The White House and US intelligence agencies are furious over the French News Agency AFP’s revelation Wednesday, May 9, that a Saudi double agent working with the US led to the discovery of an upgraded underwear bomb for blowing up US jets, and also the US drone air strike Sunday, May 6, in Yemen which killed Fahd al-Quso, who was sought in connection with the blowing up of the USS Cole in October 2000.
When the improved underwear bombs were ready, one or more was handed to the Saudi double agent with instructions from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula AQAP to return to the kingdom, board a US-bound passenger jet and blow it up en route to America.
Instead, he handed the prize to Saudi intelligence which passed it on US agencies.
The device was more sophisticated than the original underpants bomb which Nigerian student Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab failed to detonate aboard an American airliner bound for Detroit on Christmas 2009. It had no metal parts for alerting airport security detectors and contained the PETN powder explosive that is undetectable by airport X-ray machines. The FBI is testing the device now, but officials question whether it would have been detected without an intelligence tip-off which most likely came from Saudis, according to US officials.
The Saudi mole is reported to have succeeded in infiltrating the AQAP cell in Yemen as a volunteer suicide bomber and reached close to its bomb-maker Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, the Saudi who also designed the bomb that failed to explode over Detroit and the devices planted in ink cartridges put aboard US-bound cargo planes in 2012 in Britain which too failed to detonate.
The entire episode was kept under wraps until Monday, May 7, when the White House disclosed that the CIA had foiled a plot to bring down a US-bound airliner by means of an improved underwear device close to the May 2 anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death. The statement stressed that there had never been any real danger to an American or an allied flight.
debkafile’s intelligence and counterterrorism sources say that the way the story was released and Washington’s dismay over subsequent revelations raise three intelligence-related issues:
1. Why did the White House release the first, incomplete story if it was so important to keep the highly sensitive US-Saudi penetration of a key Al Qaeda cell in Yemen veiled in secrecy? And why state that the attack on an American jet was foiled when it had not gone beyond the planning stage?
2. US intelligence rightly feared that this publicity would compromise other Saudi double agents, present and future. So why was the White House permitted to go public even with an abbreviated account?
The disclosure occurred shortly after security was proved to have been seriously wanting for President Barack Obama’s May 2 trip to Kabul to mark the anniversary of Bin Laden’s death and sign a long-term military and strategic cooperation agreement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
His precise timetable had been leaked in advance – no one knows how – so that less than two hours after the US President flew out of Kabul, insurgent suicide bombers and gunmen launched coordinated attacks on the Afghan capital, demonstrating the real value of the agreement just signed.
Did the White House and the CIA release the underwear bomb affair to underscore a second feat against al Qaeda and therefore a reminder of the Obama administration’s success in liquidating its master in Abbotabad? The answer is most probably affirmative.
3. As for the follow-up leak which has so incensed Washington, that may have indeed been planted by the Saudi intelligence agency itself, or some Western or Arab clandestine service which worked with the Saudis and the Americans in running the double, or perhaps triple, agent. Because the upgraded device could only have been stopped with the help of prior intelligence, the damage caused by exposing sources of information is inestimable.
Running double agents or moles on sensitive undercover missions is extremely tricky and hazardous. None of the parties involved, including the double agent knows everything going on in his vicinity, least of all about the strings being pulled outside his purview.
Take, for example, the upgraded underwear bomb. Who really developed it? From the limited information available it does not seem likely that the al Qaeda bomb expert Ibrahim Hassan al-Asir was responsible.
It is not beyond the bounds of possibility, that the advanced technology was developed by American or Saudi intelligence and given to the double agent to offer the Al Qaeda cell in Yemen to win its trust as a suicide bomber volunteer. It would also have given him the chance to evaluate how far the cell’s bomb-making capacity had advanced.
The way that these revelations spilled out indicates that not all parts of the US-Saudi collaboration running the agent had agreed on a policy of publicity. Ideally, nothing at all about the operation should have been revealed in the first place. But since the cat was let out of the bag, it can’t be put back.