of covert intervention — arming rebels — pretty much doesn’t work.

An internal C.I.A. study has found that it rarely works.

The still-classified review, one of several C.I.A. studies commissioned in 2012 and 2013 in the midst of the Obama administration’s protracted debate about whether to wade into the Syrian civil war, concluded that many past attempts by the agency to arm foreign forces covertly had a minimal impact on the long-term outcome of a conflict. They were even less effective, the report found, when the militias fought without any direct American support on the ground.

The findings of the study, described in recent weeks by current and former American government officials, were presented in the White House Situation Room and led to deep skepticism among some senior Obama administration officials about the wisdom of arming and training members of a fractured Syrian opposition.

But in April 2013, President Obama authorized the C.I.A. to begin a program to arm the rebels at a base in Jordan, and more recently the administration decided to expand the training mission with a larger parallel Pentagon program in Saudi Arabia to train “vetted” rebels to battle fighters of the Islamic State, with the aim of training approximately 5,000 rebel troops per year.

The only “success” CIA could find was the mujahadeen ousting the Russians in Afghanistan.

Goodie.

I’m particularly interested in the timing of all this.

Mazzetti says there were multiple studies done in 2012 — at which point David Petraeus was CIA Director, and was pushing to arm rebels in Syria — and 2013 — by which point John Brennan had replaced Petraeus.

So the timing looks something like this:

2012: CIA starts doing studies on how crappy their covert ops have been

2012: Hillary and Petraus both push Obama to arm Syrians

2012: Benghazi attack targets CIA officers ostensibly working to reclaim weapons used to oust Qaddafi but reportedly to send them on to Syria

2012: Petraeus ousted for reasons that probably aren’t primarily that he fucked his biographer

2013: John Brennan nominated to serve as CIA Director. As part of his confirmation process, the follow exchange takes place (Bark Mikulski asked a similar question in the hearing itself).

Question 7: What role do you see for the CIA in paramilitary-style intelligence activities or covert action?

The CIA, a successor to the Office of Strategic Services, has a long history of carrying out paramilitary-style intelligence activities and must continue to be able to provide the President with this option should he want to employ it to accomplish critical national security objectives.

[snip]

Question 8: What are you views on what some have described as the increased “militarization” of the CIA mission following the September 11, 2001 attacks?

In my view, the CIA is the nation’s premier “intelligence” agency, and needs to remain so. While CIA needs to maintain a paramilitary capability to be able to carry out covert action as directed by the President, the CIA should not be used, in my view, to carry out traditional military activities.

April 2013: Obama signs finding authorizing an op CIA knew wouldn’t work

June 2013: Covert op begins, per Chuck Hagel confirmation of it in August

As Mazzetti explains, the amazing discovery that CIA’s covert ops are often useless was one reason Obama delayed so long before he authorized one anyway (and his close confidante Brennan implemented it).

But I think two other things are likely (in addition to Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons in both April and August 2013). One, it wasn’t so much Obama was opposed to such an op; he was just opposed to the way Petraeus (who oversaw the latter part of the Libya op) and Hillary implemented it. (Note, Mazzetti specifically notes both Hillary and Leon Panetta’s claims they warned Obama to respond earlier in Syria, so Mazzetti’s piece may be a response to that.) And just as likely, the Saudi-tied rising strength in ISIL forced our hand, requiring us to be able to offer a legitimate competitor to their paid terrorists.

Particularly given the mujadadeen “success” apparently cited in the CIA study, I find that rather ominous.

Why the Bargain Reward for Ibrahim al-Asiri?

For 5 years, Ibrahim al-Asiri has been the chief boogeyman in US efforts to scare Americans about terrorism from AQAP (and to justify huge outlays for dumb machines TSA can use). Almost yearly, the CIA leaks to ABC News that Asiri has mastered yet another new scary feat, such as surgically implanting bombs in someone’s stomach cavity. More recently, the story has been that Asiri trained some of the western terror recruits in Syria (never mind McClatchy’s report the real threat stems from a French defector).

Which is why I’m surprised that the Rewards for Justice announcement including him yesterday only offered $5 million for his capture (as compared to Nasir al-Wuhayshi — though admittedly Wuhayshi is actually the leader of AQAP, contrary to what the press implies).

Just as interesting is the description the Rewards for Justice announcement and an earlier terrorist designation uses for Asiri. Both make absolutely no mention of the UndieBomb 1.0, toner cartridge, or UndieBomb 2.0 plots in which Asiri has always been claimed to be a central figure.

Instead, State mentions only Asiri’s alleged attempt to kill our chief Saudi intelligence partner, Mohammed bin Nayef, with a bomb hidden in his brother’s rectum. Or maybe underwear. Details, as they always are with Asiri, are fuzzy.

The Secretary of State has designated al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) operative and bomb maker Ibrahim Hassan Tali al-Asiri under E.O. 13224, which targets terrorists and their supporters. This action will help stem the flow of finances to al-Asiri by blocking all property subject to U.S. jurisdiction in which al-Asiri has an interest and prohibiting all transactions by U.S. persons with al-Asiri. AQAP has previously been designated by the United States under Executive Order 13224 and as a Foreign Terrorist Organization.

Al-Asiri is an AQAP operative and serves as the terrorist organization’s primary bomb maker. Before joining AQAP, al-Asiri was part of an al-Qa’ida affiliated terrorist cell in Saudi Arabia and was involved in planned bombings of oil facilities in the Kingdom.

Al-Asiri gained particular notoriety for the recruitment of his younger brother as a suicide bomber in a failed assassination attempt of Saudi Prince Muhammed bin Nayif. Although the assassination attempt failed, the brutality, novelty and sophistication of the plot is illustrative of the threat posed by al-Asiri. Al-Asiri is credited with designing the remotely detonated device, which contained one pound of explosives concealed inside his brother’s body.

Al-Asiri is currently wanted by the Government of Saudi Arabia. In addition, Interpol has published an Orange Notice warning the public about the threat posed by him.

Remember, even by the time Asiri was designated as a terrorist in 2011, US prosecutors were well on their way to prosecuting Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab in his attempt to take down a Detroit-bound jet; Abdulmutallab was charged with conspiracy, and FBI allegedly found Asiri’s fingerprint on the bomb. Plus, they had Abdulmutallab’s confession implicating Asiri.

And yet … not a mention of these things in State’s descriptions of Asiri.

NSA Got Into Bed with the Saudis Just Before Our Technical Cooperation Agreement Expanded

In February 2011, around the time the CIA took over the hunt for Anwar al-Awlaki, NSA started collaborating with Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Interior’s (MOI) Technical Assistance Directorate (TAD), under the umbrella of CIA’s relationship with MOI (it had previously cooperated primarily with the Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense).

On August 15, 2011, hackers erased the data on two-thirds of the computers at Saudi Aramco; American sources claim Iran was the culprit.

On September 30, 2011, CIA killed Anwar al-Awlaki, using drones operated from a base on Saudi soil.

On November 5, 2012, King Abdullah named close John Brennan ally Mohammed bin Nayef (MbN) Minister of the Interior; MbN had for some time been our top counterterrorism partner in the Kingdom.

On December 11, 2012, James Clapper expanded NSA’s Third Party SIGINT relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, for the first time formally including the Ministry of Interior’s Technical Affairs Directorate.

Between January 14 and 16, 2013 MbN traveled to Washington and met with just about every top National Security person (many of whom, including Brennan, were just assuming new jobs). On January 16, MbN and Hillary Clinton renewed and expanded the Technical Cooperation Agreement initiated in 2008. The TCA was modeled on the JECOR program used from the late 1970s until 2000 to recycle US dollars into development programs in Saudi Arabia; in this more recent incarnation, the Saudis recycle dollars into things like a 30,000 mercenary army and other military toys for internal stability and border control. Last year’s renewal — signed just over a month after Clapper made the Saudis full Third Person partners – added cybersecurity to the portfolio. The TCA — both the existing security resources and its expansion under close ally MbN — shored up the power base of one of our closest partners (and at a time when we were already panicking about Saudi succession).

In other words, in addition to expanding Saudi capabilities at a time when it has been cracking down on peaceful dissent, which is what the Intercept story on this document discusses, by giving the Saudi MOI Third Party status, we added to the power of a key ally within the royal family, and did so at a time when the TCA was already shoring up his power base.

We did so, the Information Paper makes clear, in part because MOI has access to internal Saudi telecommunications. While the Information paper talks about AQAP and Iran’s Republican Guard, they are also targeting Saudi targets.

And these new capabilities? They get coordinated through Chief of Station in Riyadh, the CIA. John Brennan’s agency.

It’s all very tidy, don’t you think?

Hot and Cold Running Bandar

Yesterday, just weeks after the time Al Arabiya announced Prince Bandar bin Sultan would resume his duties as head of Saudi intelligence (and therefore the mastermind of the Saudi-backed effort to oust Bashar al-Assad), Bandar was replaced by a little-known deputy.

He had resumed his position in March, just two days before the President visited the Kingdom.

Prince Bandar bin Sultan is on his way back to Riyadh where he will resume his tasks as head of Saudi Intelligence,reported news portal NOW Lebanon.

An informed Saudi source confirmed the report to Al Arabiya News.

“This is without doubt bad news for Tehran, Damascus and Hezbollah, particularly that anti-Saudi media has been propagating false information for the past two months that Prince Bandar’s absence has been due to his dismissal and due to a Saudi decision to back away from its policies regarding the regional conflict,” said the source in Riyadh.

The source confirms that Prince Bandar has actually been away due to medical reasons, however, he has resumed his activities this week from the Moroccan city of Marrakesh; where he has been recovering and where he has met with former Lebanese PM Saad Hariri and Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed.

But today he’s out.

Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan has been relieved of his post at his request, the official Saudi Press Agency reported Tuesday.

The royal decree announcing that Prince Bandar was stepping down as president of General Intelligence gave no reasons for the move. He has been replaced by General Yousef Al Idrissi, the decree said.

I’m not sure anyone knows what these tea leaves mean. It may be that the “shoulder” injury Bandar had been treated for remains a serious health issue. It may be that — as one piece suggested — he retains some power here and has not ceded it back to Mohammed bin Nayef, who had taken over before Bandar’s return in March. It may be that this and King Abdullah’s designation of Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz as second in succession were done to time with Obama’s visit, to signal that America’s more favored successor, Mohammed bin Nayef, was not going to take over any time soon.

But it also comes among two other developments that may be related. First, since about the beginning of the year and increasingly in recent weeks, the Saudis are actually cracking down on terrorism, both real — including those who went to fight in Syria — and imagined. Perhaps the former, too, was a show for the US. But it did seem to reflect some concerns that Saudi efforts in Syria were increasing security concerns for the Kingdom (as well as other countries in the region and not).

Perhaps most interesting, however, is that the same day that Bandar got “sacked” videos started showing opposition figures in Syria with US made anti-tank missiles, which is the kind of thing Bandar has decades of experience arranging. We’ll see whether those disappear like Bandar or represent a new escalation of efforts to oust Assad.

Why Would the UndieBomber Make a Martyrdom Video in Arabic?

In his drone letter to Congress 11 days ago, Eric Holder quoted a recording Anwar al-Awlaki made — it was prominently reported across the US media in March 2010, not long after he was added to the drone kill list — calling on Americans to take up jihad.

In this role, al-Aulaqi repeatedly made clear his intent to attack U.S. persons and his hope that these attacks would take American lives. For example, in a message to Muslims living in the United States, he noted that he had come “to the conclusion that jihad against America is binding upon myself just as it is binding upon every other able Muslim.” But it was not al-Aulaqi’s words that led the United States to act against him: they only served to demonstrate his intentions and state of mind, that he “pray[ed] that Allah [would] destro[y] America and all its allies.” Rather, it was al-Aulaqi’s actions — and, in particular, his direct personal involvement in the continued planning and execution of terrorist attacks against the U.S. homeland — that made him a lawful target and led the United States to take action.

Though Holder doesn’t quote these bits, the same recording mentions Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab several times, boasting about how such attacks proved the futility of American security systems.

9/11, the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and then operations, such as that of our brother Omar al-Farouq which could have not cost more than a few thousand dollars, end up draining the US Treasury billions of dollars, in order to give Americans a false sense of security.

[snip]

Our brother Omar Farouq has succeeded in breaking through the security systems that have cost the US government alone over $40 billion since 9/11.

[snip]

And after the operation of our brother Omar Farouq, the initial comments coming from the administration were looking the same: another attempt at covering up the truth. But Al-Qaida cut off Obama from deceiving the world again; by issuing their statement claiming responsibility for the operation.

[snip]

The operation of our brother Omar Farouq was in retaliation to American cruise missiles and cluster bombs that killed women and children in Yemen.

When the recording was originally released, American news outlets noted they had not confirmed the authenticity of the recording. Whether it is or not, the Administration has formally presented this release — as anonymous reporting had in the past — as proof that Awlaki was trying to reach out to American Muslims in early 2010, and therefore proof he could be killed.

If the government maintains that Awlaki would propagandize Abdulmutallab’s attack in English, then why does it claim that Awlaki helped Abdulmutallab make his martyrdom video, which is in Arabic?

Here’s how they describe that claim in the narrative they submitted with Abdulmutallab’s sentencing.

Awlaki told defendant that he would create a martyrdom video that would be used after the defendant’s attack. Awlaki arranged for a professional film crew to film the video. Awlaki assisted defendant in writing his martyrdom statement, and it was filmed over a period of two to three days.

Why would al Qaeda’s best English language propagandist set out to make a video with a man schooled in English about an attack targeting America, but make it in Arabic?

Continue reading

The Saudi Intelligence without a Name

I had been wondering why John Kerry closed his meeting with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal the day after the Boston Marathon bombing, followed by Chuck Hagel’s unscheduled meetings in Saudi Arabia later that week.

The Daily Mail claims this is why:

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia sent a written warning about accused Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in 2012, long before pressure-cooker blasts killed three and injured hundreds, according to a senior Saudi government official with direct knowledge of the document.
[snip]

Citing security concerns, the Saudi government also denied an entry visa to the elder Tsarnaev brother in December 2011, when he hoped to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, the source said. Tsarnaev’s plans to visit Saudi Arabia have not been previously disclosed.

It even reports Prince Saud had an unscheduled meeting with President Obama the day after meeting with Kerry.

Now, the article implicates the Saudi Interior Ministry, though perhaps Saudi Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef is not the senior Saudi official with direct knowledge of a report handed from the Saudi Interior Ministry to (the article says) top people at the Department of Homeland Security. (Keep in mind that MbN rarely gives or at least gave anything to the US without going through his old buddy John Brennan, though also note the DM included his picture in the article.)

But there are other things about this I find interesting. First, the publication in the DM, which feels more like an info op than a report to, say, the WaPo. Then there’s the DM’s inclusion of people like House Homeland Security Chair Michael McCaul in its article (and, apparently, confirmation of a “Homeland Security Official” that the letter exists, which sounds like the same person as the HHSC aide quoted anonymously), heightening the partisan nature of this scoop.

Then there are apparent logical contradictions in the story, such as the detail that the Saudis apparently didn’t share Tamerlan’s name, but nevertheless expected the US to sort through his mail to get bomb components he could have gotten (and appears to have gotten) in a store.

It ‘did name Tamerlan specifically,’ he added. The ‘government-to-government’ letter, which he said was sent to the Department of Homeland Security at the highest level, did not name Boston or suggest a date for his planned attack.

[snip]

The Saudi government, he added, alerted the U.S. in part because it believed American authorities should be inspecting packages that came to Tsarnaev in the mail in order to search for bomb-making components.

There’s the suggestion this intelligence came from Yemen.

He dismissed the idea that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was likely trained by al Qaeda while he was outside the United States last year.

The Saudis’ Yemen-based sources, he explained, said militants referred to Tamerlan dismissively as ‘the volunteer.’

‘He was a gung-ho, self motivated jihadi who wasn’t tasked by a larger group,’ he said.

Then, finally, there’s this: the brag about the four plots the Saudis tipped us off to.

‘This is the fourth time the Saudi Arabian government has given the U.S. specific intel’ about a possible terror plot, the official said, citing prior warnings about Richard Reid, the so-called shoe bomber who repeatedly tried to light a fuse in his shoe to bring down American Airlines flight 63 bound for Miami in December 2001.

He also cited the 300-gram ‘ink-cartridge bombs’ planted on two cargo planes headed for the United States from Yemen in October 2010. Those explosives were intercepted in Dubai, and at an East Midlands airport in Great Britain.

The DM names two plots: Richard Reid and the toner cartridge plot.

It doesn’t name another obvious one of the four: the Saudi double agent UndieBomb plot last year, which appears to have been designed to provide the justification to allow signature strikes in Yemen.

And the fourth?

Is This Why the Press Finally Revealed the Saudi Drone Base?

In spite of all the furor over the way the NYT and WaPo sat on news of a Saudi drone base, the only explanation I know of for why they chose to reveal it now was this one.

So, what changed? Why did the New York Times decide to break the silence with a story last night including mention of the Saudi Arabia base? Managing Editor Dean Baquet told news hound-cum-New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan that the decision was connected to the nomination of John O. Brennan to move to the directorship of the CIA; Brennan, after all, was a central figure in establishing the Saudi base.

There’s more to it, notes Leonhardt:

Ultimately, we decided that naming the country did not present enough of a national-security risk to justify withholding the information. There are not many countries on the Arabian peninsula. Some Web reports had already made the connection. We were aware of no specific security risks or threats, and it is widely known that Saudi authorities are aggressively pursuing Qaeda militants in Yemen. The administration continued to object, but we notified them on Monday that we intended to include the location in an upcoming story, which we did.

Bold text added to highlight an interesting wrinkle: Sullivan’s account of the goings-on suggests that toward the end, the government didn’t escalate the matter up the hierarchy at the New York Times:

Mr. Baquet said he had a conversation with a C.I.A. official about a month ago and, at that time, agreed to continue withholding the location, as it had done for many months. More recently, though, one of the reporters working on the story told the government that The Times would reveal the location and said officials should contact Mr. Baquet if they wanted to discuss it further.

“They didn’t call this time,” Mr. Baquet said.

The depiction of continued Administration opposition is a bit rich.

After all, as the NYT presented the story, the Saudi drone base played a role in both Anwar al-Awlaki and Said al-Shihri’s deaths.

The strikes have killed a number of operatives of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the terrorist network’s affiliate in Yemen, including Said Ali al-Shihri, a deputy leader of the group, and the American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.

[snip]

Not long afterward, the C.I.A. began quietly building a drone base in Saudi Arabia to carry out strikes in Yemen. American officials said that the first time the C.I.A. used the Saudi base was to kill Mr. Awlaki in September 2011.

Since then, officials said, the C.I.A. has been given the mission of hunting and killing “high-value targets” in Yemen — the leaders of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula who Obama administration lawyers have determined pose a direct threat to the United States. When the C.I.A. obtains specific intelligence on the whereabouts of someone on its kill list, an American drone can carry out a strike without the permission of Yemen’s government.

[snip]

Although most Yemenis are reluctant to admit it publicly, there does appear to be widespread support for the American drone strikes that hit substantial Qaeda figures like Mr. Shihri, a Saudi and the affiliate’s deputy leader, who died in January of wounds received in a drone strike late last year.

The claim that Shihri (a former Gitmo detainee who had ties to a Saudi Gitmo deradicalized double agent) was killed by a drone is not at all clear. Continue reading

Mohammed bin Nayef’s Remarkable Prescience about Obama’s Second Term Cabinet

Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu just resigned.

Which got me thinking about my latest obsession: the Technical Cooperation Agreement beween Saudi Arabia and the US, under which (as far as the agreement admits publicly) the US helps the Saudis protect their critical infrastructure (read, oil fields) and borders. While the TCA is managed by State, it includes significant involvement on the part of DOD — particularly CentCom, DOE (because in Saudi Arabia infrastructure is energy), and Treasury (which handles the magic bank account at its core). In addition, a new focus on cybersecurity (presumably a response to the recent Aramco hack) gives DHS and NSA an increasing role.

So check out the list of people MbN met with while he was in DC from January 14 to 16, in significant part to “renew” the TCA (four months before the old one expired).

Prince Mohammad also met with a number of senior U.S. officials throughout his visit, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Attorney General Eric Holder, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, Director of National Intelligence James Robert Clapper, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, Treasury Deputy Secretary Neal Wolin, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, John Brennan, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Robert Mueller, and Director of the National Security Agency General Keith B. Alexander.

Remarkably, MbN didn’t waste his time with any outgoing cabinet member — not TurboTax Timmeh, not Chu, not Panetta — except for Hillary, with whom he was signing this agreement. While TurboTax Timmeh and Panetta’s departure was known, Chu’s was only rumored.

John Brennan is moving, sure, but I suspect his move won’t change his interactions with MbN — who has been a key stovepipe for Brennan — one whit.
The most interesting person MbN managed to not waste his time with on the visit, apparently, was General James Mattis, who was about to be, but had not yet been, ousted several months early the week MbN was in town.

I’m not suggesting this is all that meaningful, mind you. I just find it notable that MbN seemed to have a better sense of what was going on with Obama’s top national security leadership than most of the journalists in DC.

Why Is State Waiting to Release the Saudi Technical Cooperation Agreement?

As I noted in this post, one explicit purpose of Saudi Minister of Interior Mohammed bin Nayef’s trip to the US from January 14 to 16 was to renew the Technical Cooperation Agreement first signed on May 16, 2008 by Condi Rice and MbN’s father when he was Interior Minister. MbN and Hillary Clinton signed the renewal on January 16.

Particularly given that the prior TCA is posted on State’s website and this picture was out there (not to mention the joint statement with DHS, addressing a trusted traveler program that may end up being controversial), I was surprised that the renewal was not. I checked with State and–after a day of checking–learned that the renewed agreement “hasn’t been posted yet.”

Yes, I do plan to keep trying, both through persistence or FOIA.

But I am interested in why State wouldn’t post it right away. Perhaps it’s just internal bureaucracy, but here are thoughts about some other possibilities.

State could be hiding changes in the funding structure

First, there is a change we know has taken place since the TCA was first signed.

The TCA is basically a cooperation agreement to get direct help from us–including training and toys–to protect Saudi infrastructure and borders, particularly its oil infrastructure. As part of it, the Saudis are developing a 35,000 person force, including a paramilitary force, with US training. But unlike our other defense agreements with the Saudis (and like the Joint Commission for Economic Cooperation it was explicitly modeled on, which had been in place from the 1970s until 1999), this one includes a special bank account to fund it all.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will establish a dollar disbursement account in the United States Treasury. Any funds required by the United States for agreed-upon projects will be deposited by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the account in such amounts and at such times as are mutually agreed, and the United States may draw on this account in the amount so agreed. If upon termination of this agreement there are funds remaining in the special account after all expenses have been paid, such funds will be refunded to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

That account could fund contractors and toys. But at least at first, it could not fund US government employees.

The United States will pay for all costs of U.S. Government direct-hire employees assigned to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to perform services under this Agreement.

Less than a year into the agreement, that changed, with MbN agreeing the Saudis would also pay for US personnel salaries.

MbN was grateful for USG efforts and assured us full funding would soon follow the signing of these documents, and reconfirmed the SAG’s commitment to pay all OPM-MOI costs. He also agreed to fund all USG employee costs, concurring with any necessary TCA changes to allow such payments, commenting that “hopefully the lawyers will not cause us any problems.”

And already by the time MbN made that agreement, the US was installing military and State employees to oversee this effort (see more on these personnel here).

Now, I’m not entirely sure how innovative it is that the Saudis are funding US hires to defend their oil infrastructure. But MbN’s quip about the lawyers suggests some sensitivity on this front. Continue reading

Mohammed bin Nayef’s Debutante Ball

This Marc Lynch post on America’s Saudi problem is worth reading for its discussion of how our uncritical support for Saudi Arabia undermines our efforts in the Middle East.

America’s alliance with Saudi Arabia remains the greatest contradiction inherent in its attempt to align itself with popular aspirations for change in the region. A Saudi exception certainly makes things such as coordinating the containment of Iran easier for diplomats on a daily basis. But it sustains and perpetuates a regional order which over the long term is costly to sustain and clearly at odds with American normative preferences.

It’s also notable because it remains one of the few commentaries I’ve seen to mention Mohammed bin Nayef’s trip to DC from 10 days ago.

For instance, the symbolism of President Obama’s unusual meeting with new Saudi Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef, which looked to many Saudis like an endorsement of someone they identify with the most repressive and anti-democratic trends in the kingdom, was unfortunate.

As this release from the Saudi embassy lays out in detail, MbN was in DC from January 14 through 16. There were a few explicit orders of business. Hillary Clinton and MbN renewed the Technical Cooperation Agreement (which would have expired in May) providing US support to protect Saudi critical infrastructure, especially its oil facilities. MbN signed Memoranda of Understanding with Janet Napolitano on cybersecurity and a trusted traveler program. As Lynch noted, he was granted a private meeting with President Obama, which resulted in the following readout.

Today, President Obama met with Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Interior, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, in the Oval Office. They affirmed the strong partnership between the United States and Saudi Arabia, and discussed security and regional issues of mutual interest. The President congratulated Prince Mohammed bin Nayef on his appointment to Minister of Interior and asked him to convey his best wishes to King Abdullah bin Abd Al-Aziz Al Saud.

But in addition to that, MbN had a series of meetings with almost every major major player in our security establishment.

Prince Mohammad also met with a number of senior U.S. officials throughout his visit, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Attorney General Eric Holder, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, Director of National Intelligence James Robert Clapper, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, Treasury Deputy Secretary Neal Wolin, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, John Brennan, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Robert Mueller, and Director of the National Security Agency General Keith B. Alexander.

This leaves out only DOD and CIA (though even before he was nominated to be CIA Director, we could assume former Riyadh station chief John Brennan heavily influenced Saudi ties to CIA).

Given such a high profile visit, I have been expecting someone to discuss what merited the full coming out party (aside from MbN’s November appointment to be Minister of Interior, but MbN has been serving as our counterterrorism liaison for years). But I’ve seen little reporting to explain the trip.

And there are a few more reasons why I would really like to know what MbN discussed with almost the entire national security establishment.

There’s Turki al-Faisal’s call for “sophisticated, high-level weapons” to be sent to Syria (not to mention the recent release of a purported April 2012 Saudi directive releasing Saudi death row prisoners to fight jihad against Bashar al-Assad).

Then there’s the escalation of drone strikes in Yemen since MbN’s visit, attacking targets that have no apparent tie to America’s stated targeting criteria there–a threat to American interests. Yemen-based journalist Adam Baron has observed that the drone strikes–as opposed to overflights–have been unusually concentrated in northern provinces.

interestingly, drone uptick has been concentrated in northern provinces: 2013 has yet to see one reported in shabwa/abyan/hadramawt.

Add in a bit of confusion over the reported scope of the new drone rulebook. The WaPo’s report describes that only Pakistan is exempted from the rulebook, yet some have suggested that the CIA’s drone program in Yemen, too will be exempted.

Then there’s the role that MbN has played in the past. In addition to being the key player on the roll-out of the TCA (more on that below), he created Saudi Arabia’s deradicalization program, which this March 2009 WikiLeaks cable ties closely to the TCA renewed on the trip. At least two former Gitmo detainees who went through the program ended up serving as infiltrators into AQAP. This Saudi-US Relations Information Service release actually points to the toner cartridge plot revealed by deradicalization graduate Jabir al-Fayfi along with the recent UndieBomb 2.0 plot–which was created by a third infiltrator directed by the Saudis–in its coverage of MbN’s visit, suggesting he may have had a role there, too. Should we expect similar operations in the near future? Note, while he is understood to have been a genuine recidivist, another graduate of Gitmo and then MbN’s deradicalization program, AQAP’s number 2, Said al-Shirhi, was reported on Thursday to have died from wounds suffered in a November counterterrorism strike.

All this takes place against the background of unrest in Saudi Arabia (which Lynch describes at length). While Lynch disagrees, Bruce Reidel has been warning–and hawking a book–about a possible revolution in Saudi Arabia. To the extent the unrest represents a serious threat, it would put MbN, as Minister of the Interior, at the forefront. Interestingly, as part of the TCA renewed on this trip and led by MbN, the US helped Saudi Arabia develop a 35,000 person strong Facilities Security Force, which includes a paramilitary function, which would be crucial in the Eastern Provinces experiencing the most real unrest (the same day MbN came to the US, King Abdullah put MbN’s older brother in charge of the Eastern Province). When you couple that with the cybersecurity cooperation MbN discussed with Janet Napolitano–remember the fear-mongering around the technically simple but executed by insiders ARAMCO hack–and it suggests the US may be more worried about the Eastern Province than Lynch.

So maybe MbN’s visit represents real concerns about unrest in the Kingdom (which would play into our pressure on Iran), not least because the Saudis blame Iran for the unrest among its Shia population. Or maybe MbN’s visit represents a further expansion of our already significant counterterrorism and other covert operations.

I sure would like to know, though.

Emptywheel Twitterverse
emptywheel @lisapease Even that rule, "accredited to major org" has a lot of play w/in in. @TimothyS
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bmaz Hey @emptywheel "noodle armed" Peyton Manning was 22 of 16, for 318 yards, 4 touchdowns and zero interceptions in 3 qrtrs. How bad is that?
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emptywheel .@chrisgeidner Seriously? Not a single "progressive" NGO said they thought banks should be subject to same laws rest of us are? @evanmcsan
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emptywheel @chrisgeidner Progressives are looking for another person who'll immunize bank crimes (and torture and illegal wiretapping)? @evanmcsan
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JimWhiteGNV RT @twolf10: To honor Peyton Manning's TD record, Papa John's will be cutting benefits to 50% of its employees.
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emptywheel RT @twolf10: To honor Peyton Manning's TD record, Papa John's will be cutting benefits to 50% of its employees.
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emptywheel Dock the Broncos 14 points bc announcer actually said, "Congratulated your QB."
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