Had the White House National Security Council, US intelligence and counter-terror agencies properly studied al Qaeda's failed attempt to assassinate Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, deputy interior minister and commander of the Saudi anti-terror campaign in Yemen five motnhs ago, they might have detected pointers to al Qaeda's latest terror offensive and its methods.
Like the Nigerian bomber Umar Abdulmutallab, the Saudi minister's would-be assassin, Abdullah Hassan Tali' al-Asiri (al Qaeda-styled Abu Khair), who did not survive the attack, used explosives hidden in his underwear to fool the prince's bodyguards. He won an audience with the prince by posing as an informant, the same trick used by the Taliban suicide bomber to penetrate a US base and kill 7 CIA agents and a US soldier last month.
This emerging prototype was missed by US intelligence experts.
For the first time, Saturday, Jan. 2, US president Barack Obama belatedly accused al Qaeda of the failed attempt Christmas Day to blow up Delta Flight 253, charging its Yemeni affiliate with arming and directing him to the attack.
Obama, who has called a meeting of US security agency chiefs for Tuesday, Jan. 5, cannot expect serious brainstorming because it would be inhibited by a mindset that refuses to refer to the failed mass-murderer as an illegal or enemy combatant or terrorist but only as a "suspect." Treated like a common or garden criminal, the Nigerian has been committed to an ordinary lock-up. This has given him the opportunity to hire American lawyers, who right away shut his mouth and advised him not to cooperate in answering questions about his accessories and masters.
With this invaluable intelligence door closed, the US president has turned to measures for enhancing the security of US air travelers and air traffic bound for US ports and demanded the matching-up of the counter-terror watch and no-fly lists. Abdulmutallab appeared on the first but was left off the second as a result of the failure of US intelligence agencies to share incoming data about his record.
Furthermore, should Obama and his advisers decide on retaliation, debkafile's counter-terror sources are assured by reports from Yemen that al Qaeda's operatives were no longer hanging around their bases twelve days after the airliner episode; they had packed up and made tracks for fresh hideouts in the northern mountains and Hadhramaut.
Since Obama's Monday, Dec. 23 pledge: "We will not rest until we find all who were involved," the days slipping by without a US reaction have given al Qaeda the chance to plot more airliner attacks from a safe location.
The second breach in US defenses against terrorist attack has deeper roots and derives from the misconceptions about al Qaeda governing US intelligence thinking well before Barack Obama's day in the White House.
Prince Muhammad in Nayef, Saudi Arabia's top counter-terror executive, escaped with light injuries from Abu Khair's attempt to kill him at his Jeddah palace on August 27, 2009, thanks mainly to the partial detonation of the explosive materials hidden in his underpants, a glitch repeated in the Nigerian bomber's attempt.
The assassin gained entry to the most heavily fortified and guarded palace in the Red Sea town of Jeddah by convincing Saudi agents in Yemen that he was ready to switch sides – but only if he could discuss terms face to face with Prince Muhammad.
They did in fact hold several meetings – not in the palace but out in Najran province on the Yemen border. The data he handed over was solid enough to convince the Saudi prince that he was on the threshold of his government's biggest breakthrough in its war on al Qaeda.
So when Abu Khair offered to bring with him to the Jeddah palace a list of al Qaeda high-ups in Yemen willing to defect to Saudi Arabia, the prince not only agreed to the venue but sent his private jet to pick him up from Najran.
Our counter-terror sources allow that the government in Riyadh may have kept the details of this plot from the Americans – and not for the first time. Still, CIA and FBI undercover agents in the oil kingdom could have got wind of it from their own contacts.
Had it been properly scrutinized and analyzed, there was much valuable input to be gained from the attempt on Prince Muhammad, betraying as it did Al Qaeda methods which were later replicated in the attempted bombing of the Detroit-bound airliner and, again, in the deadly attack on Dec. 30 against the CIA contingent at Forward Operation Base Chapman, in the remote Afghan Khost province.
The bomber, who has not been identified yet, not only gained entry with explosives in his possession to the well-guarded US base, but detonated the device while the agents were unarmed and working out in the base gym.
How was this accomplished? The bomber had in fact been employed as a CIA informer and was therefore known at the gate and familiar with the routines of Base Chapman. Furthermore, he knew enough to time his attack for the day of the arrival in Kabul of a high-ranking CIA official. There has been no word about this official's fate.
Friday, Jan. 1, the Pakistan Taliban claimed the attack had been carried out by a "turncoat" working for the CIA who had defected in order to kill senior American intelligence agents in revenge for the US drone attacks which killed their operatives inside the Pakistan border.
Matching up lists of would-be terrorists may address bureaucratic glitches but it will not cure the fundamental attitudes pervading US intelligence for twenty years which does not let them get into the minds of al Qaeda plotters enough to second-guess their plans.