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Saudi's Al Qaeda intelligence coup and the perils of too much disclosure

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's second underwear bomb plot went nowhere thanks to great intelligence work. But this is a case where too much disclosure is a problem.

By Staff writer / May 9, 2012

Transportation Security Agency (TSA) workers carry out security checks at Denver International Airport in Denver in this November 2010 file photo.

Rick Wilking/Reuters/File

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The successful disruption of an effort to place a suicide bomber on a US-bound plane is an intelligence coup any way you slice it. An agent went to Yemen, won the trust of members of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), convinced them he was interested in attacking a US plane, and arranged delivery of their latest concealable bomb.

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Then he scooted over the border back to Saudi Arabia and handed the bomb over. Now the underwear bomb is being poured over by experts seeking to determine how easy it would have been to get past current security procedures and what needs to be done to plug any holes in airport security.

The agent also provided information on the whereabouts of Fahd Mohammed al-Quso, a militant on the FBI's most wanted list for his involvement in the attack on the USS Cole off the port of Aden in 2000. Quso was killed in a US drone attack in Yemen's Shabwa mountains last week. Quso, who had also assisted some of the 9/11 hijackers, had escaped from Yemeni prison in 2003. He was recaptured the next year, but was released in 2007 by the government, which refused a US extradition request.

That's all pretty good work. But while a major win for international security efforts, the leak of the successful penetration to the press will now make it easier for AQAP to plug holes in its own security procedures, making it harder to put agents in place in the future. While the group would have worried when the promised bomb attack never happened, there would have been plenty of ambiguity: Perhaps the attacker had been arrested, or simply lost his nerve. Now AQAP knows to a dead certainty what happened.

The Associated Press broke the story on May 7, after keeping the story under wraps for a few days at the request of the CIA and the Obama Administration. The AP didn't identify its source or sources at all, saying only that it "has learned" of the foiled effort. The story carried a Washington dateline, which points in the direction of a leak from the US end.

"It's really, to me, unfortunate that this has gotten out, because this could really interfere with operations overseas," Peter King, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee in Congress, told CNN yesterday. "My understanding is a major investigation is going to be launched because of this."

Much of the early reporting that the CIA was responsible for disrupting the latest bombing effort has since been walked back. Saudi Arabian intelligence, led by Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, are the experts on AQAP and have been keeping close tabs on the group for years. The New York Times ran a good piece yesterday, sourced to unidentified officials, that identified the man who posed as a would-be bomber as working for the Saudis.

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