Al Qaeda tried to pull off its biggest deception since the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington during the end-of-year holidays. This time, America was fully geared up for trouble. But the fundamentalist terrorist organization proved, by the speed and efficiency of its secret wholesale movements of men and munitions across distances of 1,000 miles – from Hadhramauth into Saudi Arabia – that it had lost nothing of its operational and logistical skills.
This time, US counter-terror forces took on the daunting task of prevention, striving to repel Osama bin Laden murder-squads before they reached the cities of North America, Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Nonetheless, the undercover migration of terrorists out of Arabia was able to take place. Someone therefore must have been helping al Qaeda make its dreams come true.
Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh and other officials will no doubt protest that they knew nothing of the presence of large numbers of terrorists in the heart of their country. Since this claim defies belief, investigators must consider the following hypotheses:
Saleh and his top officials knew what al Qaeda was up to, but did not give the game away to American counter-terror forces.
Saleh was not just aware of al Qaeda doings and plans, but party to them and abetted bin Laden’s schemes by deliberately feeding Washington false information about the group’s activities in Yemen.
Saleh and his people were themselves hoodwinked by al Qaeda – a line the Yemeni president will most likely take in defending himself to US authorities.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror sources were certain several weeks before the current alert that Saleh was playing a double game. (“Yemen’s Revolving Door and Yemeni Doublespeak” – DNW 135, November 28)
In that article, we revealed his balancing act. Each time al Qaeda operatives were killed in clashes with US forces in Yemen, an equal number of the organization’s “small fry” was freed from jail. That con game had the effect of keeping the US military pinned down in Yemen in a perpetual war against terrorists, and assuring bin Laden of an inexhaustible supply of terrorist manpower.
When his revolving door was spotted, Saleh explained to American military commanders and diplomats posted in Sanaa and Aden that his motives were constructive. He sought to win the hearts and minds of tribal chiefs supplying al Qaeda with recruits by letting their tribesmen go. Furthermore, he claimed that he had hit on the best way of planting double agents in the terror group’s ranks.
To demonstrate his method worked, the Yemeni president offered three proofs:
Not a single terrorist act had been committed on Yemeni soil since the French supertanker Limburg was bombed in October 2002 off the Yemeni coast.
He had been able to wipe out The Islamic Army of Aden, al Qaeda’s primary weapons supplier in the Arabian Peninsula. Most US intelligence agents in Yemen confirmed the president’s claim, albeit reluctantly and with reservations.
To prove he was fighting al Qaeda on his own account, Saleh held up his trophy: the December capture of Mohammad Hamdi al-Adal (also known as Abu Assem al-Maki), number one on the US most-wanted list of al Qaeda fugitives in Yemen and commander of the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, in which 19 American crewmen were killed and hundreds wounded.
However, Al Qaeda’s success in pulling the wool over counter-terrorist forces in Yemen in recent months has seriously shaken Saleh’s credibility as a trusted partner in fighting the organization. The halt in terrorist attacks in the country since the Limburg strike may just as easily be the outcome of a decision by bin Laden’s operational planners to keep their powder dry for their mega-campaign around Christmas or New Year.
The liquidation of the Islamic Army of Aden may have coincided with the opening up of an alternative source of weapons which is still unidentified by US and Yemeni authorities.
It is also very possible that, while some IAA members certainly gave themselves up to the Yemeni army, others remained at large and kept their clandestine arms trafficking business going.
A senior Western source familiar with the counter-terrorism war in Yemen told DEBKA-Net-Weekly: “After all, someone had to keep al Qaeda supplied with hundreds of missiles. They don’t just grow on desert bushes or camel humps.”
Al-Maki’s capture also lends itself to more than one interpretation, such as a clever diversion. The Americans would be expected to focus on extracting from him the secrets of anti-American attacks in the Gulf and Arabian Peninsula and, while they were looking the other way, al Qaeda operatives on the loose would have set out unnoticed on missions of terror inside the United States itself.
These ambiguities leave Washington, its intelligence agencies and special forces on the horns of a dilemma in Yemen. They need the Yemenis to carry out anti-terrorist field operations in a hardscrabble country where rival tribes feud constantly and fight the government at the same time. Ending their collaboration with Saleh could drive him deeper into the arms of al Qaeda and other radical groups, such as the Islamic Army of Aden. On the other hand, confirmation of the suspicions entertained in Washington’s corridors of power that Saleh was deceiving them all along, must lead to the unpalatable conclusion that the working partnership with the Yemeni president opened a back door for al Qaeda to steal into Saudi Arabia and reach the United States.