Washington, DC – In Washington, it’s a case of a good-news story gone very wrong: An intelligence success perhaps partly undone by political opportunism and indiscipline, amid signs that American policy in Yemen is set to repeat errors seen elsewhere. And in both cases, it is the political leadership in the US capital which is to blame.
It all started so well. According to media reports – many, many such reports – US and Saudi intelligence succeeded in infiltrating the terrorist apparatus of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (ubiquitously referred to as AQAP) with a would-be suicide operative who, reportedly provided with the latest incendiary design of AQAP’s senior bomb-maker, promptly turned the highly sophisticated explosive device over to Saudi authorities, rather than detonating it, as planned, on an international flight.
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Beyond the obvious, it is as yet unknown just how serious a blow this classic espionage case has been to the security and effectiveness of al-Qaeda, or indeed whether there is any connection between this operation and the reported death last weekend in a missile strike of Fahd al Quso, a senior AQAP cadre thought to have been involved in the attack on the US warship USS Cole in 2000. By any measure, however, it represented a significant setback for the Yemen-based organisation, and one seemingly sure to undermine internal cohesion while increasing paranoia and distrust.
Given the number of people in Washington apparently briefed on the unfolding operation, it is a near-miracle that it did not leak before its denouement. It is axiomatic in Washington, however, that the more tightly a secret is initially controlled, the more thoroughly and explosively it is exposed once the parties to the conspiracy believe they are at liberty to do so.
In the event, this was no garden-variety intelligence leak. The original revelation of this stunning intelligence success, tantalisingly stripped of important detail, had all the ear-marks of a strategic placement by a senior Obama administration official, aiming to maximise political credit to the president in an election season. Seemingly within hours, statements or media appearances were forthcoming from the National Security Council, the president’s senior counterterrorism advisor, the FBI, Secretary of State Clinton, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. Each public revelation was carefully if pathetically designed to reveal a minimum of operational detail, while promoting some personal, political, or bureaucratic agenda. The cumulative effect on the press, predictably, was like throwing chum on the water before a school of sharks. In no time, full details of the nature of the operation and how it had been conducted were being bandied about; if there were any operational intelligence equities still to be protected, they were thoroughly compromised within little over a day.
Now the spies of the US Intelligence Community, rather than quietly celebrating success, are wistfully shaking their heads. It would appear that some among them have made unauthorised and perhaps damaging revelations, but such revelations became a foregone conclusion once appetites in the press had been so thoroughly whetted. As the Director of National Intelligence launches an investigation, he does so knowing that the real culprits – in the White House and on Capitol Hill – are beyond his reach.
Meanwhile, steadily, progressively, but largely unremarked upon, the American political leadership is marching down a now-familiar path, with the latest Yemeni bomb plot apparently contributing as both private motivation and public justification. In recent weeks, the White House has announced a stepped-up drone campaign in Yemen, while for the first time publically acknowledging and trying to overtly build public support for their use. We are told in press reports that just as the US government has long since lowered the threshold employed for use of drone-launched missile attacks in Pakistan through resort to so-called “signature strikes”, missile operators in Yemen are being permitted to fire at targets engaged in activities deemed “suspicious”, even when the target personalities themselves are unknown.
A steady drumbeat of leaked intelligence analyses cites significant swaths of territory in Yemen allegedly falling under the control of al-Qaeda, as large-scale attacks against “hundreds” of supposed “al-Qaeda militants”, launched by Yemeni forces with US assistance, gain momentum. I do not claim deep knowledge of developments in Shabwa Privince, but when I hear significant numbers of tribal militants being referred to as al-Qaeda operatives, and AQAP, a small organisation dominated by non-Yemenis, being alleged to have political control of significant parts of Yemen, I react with some scepticism, and some suspicion.
One wonders how many Yemenis may be moved in future to violent extremism in reaction to carelessly targeted missile strikes, and how many Yemeni militants with strictly local agendas will become dedicated enemies of the West in response to US military actions against them. AQAP and those whom it trains and motivates to strike against civilian targets must continue to be resisted by the joint efforts of the civilised world. But the US would be wise to calibrate its actions in Yemen in such a way as to avoid making that obscure and relatively limited and containable threat into the Arabian equivalent of Waziristan.
Robert Grenier is a retired, 27-year veteran of the CIA’s Clandestine Service. He was Director of the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center from 2004 to 2006.