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

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

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.

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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.

Saudi Arabia of course has strong tribal and cultural ties to Yemen, and militants based there have been a source of intense focus for the Saudis for over a decade. One of Al Qaeda's stated goals is to overthrow the Saudi monarchy, and the Kingdom has cracked down hard, and successfully, on Al Qaeda inspired militants. Over the years, it has managed to place agents inside militant cells, and more frequently convinced militants to turn on the organization. The Saudis have provided extensive targeting information for the CIA's drone campaign in Yemen, and also uncovered an AQAP plot to bomb US bound cargo planes in 2010.

Prince Nayef, the country's counterterrorism boss (he personally delivered the warning on the cargo plane plot to the CIA), escaped an assassination attempt by a suicide bomber in 2009. The attacker, the wanted Saudi Abdullah Hassan Tali al-Asiri who had fled to Yemen, contacted Prince Nayef and said he wanted to defect from the group. At an arranged meeting outside Nayef's home, he detonated a bomb hidden in his rectum, killing himself but dealing only minor injuries to his target. That bomb was built by Ibrahim al-Nasiri, Abdullah's brother, and the man believed responsible for the latest underwear bomb now being studied by the CIA and other intelligence agencies.

The surviving Nasiri is now almost certainly beyond the reach of drones. The latest news, punctuated by the killing of Quso, will have almost certainly see him and other militants relocate and rework their communication protocols. His ability to teach other militants how to construct bombs remains intact.

A lot of the initial coverage of the plot has been breathless. For instance, ABC reports that "Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula... is known for its ideological purity and for carefully screening its recruits." Is it? The Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was only trained for a few weeks before heading out on his failed mission to destroy a US airliner.

He's now in federal prison on a life sentence after pleading guilty to the crime. AQAP has, if anything, shown itself to be opportunistic, and was willing to work with Mr. Abdulmutallab because he had a US visa. It's likely that the man involved with the latest foiled attack likewise was trusted because of promised access to the US, rather than because of extensive vetting.

AQAP is in fact a threat, despite its toothless international efforts so far. Abdulmutallab failed, as did an attempt to smuggle bombs on to cargo planes headed for the US. And there have been a number of high-profile assassinations of its leaders. For instance Anwar al-Awlaki, the US-born cleric who'd been an important propagandist for the group, was killed in a US strike in Yemen last September. US officials said Mr. Awlaki had contact with both Abdulmutallab and US Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hassan, who murdered 12 fellow soldiers at Fort Hood in 2009.

But the group remains interested in exporting its jihad to US soil, and will continue to seek an opening. The disclosures in this latest round of spy vs. spy in Yemen's badlands will make it easier for AQAP to plug its leaks, and harder for the intelligence agents tracking them.

Follow Dan Murphy on Twitter.

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