ABC had this story this morning but they hadn’t quite nailed down the fact that the double agent who infiltrated AQ was in fact the “bomber” himself. It was strongly implied — ABC’s sources noted that the infiltrator had “control” of the bomb — but it falls to the L.A. Times to connect the last dot.
An enormous intel coup, needless to say:
Saudi Arabia’s intelligence agency, working closely with the CIA, used an informant to pose as a would-be suicide bomber. His job was to convince the Al Qaeda franchise in Yemen to give him a new kind of non-metallic bomb that the militants were designing to easily pass through airport security.
But the double agent instead arranged to deliver the explosive device to U.S. and other intelligence authorities waiting in another country, officials said Tuesday. The agent is now safely outside Yemen and is being debriefed…
The operation had an added benefit, however. It produced intelligence that helped U.S. authorities finally locate Fahd Mohammed Ahmed Quso, a top Al Qaeda operative in Yemen. Quso had been on the FBI’s most wanted list for his alleged involvement in the bombing of the guided missile destroyer USS Cole in a Yemeni port in 2000. The FBI had offered a $5-million bounty for information leading to his capture.
We already knew that Quso was connected to this plot somehow. I wonder, in fact, if the operation didn’t start out as a general sting on Al Qaeda in Yemen, aimed principally at finding and liquidating masterminds like Quso and bombmaker-in-chief Ibrahim al-Asiri, and develop organically into intercepting AQ’s latest and greatest bomb design. Looks that way per this new story from WaPo. Apparently, double agents have been on the inside for years:
A former senior U.S. intelligence official familiar with recent operations against AQAP said that the Saudi intelligence service has furnished a steady stream of intelligence to the CIA.
“They’ve had someone on the inside of [AQAP] for some time,” the former official said. The Saudi source has provided intelligence on previous plots, including the tip that enabled authorities to disrupt al-Qaeda’s attempt to mail parcels packed with explosives to addresses in Chicago in 2010…
Of dozens of AQAP fighters with Saudi backgrounds “at least five or eight of them are under cover” working for the Saudi service at any point in time, said a Middle Eastern official. “The Saudis have always had a network” of sources in Yemen, the official said, “now they are expanding its objectives.”
WaPo says it’s “unlikely” that the double agent was tasked to be the bomber and that it was probably a lower-ranking jihadi who was designated for that job, but the NYT says the agent did in fact volunteer for the mission. The latter explanation makes more sense to me just because it would explain why they had to finally pull him from the country after years of intelligence help. Once he had the bomb and was scheduled to detonate, how could he go back to the cell? They expected him to end up dead or caught a la Abdulmutallab. This also explains the highly coincidental timing of Quso meeting justice from a Predator missile within days of the double agent intercepting AQ’s bomb. Two possibilities there. Either the agent had never met Quso before and finally came face to face with him to pick up the bomb, which meant he could finally relay Quso’s whereabouts to the CIA, or this guy has been in deep cover alongside Quso for years and only now, when he was exfiltrating the cell, was it finally safe to go after Quso without blowing the agent’s cover. Makes me wonder what other intelligence bonanzas we’ve gotten from him. Was he the one who gave us the coordinates on Awlaki?
Here’s John Brennan filling in ABC this morning on details of the plot. He told NBC that TSA security measures will change to adapt to the new bomb design, but he didn’t say how. One other ominous note, again from ABC: “Brennan also said he could not say whether there were other bombers still at large.” Exit question one: Er, isn’t AQ in Yemen simply going to start purging its Saudi members now? Paranoia will be sky high after this, which is not an altogether bad thing but reduces the chances of further intel scores. Exit question two: If there are “five to eight” Saudi double agents inside the group and they’re delivering intelligence windfalls as big as this one, how come we haven’t yet gotten the prize catch, the bombmaker Asiri? Has he gone so deep underground that he’s operating now a la Bin Laden and Zawahiri, exclusively via written messages and courier? To reduce his operational capacity that much is a minor victory in itself.