The Saudis and al Qaeda

CNN reports: The chairman of the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee expressed dismay that someone leaked information about a double agent who infiltrated al Qaeda and helped foil a plot to blow up a U.S.-bound plane.

“It’s really, to me, unfortunate that this has gotten out, because this could really interfere with operations overseas,” Rep. Peter King of New York told CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Tuesday. “My understanding is a major investigation is going to be launched because of this.”

The double agent, who volunteered as a suicide bomber for the terrorist group, was actually working as an intelligence agent for Saudi Arabia, a source in the region familiar with the operation told CNN.

The man left Yemen, traveled through the United Arab Emirates and gave the bomb and information about al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to the CIA, Saudi intelligence and other foreign intelligence agencies, the source said.

The agent works for Saudi intelligence, which has cooperated with the CIA for years, the source said.

“Indeed, we always were the ones managing him,” the source told CNN.

The suspected bomb-maker is a Saudi called Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri.

Richard Barrett, who heads the al Qaeda-Taliban sanctions monitoring committee at the United Nations, told Reuters he was “pretty certain” Asiri was the top suspect in the latest plot.

Saudi intelligence presumably knows a lot about him since he served nine months in jail in Saudi Arabia for attempting to join a militant group in Iraq to fight U.S. troops there.

He later moved to Yemen and joined AQAP, providing the bomb that killed his younger brother in a failed bid to assassinate Saudi counter-terrorism chief Prince Mohammed bin Nayef in 2009.

Later that year, security sources say, Asiri was behind the attempted bombing of Northwest Airlines flight 253 over Detroit on Christmas Day. Both the Detroit airliner bomb and the bomb used in the failed attack on the Saudi prince turned out to have been sewn into the would-be bombers’ underwear…

In the latest plot, although an unnamed Saudi agent is said to have infiltrated AQAP, it’s hard not to wonder whether he was already a member of the group and he was then recruited by the Saudis. Given that in a previous plot, Asira used his own brother as a suicide bomber, the agent in the current case might also have had close ties to the bomb maker. Moreover, given the political unrest in Yemen and the existence of a Shia insurgency, it’s also reasonable to ask whether the Saudis see al Qaeda as both a threat and an asset.

“We always were the ones managing [the agent],” CNN quotes their source saying, and although this source is merely identified as “a source in the region familiar with the operation,” the “we” in this quote presumably refers to Saudi intelligence.

“It’s really, to me, unfortunate that this has gotten out, because this could really interfere with operations overseas,” says Rep. Peter King. Indeed. But it could prove more than unfortunate but acutely embarrassing if it turned out that the U.S. has become an occasional beneficiary of Saudi Arabia’s ambiguous relationship with al Qaeda.

At a time that the issue of possible ties between the Saudi government and the 9/11 attacks are once again being raised, the Saudis clearly have an incentive to present evidence that their fight is strictly against al Qaeda.

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