It seems that Hollywood and much of the internet is obsessed by conspiracies. Bookshop shelves bow under the weight of texts devoted to proving that a group of men and women in smoke-filled rooms shape our destinies. They killed Kennedy, murdered Princess Diana and maybe even staged the lunar landing in a studio somewhere near Los Angeles.
One could condemn the testimony of Hani Mujahid as conspiracy. How could it be that a head of state, former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, worked with – and even offered financial support – to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a group listed as a terrorist organisation in the West?
Of the serving and former intelligence and security officers that I have met, all, without exception, laugh at the idea of hidden hands. They prefer to claim that in the global political landscape, botched jobs are much more prevalent than conspiracy.
And they are mostly right. The world’s history unfolds due to events that no single nation or entity can possibly control. There is no group of world leaders who meet in a mansion or mountain retreat and secretly decide the future of our planet.
Art of deception
But then again, intelligence officers are schooled in the art of deception. They are trained liars and covert operations are part of their professional toolbox.
Indeed, “False Flag” operations were a traditional part of naval warfare. A ship would raise a flag other than its battle ensign in order to draw an enemy ship nearer. When the target was within range, the deceiving ship would run-up the true battle flag and open fire.
More recently, a “false flag” is used to describe a secret military operation by one country, which then blames their enemy. The purpose of the deception is to gain a pretext for wider military intervention.
One of the most detailed examples of the tactics and military thinking behind false flag operations was revealed in declassified US Department of Defence documents from 1963.
Operation Northwoods was a set of plans designed to create a casus belli for a United States’ invasion of Cuba. The proposals involved fabricating the hijacking or shooting down of passenger planes, the sinking of a US ship or a boat filled with Cuban refugees and bombings by alleged Cuban “terrorists” inside the US.
These false flag operations served two purposes. It portrayed the Islamists as bloodthirsty and cruel. Secondly, it made brutal reprisals by the military regime more acceptable.
The communist government of Fidel Castro would be blamed for these acts of aggression and the US would then invade and topple his government. These plans were never executed, which is one reason why the documents were declassified.
More recent examples of alleged false flag operations include the Russian apartment bombings in 1999. Strikes on four apartment blocks killed nearly 300 people and put the country on edge. It has been suggested that the bombings were coordinated by the Russian security service, the FSB, in order to win public support for a full-scale war in Chechnya, as well as boost the popularity of then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Allegation of state involvement
The bombings have proved difficult to properly investigate and many of those who made the allegation of state involvement were later found murdered.
When I reported on the Algerian civil war in the 1990s, there were persistent accounts of massacres committed by members of the Algerian security service, the DRS, which was later blamed on their Islamist foes. Victims described how DRS officers dressed in robes and fake beards entered villages and slaughtered at will. The killings often took place near police stations and military bases, yet no one intervened.
These false flag operations served two purposes: It portrayed the Islamists as bloodthirsty and cruel and it made brutal reprisals by the military regime more acceptable.
The tactic was successful; it undermined the main Islamist opposition by sowing discord in its ranks and, to the outside world, it tarnished the political movement the fighters represented.
Suspicions that the Algerian intelligence services has played a role in manipulating Islamist groups in the region have remained as the GIA of the 1990s morphed into what is now al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
Similar accusations of infiltration and collusion have been made about Pakistan’s powerful Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence. In the tribal areas of Pakistan, there are armed factions that are known locally as “ISI Taliban”.
Different power factions
It is unthinkable that the man who governed Yemen for more than three decades didn’t consider similar tactics for his intelligence services?
Saleh was known for his skills managing the different power factions in Yemen. He coined a colourful phrase to describe the talents needed to survive as Yemen’s president. He said it was like “dancing on the head of snakes“.
The “snakes” he is referring to include opposition parties, rival army commanders, rebellious tribes, and militant jihadists.
The latter emerged in Yemen in the 1990s, when the mujahideen returned from Afghanistan after the defeat of the Soviet army. Saleh absorbed many into his northern army fighting against socialist forces from the south.
What was important to the regime in Sanaa was whether the jihadists were on its side or not. It was easy for former Afghan mujahideen to join the security forces in one form or another. They gained a foothold in many parts of mainstream Yemeni life. The country is, after all, the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden.
It was easy for former Afghan mujahideen to join the security forces in one form or another. They gained a foothold in many parts of mainstream Yemeni life. The country is, after all, the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden.
The complexity of Yemen’s tribal and family loyalties also makes the accusation of collusion between the government and al-Qaeda more plausible.
“In Yemen, the average family size is 7.5,” political analyst Samaa al-Hamdani told me. “Let’s say I am a member of al-Qaeda and I have six sisters. One of my sisters is going to marry someone who knows someone who works as part of a security body. Based on these family ties, I could actually infiltrate the system or get lenient treatment.”
Such overlapping loyalties affected the family of the only fatality at the bombing of the US embassy in September 2008. Susan Elbaneh, an 18-year-old Yemeni-American died as she was filling out forms for a US visa for her new husband. As well as being a victim, Elbaneh was a cousin of Jaber Elbaneh, who is listed as a suspected al-Qaeda member by the US government.
It is also worth noting that al-Qaeda means something very different in Yemen than in Washington or London. In today’s civil war, al-Qaeda is seen less as a “terrorist” organisation than another armed faction grappling for power.
Mujahid’s account of his life is also unremarkable for a Yemeni of his age and background. We have established that his passage from al-Qaeda bomb maker in Afghanistan, followed by arrest in Pakistan, being imprisoned in Yemen, and “flipping” to become an informant is essentially true.
What we are unable to verify from independent sources are his claims that Ali Abdullah Saleh actively manipulated AQAP or that his nephew, Colonel Ammar Abdullah Saleh provided the money to buy explosives for the bombing of the US embassy in Sanaa in 2008.
Mujahid has now agreed to take his evidence to an international body that is prepared to launch an investigation.
Given former President Saleh’s unconventional approach to statecraft, Mujahid’s testimony is at least worth a much closer inspection. It would be implausible that such an agile political player, who used such an impressive array of tools to maintain his rule, would not include deception in his toolbox.
Phil Rees is investigations manager at al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit. He has produced or reported over 60 documentaries and won over a dozen international awards.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.