US-Saudi Intelligence Failed to Save the Yemeni Leader from Houthi Assassins
The “execution” of Yemen’s former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, 68, at the hands of Iranian-backed Houthi rebels on Monday, Dec. 4, recalls the death of Libya’s ruler Muammar Qaddafi six years ago. He was fleeing from Sirte, when US and French UAVs directed the Libyan rebel Sirte militia to shoot up his armored convoy before it reached safety. On Monday, Iranian drones marked Saleh’s convoy of armored vehicles for a Houthi rebel force to target with an ambush and a blast of anti-tank rockets, before the former president could take the road to safe haven in the Saudi-controlled Ma’rib district, 173km to the northeast.
Ali Saleh, whose 30-year long rule of Yemen (1978-2012) was the longest in its modern history, was cut down 48 hours after he announced Saturday that he was “turning the page” away from the Iranian-backed insurgents and joining the Saudi-led coalition fighting in the civil war. He stipulated that the Saudis and their UAE partners must lift their blockade on Yemen and halt their attacks, as the country faced the world’s worst famine in decades.
Saleh first allied himself with the Houthis in 2014 and supported their move on Sanaa with a view to getting rid of his rival and successor, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, and forcing him to flee into exile in Saudi Arabia.
Three years later, Saleh, an adept juggler himself in betrayal and perfidy, ought to have realized that allies like Iran and Hizballah are not to be jilted without consequences and, on no account, would they let him escape into the arms of their arch-foes Saudi Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman (MBS) and the UAE ruler Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan (MbZ).
DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources report that the Houthi ambush squad lay in wait for his armored convoy in a village in the southeastern suburb of Sana’a city. Their rockets achieved a direct hit on his vehicle as it drove through the narrow high street. The rebels then pulled him out of the car. It is not clear whether he was injured or dead, but they administered a lethal shot just is case, and prepared to exhibit his body to the dead ruler’s followers who were still fighting in Sanaa.
His decision to “turn the page” did not happen by chance. The assassinated president had a long relationship with the CIA during his long rule. After Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAO) set up headquarters in Yemen, he quietly allowed the US to conduct air strikes against jihadist targets.
Most recently, the US, Saudi Arabia and the UAE bent their efforts to bring him back into the pro-Western Arab fold, along with his powerful following, as the key to reversing the tide of Tehran’s gains in Yemen and its expansionist thrust into the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf region at large.
By the summer of 2017, a rift was developing between Ali Saleh and the Houthi leaders. The three coalition intelligence agencies moved swiftly to widen the rift. As the year wore on, the Houthi movement began consolidating its power and control of Yemeni government departments, distancing itself from its power-sharing pact with Saleh.
In August, the insurgents accused him of treason. He pushed back. The acrimony came to a head on Nov. 28 when Saleh pointed up his refusal to be party to the decision to conduct a ballistic missile campaign against Saudi Arabia. The next day, Houthi forces attacked his troops in Sanaa. Saleh and his General People’s Congress called on their followers to mobilize against the Houthi movement across Yemen.
Early on Dec. 2, the Saudi-led coalition rallied behind Saleh and conducted air strikes in the capital against Houthi positions. They hit back by seizing Saleh-affiliated media outlets and detaining scores of staffers. They put to death hundreds of prominent tribal and political leaders, who had supported the former president and they surrounded his elite Republican Guard units in a Sanaa district.
Whenr Saleh ordered his 18,000-strong following, including military officers and tribal chiefs, to cross the lines and follow him over to the pro-Saudi coalition, the Houthis were left to face coalition assaults on their own.
But aside from the high military value of his defection, Ali Saleh also brought with him a potential intelligence treasure trove for laying before the United States and the Gulf agencies. He had unparalleled inside knowledge on the machinery of Iranian and Hizballah intervention in Yemen and the Shiite underground networks operating in the Sunni Gulf emirates. The former president could tell them what types of weapons Iran was supplying to the Houthi rebels and how they were smuggled across from the Islamic Republic. He was also privy to future Iranian-Houthi plans for missile blitzes against Saudi and UAE cities and strategic infrastructure.
(See separate item on the Iranian Soumar cruise missile which can carry a nuclear warhead)
Saleh also had in his pocket a full list of the Iranian and Hizballah officers working with the Houthi insurgents. The speed at which he was taken down before handing over his priceless secrets attested to the efficiency of the Iranian and Hizballah agents tracking him every step of the way during his secret interactions with US, Saudi and UAE contacts.
An intelligence fiasco on this scale is more than likely to set the stage for a major military debacle in its wake.
On Dec. 3, the Houthis announced Saleh’s death and dragged his body through the streets of Sanaa on a blanket, boasting that they had finally avenged the founder of the Houthi insurgent movement, who was killed by Saleh’s forces a decade ago. This, after slaughtering hundreds of officers under his command.
By now, the famine and disease spreading through the already impoverished country of 28 million has reached global proportions. The UN calculates that by the beginning of next year, 10 million people will be in severe need of food or they will die. Since the two-year war began, 130 children are dying each day from extreme hunger and disease. On Nov. 25, after the Saudi-led coalition eased the blockade on Yemeni ports, the first UN flight landed with vaccines and medical supplies for cholera and other dread diseases.
Ali Saleh’s defection fleetingly raised hopes in Washington, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi that the war could be brought to a speedy end. His assassination can only augur its escalation.