In the past couple of days we’ve learned more about the intelligence that allowed Western authorities to neutralize the threat posed by two bombs shipped from Yemen via cargo plane. (Other bombs may still be in play, according to press accounts, but that is not a certainty.)
American and British officials have confirmed that the intelligence came from the Saudis and the Saudis, in turn, have said that they learned about the bombs from a former Gitmo detainee named Jaber al Fayfi.
Al Fayfi was one of the 11 former Gitmo detainees included on the Saudi kingdom’s list of 85 most wanted terrorists in early 2009. Along with the other 10 former Gitmo detainees on the list, al Fayfi was once enrolled in the Saudi rehabilitation program for jihadists. The rehab didn’t take, however. The 11 fled Saudi soil for Yemen where they joined al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
Some of the 11 are now senior AQAP leaders, including Said al Shihri (the group’s deputy leader), Ibrahim Rubaish (AQAP’s mufti or chief theologian), and Othman al Ghamdi (AQAP’s military commander). Other former Gitmo detainees have played significant roles in AQAP as well.
For some reason al Fayfi decided to betray his al Qaeda brethren and turn himself into Saudi authorities, reportedly disrupting AQAP’s cargo bomb plot in the process. But here is where it gets interesting.
The Saudis claim that al Fayfi turned himself in mid-October. That’s odd because Catherine Herridge of Fox News reported in early September that Yemeni authorities had arrested al Fayfi. (See here for more.)
Obviously, there is more than one month between when al Fayfi was reportedly arrested and when Saudi authorities claim he turned himself in.
What is going on?
Some press accounts suggest that al Fayfi may have been a Saudi plant – that is, he rejoined al Qaeda only to collect intelligence on AQAP’s plotting and report back to his Saudi handlers. Perhaps that is the case, but the timing still seems suspicious.
If al Fayfi was really in Yemeni custody in early September (and there is no good reason to doubt that he was), then how did he know details of the plot that were specific enough for authorities to pinpoint the packages nearly two months after he was first taken into custody?
Think about it this way. Suppose al Fayfi knew specific details about the two bombs (e.g. when they were due to be shipped, how they were going to be shipped, the address they were being shipped to, etc.) when he was detained by the Yemenis in early September. If al Qaeda tweaked one or more of these details in a minor way, then the package bombs could have been easily lost in a sea of other packages by late October – when the plot was disrupted.
Part of the intelligence picture – a crucial part – is likely missing here.
It may be the case that al Fayfi supplied a piece of intelligence that, when combined with other intelligence, illuminated the plot. Or, the Saudis could have other spies inside AQAP – a distinct possibility since so many Saudis fill its leadership ranks – and the story about Jaber al Fayfi provided a decent cover for these other moles.
We simply do not know at this point what precisely went down here. Clearly, the Saudis had good intelligence on AQAP’s inner workings in this instance. Unfortunately, that will not always be the case.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.