U.S. working to identify hundreds of Al Qaeda contacts discovered from material seized in Yemen raid

The aftermath of the Yemen raid exists in two separate dimensions right now. In the blue dimension, it was a total bust. No fewer than 10 different U.S. officials across different departments told NBC yesterday that no actionable intelligence had been produced by the operation.

The Pentagon says Navy SEALs scooped up laptops, hard drives and cell phones in last month’s Yemen raid, but multiple U.S. officials told NBC News that none of the intelligence gleaned from the operation so far has proven actionable or vital — contrary to what President Trump said in his speech to Congress Tuesday…

The Associated Press quoted a senior U.S. official as describing a three-page list of information gathered from the compound, including information on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s training techniques and targeting priorities. Pentagon officials confirmed that to NBC News, but other U.S. officials said the information on that list was neither actionable nor vital.

Disappointing — except that one official who spoke to NBC completely contradicted that narrative, noting that “the information contained hundreds of contact details from a variety of communications apps, suggesting possible links to the Europe and the U.S.” Hmmmm. Similarly, an official who spoke to the Daily Beast yesterday claimed “that the [Yemen] raid garnered possibly ‘the most intelligence ever netted’ on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, including information that will help U.S. intelligence map the network of AQAP followers and how they operate.” And now here’s CNN with another dispatch from the red dimension, in which the raid produced an intelligence bonanza that may help the U.S. identify hundreds of jihadis in Yemen and beyond:

Several US officials told CNN Thursday that the US is now taking action to locate and monitor hundreds of people or “contacts” found as part the intelligence retrieved during the deadly raid last month in Yemen targeting al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula…

The terabyte’s worth of intelligence gathered from computers and cell phones is now being reviewed at the National Media Exploitation Center outside Washington, which analyzes documents, electronic media, cell phones, video and audio tapes seized on overseas missions.

Defense officials have told CNN that information pertaining to the location of safe havens, explosives manufacturing, training and targets was acquired in the January ground operation.

“Some of these people are believed to be in the West, but not in the United States,” CNN notes of the contacts found in the raid. I understand why Mattis and McMaster don’t want to make a habit of commenting after each mission on whether it was successful or not, as there are doubtless operations happening across the world all the time that produce nothing useful — even if the Yemen raid did — and which go unacknowledged. But the cognitive dissonance about which dimension we’re in is building in the media. It’s odd to me that Mattis, in particular, hasn’t said anything publicly since Trump has claimed repeatedly, including in Tuesday night’s speech, that Mattis believes the mission was successful. If he’s willing to tell the president that, knowing it’ll be relayed to America, why not say so himself?

There are now multiple people inside the government on each side of this story with little gray area between them, which suggests strongly that one or the other is lying outright, not merely shading the available info. Are Team Trump and its allies exaggerating the usefulness of the “contacts” to protect the administration or are Team Anti-Trump and its allies spreading the word that nothing was found in order to damage it by making it seem like the White House sacrificed Ryan Owens needlessly? The fact that there’s a terabyte of information to be processed and hundreds of pieces to try to fit together in the puzzle of how different jihadi cells operate makes it hard to believe anyone could conclusively say, even a month removed from the operation, that nothing useful was recovered. So why are lots of officials saying it?