It is easy to see why double agents are the source of inspiration for many spy novels and movies. The intrigue involved, including a potentially violent end to their spy games, gives writers low-hanging fruit to pluck. But art frequently mirrors real life when it comes to double agents. Especially infamous examples were found out during the Cold War – on both sides of the fight. And every secretive group on the planet, from intelligence agencies to terrorist organizations, must worry that double agents are among their ranks.
Al Qaeda has been especially paranoid about the use of double agents, as can be seen in the group’s literature dealing with counterintelligence and operational security. Even before 9/11 the group would beat and torture any man the most senior terrorists suspected of being a spy posing as an eager recruit. In order to gain admittance to an al Qaeda safe house, terrorists needed someone in the organization to vouch for them if they were not already known to the house’s inhabitants.
Al Qaeda and its affiliates have every reason to worry about real life double agents, as demonstrated by the recently foiled plot against American airliners. According to press accounts, a spy recruited by the Saudis infiltrated Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). He was so good at his job that AQAP recruited him for a suicide mission against an airliner using a new and improved bomb masquerading as underwear. This was an updated version of the bomb worn by an AQAP recruit on Christmas Day 2009.
But the double agent had no intention of doing AQAP’s bidding. Instead, according to the New York Times, he “delivered both the innovative bomb designed for his aviation attack and inside information on the group’s leaders, locations, methods and plans to the Central Intelligence Agency, Saudi intelligence and allied foreign intelligence agencies.” As a result, a long wanted al Qaeda operative implicated in the Oct. 12, 2000, USS Cole bombing was killed in a drone strike.
That the Saudis recruited a spy who burrowed his way deep into AQAP is not surprising. For years the Saudis have tried to do just that. The Saudi rehabilitation program for jihadists is a perfect staging ground for such operations. A significant number of the program’s graduates, including detainees formerly held at Guantanamo, have gone on to fill leadership positions in AQAP. According to the most recent figures made public by the Saudis, the recidivism rate for ex-Guantanamo detainees is 25 percent. (American sources say the true number is much higher.) But there is an opportunity for the Saudis to place a spy among the ranks of so many true recidivists.
In fact, the Saudis claim that a previous AQAP plot in late 2010 was broken up with the help of one such rehabilitated double agent. The Saudis say that AQAP’s attempt to bomb two cargo planes was found out with the help of intelligence from Jaber al Fayfi – an ex-Gitmo detainee who joined AQAP after passing through the Saudi rehabilitation program. The timing of al Fayfi’s role seemed a bit fishy at the time, as he left AQAP’s ranks several weeks before the cargo bomb plot was disrupted.
We do not know who the more recent double agent is, or how the Saudis managed to recruit him. Nonetheless, the story of al Fayfi’s putative spywork set a precedent for the recently neutralized bomb plot.
Which brings us to the most important question surrounding these events: Why was the double agent’s existence leaked to the press?
It is possible that his cover was already blown after turning over the “innovative” bomb design and other sensitive details. If this is the case, it would substantially mitigate any damage done by having this spy’s existence broadcast to the world.
Then again, why not try to keep AQAP guessing about its enemies’ clandestine operations as long as we can? If his cover wasn’t blown, then divulging his existence was a major operational mistake. It could potentially jeopardize future operations.
There is still much we do not know about this episode. We do know this: al Qaeda and its affiliates have every reason to worry about double agents. And that can only hamper their operations as they become more and more suspicious of new recruits volunteering to kill themselves. But blowing the double agent’s cover can also improve AQAP’s operational security, allowing the terrorists to learn more about their enemies’ tradecraft.
Finally, the CIA has learned the hard way in the fight against terrorism that the good guys need to worry about double agents, too. One of the agency’s biggest post-9/11 failures occurred when a Jordanian doctor told authorities that he could help them get Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s number two at the time. The doctor was, in reality, an al Qaeda double agent. He blew himself up at a base in Afghanistan in December 2009. He killed more CIA men and women in that one attack than any other attack in decades.
Double agents go both ways in the fight against al Qaeda and its affiliates. This latest round goes to the white hats.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.