Details are still emerging about the alleged role of an undercover mole in foiling a plot by Al Qaida’s Yemen branch to bomb a US-bound airliner.
But along with the details about the US-Saudi intelligence coup comes the question: why would American officials be seemingly so forthcoming with the methods involved in the highly sensitive counter-terrorism operation, given the threat posed by Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is hardly over.
Among the details that have emerged in gripping reports from the Associated Press, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and New York Times among others the past two days: that an apparently Saudi intelligence mole infiltrated AQAP, volunteered for the suicide mission; delivered the sophisticated, metal-free bomb composed of military-grade explosives and sewn into underwear, to the US via the Saudis/UAE; provided information that allowed the US to target AQAP’s chief of external operations Fahd Mohammed Ahmed al-Quso in a drone strike Sunday; and that the Saudis may have several other informants in place inside the terror organization’s Yemen branch.
“Of dozens of AQAP fighters with Saudi backgrounds, ‘at least five or eight of them are undercover’ working for the Saudi service at any point,” the Washington Post reported Tuesday, citing a Middle Eastern official. “’The Saudis have always had a network’ of sources in Yemen, the official said. ‘Now they are expanding its objectives.’”
Former FBI terrorism analyst Matthew Levitt suggested that US officials probably decided to offer more details on the foiled plot only after it was clear the press already had them and was going to report them.
“My instinct is they said as much as they did because it was going to be exposed [in the press] … and they wanted to get ahead of it,” Levitt, now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told me in an interview Wednesday.
The FBI has opened a leak investigation into the disclosures to the press about the foiled AQAP plot, the Wall Street Journal’s Evan Perez reported Wednesday: “A person familiar with the investigation said the probe, led by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, has been under way for days.”
Levitt said the rather extensive details exposed in press reports, especially concerning the alleged role of Saudi intelligence in infiltrating AQAP, is liable to cause the CIA some real headaches or worse in placating allied Arab intelligence services, which tend to be very discreet.
“I have had calls from people expressing that this is not going to please foreign parters; ‘loose lips sink ships’ and all that,” he said.
Once the operation was going to be exposed in the press, however, he mused, Washington may have resigned itself to “spinning it so that we can inflate ourselves as much as we can,” in the eyes of AQAP, in order to stoke paranoia, fissures and insecurity in the group, he said.
Recently released documents seized from Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad, Pakistan compound show that bin Laden thought the US had capabilities beyond what it may have, he noted–microchips, etc..
“It’s clear the enemy does think we are capable,” Levitt said. “At a certain point, we may want to encourage that.”
As to the infiltration operation that reportedly led to the US acquiring AQAP’s latest bomb prototype and to the killing in a drone strike of Quso, Levitt said the achievement “is pretty big.” And he added, we still don’t know all the details of what the US has learned from the operation.
UPDATE: More on this from the Boston Globe’s Juliette Kayyem, a former DHS official, who wonders if a turf battle over control of US CT policy in Yemen explains the leaks:
…What’s worse, the story may not have been the result of a deliberate decision by the Obama administration, but rather prompted by leaks from lower-level officials. That would be a symptom of bureaucratic competition for leadership of the next phase of the fight against Al Qaeda. ….
Now, there should be an independent investigation of who, at what agency, was so loose-lipped about a covert mission, and the White House should embrace it. If the leaker was at the CIA, he or she has not only tarnished the agency, but undermined some of the most important tactics that can be used against a flexible enemy.
Turf battles are common, especially in times of transition from one government strategy to another. But rarely do turf battles make someone so easily forget who the real enemy is.
(Photo of Saudi fugitive Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri as seen from a Yemeni police handbook of the most wanted terror suspects. A Saudi bombmaker believed to be working with al Qaeda’s Yemen-based wing is suspected of designing the bombs used in at least three attempts to bomb US-bound airliners. REUTERS/Yemeni Police/Handout.)