Did Another Saudi Double Agent “Tip” Us Off to a “Plot” Against America?

ABC reports that the UndieBomber 2.0 plot revealed yesterday in breathless fashion was exposed by a double agent that–given that he delivered the bomb to Saudi Arabia–was presumably being run by the Saudis just like all the other men the Saudis have infiltrated into AQAP.

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.

So as happened when Jabir al-Fayfi revealed the toner cartridge plot, we can now celebrate the skill of our spooks without thinking too much about what it means that the Saudis are running this terror show. (Though at least we’ve reached the point where US outlets are reporting this, rather than just British outlets.)

But here are a few questions:

Have Republicans already claimed this guy was a “recidivist” Gitmo detainee, as they have with other double agents? That effectively gives them a two-fer on detainee exploitation, “proof” that Gitmo detainees are too dangerous to release, followed by “proof” that the terrorists are planning attacks (not to mention “proof” that the CIA has good intelligence on al Qaeda).

Was the “international intelligence official” who revealed this double agent to ABC Yemeni? The Yemenis leaked Jabir al-Fayfi’s role back in 2010. If they again leaked the involvement of this double agent, we might want to start asking ourselves whether they can be trusted to keep these double agents secret.

I argued that the decision to use signature strikes in Yemen seems like a Saudi-driven demand rather than a well-considered US decision. We apparently made that decision around the same time the US reportedly learned of this “plot.” If the Saudis were–as I suspect–running this double agent like all the other double agents we’ve infiltrated into AQAP, then did they “tip” this plot as a way to convince us to make what on its face looks like a boneheaded decision?

One more bit of possible irony to contemplate. Ibrahim al-Asiri–the AQAP bombmaker reportedly behind this plot–sent his own brother, Abdullah, out to assassinate Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Nayef back in 2009. The attempt failed. Since then, two of the men Nayef presumably infiltrated into AQAP have foiled Asiri’s bomb plots. It sort of makes you wonder how Saudi double agents keep getting close enough to al-Asiri to foil his plots, doesn’t it?

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 Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, 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 in Grand Rapids, MI.

9 replies
  1. orionATL says:

    here’s how the nytimes reports the affair – note the many words and phrases that set a menacing tone regarding this attempted airplane bombing:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/08/world/middleeast/us-says-terrorist-plot-to-attack-plane-foiled.html?hp

    which just happens to be yet another failed effort by the al-q bombmaker most famous for blowing his brother’s ass off while failing to kill his intended target – a saudi official a few feet away.

    if we weren’t so superstitious, we would just say the obvious, that these yemeni airplane bombers are about as dangerous as laurel and hardy.

    on the other hand, this serves

    – a fine prop for our president’s just-announced re-election campaign theme

    – a fine justification for continued drone-bombing of yemen – until all that society’s leadership potential outside the current government have been turned into bits of burnt meat and shards of bone.

  2. orionATL says:

    from the nytimes article cited above;

    “Officials would not explain the delay in revealing the plot, saying that discussing the case in too much detail could endanger counterterrorism operations…”

    “could endanger [the success of current] counterterrorism operations” is the way i would put it.

    those counterterrorism operations are media terrorism operations designed to frighten american citizens into supporting gwotaqp.

    “gwotaqp” is an acronym for the american-saudi terrorism operation in yemen.

    “gwotaqp” stands for the obvious – global war on terrorism in the arabian peninsula.

  3. orionATL says:

    while we are drone-bombing what may well be one side (named aqap) in a yemeni civil war,

    there is an unmistakably terroristic organization having a field day in another part of the world – boko haram operating in nigeria, chad, and mali:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-17926097

    maybe a little counterterrorism in the form of arms-trafficking tracking and interdiction would be in order.

    oh, and do take note of the fact that early in its life the leader of boko haram was captured and killed.

    killing leaders doesn’t work so well – how can this be?

  4. MadDog says:

    Confirming a number of theories we’ve discussed here, the NYT’s Scott Shane and Eric Schmitt report this:

    Bomber in Plot on U.S. Airliner Is Said to Be a Double Agent

    The would-be suicide bomber dispatched by the Yemen branch of Al Qaeda last month to blow up a United States-bound airliner was actually an intelligence agent for Saudi Arabia who infiltrated the terrorist group and volunteered for the suicide mission, American and foreign officials said Tuesday.

    In an extraordinary intelligence coup, the double agent left Yemen, traveling by way of the United Arab Emirates, and delivered both the innovative bomb designed for his air attack and critical information on the group’s leaders to the C.I.A., Saudi and other foreign intelligence agencies…

    …Officials said the agent, whose identity they would not disclose, works for the Saudi intelligence service, which has cooperated closely with the C.I.A. for several years against the terrorist group in Yemen. He operated in Yemen with the full knowledge of the C.I.A., but not under its direct supervision, the officials said.

    The agent is now safe in Saudi Arabia, officials said. The bombing plot was kept secret for weeks by the C.I.A. and other agencies because they feared retaliation against the agent and his family…”

  5. emptywheel says:

    @MadDog: Uh, I’m sort of predisposed to any story that raves about this intelligence coup. There are a LOT of questions journalists ought to be asking. They’re not.

  6. MadDog says:

    @emptywheel: All too common these days.

    You’ll also have noticed that the original play for this story had the CIA cast as the lead. It struck me at the time, though I didn’t mention it, that when have we ever seen the CIA publicly acclaimed in such a manner?

    Not very fookin’ often! In thinking about that, I’m guessing that the Saudis had the lead and given their penchant for staying below the radar, it was decided to give the credit to the CIA.

    Or in other words, the CIA was acting as a cover for the Saudis. Again, reinforcing your point that it is the Saudis who are driving the Yemeni bus.

  7. kim says:

    @MadDog: Most seem to be assuming that the story has large elements of truth to it. Why make those assumptions? Who leaked to AP this “most tightly held operations I’ve seen in my years in the House” ? Intentional leak?

    What if there was only one double agent all this time and he is still working for us? Might you capture the (non-double agent) bomber and then claim that HE was the double agent? Pretty good cover is so…..

    Just sayin….

  8. MadDog says:

    @kim: I agree. I was also thinking “disinformation” campaign overnight. Spread confusion and increase paranoia within AQAP.

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