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How Unusual Was al-Qaida Infiltration Effort That Stopped Bomb Plot?

May 9, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
A would-be bomber who was supposed to blow up a U.S.-bound airliner turned out to be a Saudi who had infiltrated al-Qaida's Yemen-based branch. Jeffrey Brown, NPR's Dina Temple Raston and security consultant Philip Mudd discuss what details are known about the operation and how it compares with other counterterrorism efforts.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Dina Temple Raston has been covering this story for NPR; also with us, Philip Mudd, who had an extensive career in the CIA, including as deputy director of the Counterterrorist Center, and, later, he was with the FBI. He’s now a private security consultant.

Dina, I will start with you.

Do we know at this point whether this double agent was somehow inserted into al-Qaida in Yemen, or was he already inside and somehow turned?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, NPR: Well, my understanding is what happened is, it’s very much like using what al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula’s strategy was against the United States with the Christmas Day bomber in 2009 against the U.S. — using it against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.

Specifically, what they did is, they found someone who went to the group and said, I want to be a suicide bomber, and I have got a visa to the United States. Will you help me martyr myself?

And, essentially, the group jumped at the chance. One of the few things that al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula can’t seem to overcome is that it just doesn’t have members who have the ability to travel very freely. And, clearly, even somebody who wasn’t properly vetted, it was so exciting to them that they might be able to get someone in the United States, that they ended up accepting an agent into their ranks.

JEFFREY BROWN: Philip Mudd, how does this look to you? How hard is it — how unusual is it, how hard is it to — to infiltrate and pull off this kind of a double agent effort?

PHILIP MUDD, former Central Intelligence Agency official: My experience is, this is very difficult.

If you go back 10 years ago, we were trying to infiltrate al-Qaida in Pakistan, and there are countermeasures against us with human sources were quite good. Their counterintelligence programs were excellent.

Here, you’re dealing, though, with an al-Qaida organization on the periphery. I suspect it might be a bit easier. But, remember, they have suffered over the past weeks and months by drone strikes, some of which I’m guessing have been caused by human sources who have penetrated the organization. So they’re looking around for people like this. It’s quite difficult to get people like this in.

JEFFREY BROWN: When you say it might be easier in this case, because of the connection with Saudi Arabia? Why would it be easier in Yemen?

PHILIP MUDD: I think there are a couple reasons it might be.

The first is, you’re talking about an organization in Yemen that doesn’t have the operational experience of the al-Qaida core guys in a place like Pakistan or Afghanistan. The second is, we have two states here, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, but there are tribal connections across the border, very close family ties.

So that might offer an opportunity for someone to be coming from up north in Saudi Arabia and joining these groups in the amorphous tribal areas of Yemen.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Dina, in this case, the — how much — it required close coordination between Saudi and American intelligence, I guess, right? Do we know what the two — the roles of the two countries were in this?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, our understanding is that, in fact, that the CIA wasn’t in control of this plot, but another foreign intelligence agency was.

And they were the ones who relayed everything to the CIA. The CIA knew what was going on, apparently, but they weren’t sort of directing the plot itself. And I think that’s important to realize, that there was that — that once removed.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Dina, just to stay with you on this question of the drone strike, I guess we also learned that — that this double agent, in fact, did help direct a drone strike.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes.

I mean, what’s interesting is that the man who gave him his marching orders, the one who told him to go — who gave him the bomb, essentially, and told him to go on this mission was a man named Fahd al-Quso. Fahd al-Quso was the chief external operations guy for AQAP. He basically replaced radical imam Anwar al-Awlaki as the guy who was going to concentrate on the West.

And this is the very man who was hit by a drone last weekend. And we understand that that wasn’t a coincidence.

JEFFREY BROWN: Philip Mudd, how close are U.S. and Saudi intelligence agencies as this point? How. . .

PHILIP MUDD: I would say very close.

JEFFREY BROWN: Very close.

PHILIP MUDD: They have been for years, for simple reasons.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

PHILIP MUDD: When you work in a security service, there might be on the outside political pressure, diplomatic pressure. That doesn’t affect security services that are looking themselves at a terrorist threat and saying, if we don’t cooperate, somebody is going to die. That’s an incredible motivator for cooperation.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is the assumption now that, whoever this person was, the double agent — and, of course, there’d be family members — somehow he must — he and they must be in some sort of secure situation?

PHILIP MUDD: I think that’s a safe assumption.

Remember, we’ve got a long history of doing this. If you go back to the Soviet Union, you had people working full-time to bring in double agents from Russia into this country. The same kinds of people will be looking at this man and his family and not only giving him money and a home, but giving him a life. He has got to rebuild an entire life after this incident.

JEFFREY BROWN: Dina, what are people in the intelligence field telling you about the possible impact of this on al-Qaida in Yemen and our future ability to thwart them in other possible attempts?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, Phil Mudd actually alluded to it.

Something happens inside the organization when you get infiltrated. Everybody suddenly becomes very suspicious of everyone else. And what that ends up doing is sort of slowing up the process of actually getting a plot off the ground. In other words, they keep looking over their shoulders to see if there’s someone they ought to be looking twice at, someone who might be passing on information.

And because of that, they’re extra careful, and that gives perhaps either Saudi intelligence or U.S. intelligence a little more time to thwart a plot.

JEFFREY BROWN: What’s your sense of that? I mean the kind of thing that you can do once, and then it’s harder to do another time because everybody gets more careful? What happens?

PHILIP MUDD: I would say harder, but not too hard.

Remember, these folks are motivated by a religious conviction. They’re never going to go home again. They can’t and they won’t. So as Dina said, they might go to ground for a bit, but that’s a short-term solution. You have people who in Yemen are gaining ground. They’re gaining ground against the government. They may have more safe haven to plan operations like this.

And the bombmaker who created this bomb and created the Detroit bomb in December of 2009 is still around. So they might disappear for a few days, a few weeks, a month or two, but guaranteed, they will come back again.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what’s your sense of this question I raised in the setup about it becoming public in a sort of unusual way, I guess, leaking the story? Does that have implications? Is that something people are worried or talking about?

PHILIP MUDD: Potentially. And they should.

Having sat on these on the inside, you can guarantee when you’re watching one of these that it will become public one day. The plot is going to be public. The plotter and the penetration will become public. The question I would have is whether this was leaked so soon, that we lost any potential to find the bombmaker.

If that was in fact the case, remember, it was this plotter, the fellow on the inside of the operation, who gave us the operational commander who was killed in Yemen on Sunday. If he was taken out of the picture so soon that we couldn’t find the bombmaker, that’s a tragedy.

JEFFREY BROWN: Dina, I see you nodding. Briefly, you — that sounds right to you?

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: It not only sounds exactly right, but also the longer that this bombmaker, al-Asiri, is in AQAP, the more opportunity he has to train other people — other people to learn how to make bombs as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Dina Temple-Raston and Philip Mudd, thank you both very much.

PHILIP MUDD: Thank you.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: You’re very welcome.