WASHINGTON - The prize that every intelligence agency seeks against an adversary is to place an agent inside the enemy’s ranks to provide information and even disrupt plans. That appears to be just what Saudi and U.S. intelligence did to al-Qaida’s most lethal franchise, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP.
According to media reports, the man recruited by al-Qaida to carry a new, more sophisticated version of the so-called “underwear bomb” onto an airliner was a double agent working for Saudi intelligence with the backing of the CIA. The agent, who remains unidentified - left Yemen to give the bomb to Saudi and U.S. intelligence officers.
Former CIA director Michael Hayden says such operations are extraordinarily difficult and time-consuming to execute.
“You’ve got to establish networks; you’ve got to establish penetrations," Hayden says. "That takes great patience. I think what seeing the results of the past few days, what we’re now seeing, is the fruition of efforts that began several years back to become as masterful in the Arabian Peninsula, becoming as masterful in Yemen, against al-Qaida as we’ve become in South Asia.”
In such operations, the CIA must often rely on intelligence partners who know the territory and have people who can blend in more easily. Sebastian Gorka, a military affairs fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, says Saudi intelligence has not always been such a reliable partner, especially in the years immediately following the Sept. 11, 2001 al-Qaida attacks in the United States. But, he says, al-Qaida pushed the two countries’ spy agencies into closer cooperation when it started attacking targets in Saudi Arabia.
“For the first few years, they really promised much but delivered little,"Gorka says. "And this is understandable given how many high-level members of the government and of the Saudi elite were actually sympathetic to Osama bin Laden and to other fundamentalist organizations. The sea change came in ’04,’05, and ’06, when al-Qaida decided to actually target directly the Saudi security forces.”
The Saudi leadership was furious, especially the deputy interior minister and counterterrorism chief, Prince Mohammad bin Nayef, says former CIA chief Hayden.
“This all became job number one for Prince Mohammad in 2003, 2004, when al-Qaida violated an implicit ceasefire in the kingdom and began to conduct attacks in Saudi Arabia, killing Westerners, much, much, much angering the king and his security services, and at which point Mohammad bin Nayef, or MBN as we know him, began a very aggressive campaign against al-Qaida in Saudi Arabia," Hayden says
The Saudi crackdown led to many al-Qaida leaders fleeing south across the porous border to Yemen, where they formed AQAP. Former FBI agent Ali Soufan, author of a book, “The Black Banner,” about his role as an undercover agent against al-Qaida, says AQAP has become the most lethal of all the al-Qaida franchises.
“What makes Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula special is that these individuals and members, core members of the group, were actually the closest version of bin Laden’s al-Qaida that we have today in the world," Soufan says. "There’s many al-Qaidas, and they are connected with each other and work with each other. But many of them joined al-Qaida after 9-11. But Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula were people who were members of al-Qaida who worked for bin Laden, who trained in al-Qaida training camps.”
And Yemen, Soufan points out, is literally in Saudi Arabia's backyard.
"There’s a lot of historic relationships, tribal relationships, family relationships even with those who are Yemeni members of the AQAP and people of Saudi Arabia,"Soufan says. "So the Saudis will be in a very good position, if they wanted to, to do an operation like this."
Former CIA chief Michael Hayden says the recent political upheaval in Yemen has given AQAP more room to operate.
“Although we appear to be successful going after leadership, we often know there are swaths of Yemeni territory now that appear to be under Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula control and villages that are flying the black AQ flag,"Hayden says. "So we’re far from being done here.”
Counterterrorism, says Ali Soufan, cannot afford to make mistakes.
"We know from the history of al-Qaida that they will keep repeating the plot again and again and again until they are successful," the former FBI agent says. "We have to be successful 100 percent of the time. They have to be only successful once, and they will have a great impact."