This week's revelation that U.S. intelligence had intercepted a second, more sophisticated “underwear bomb” device, intended to blow up a U.S.-bound airliner, has unravelled further, hinting at an equally sophisticated American counterterrorism strategy that relied on the use of double-agents to penetrate and expose al-Qaeda.
According to unnamed U.S. officials who leaked to the New York Times the presence of a double agent in the operation against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the purported suicide bomber dispatched on the mission by AQAP last month “was actually an intelligence agent for Saudi Arabia who infiltrated the terrorist group and volunteered for the mission”.
AQAP was also said to be behind the 2009 Christmas Day underwear bombing attempt by Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Both attempts were ultimately traced back to an explosives miniaturisation specialist, Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, said to be conducting regular “bomb workshops” in Yemen.
Yet AQAP might well have paid a high price for its repeat attempts to strike on U.S. soil after the CIA not only foiled this week's planned attack but also used critical information provided by the double agent to kill Fahd Mohammed Ahmed al-Quso, AQAP external operations director. Al-Quso, who was reported to have perished in a drone strike carried out on Sunday, was a suspect in the bombing of the USS Cole warship in Yemen in 2000.
According to the leak in the New York Times, U.S. officials said the Saudi double agent, whose identity they refused to disclose, worked for the Saudi intelligence service and “operated in Yemen with the full knowledge of the CIA but not under its direct supervision”.
Ultimately it was to ensure the protection of this agent, who has now returned safely to Saudi Arabia and had his family moved to safe locations, that the U.S. requested the Associated Press to hold back on its publications of its story on this subject, officials added. U.S. officials explained to the Times that it was not a cover-up by the Obama administration aimed at scheduling an announcement of the foiled plot.
The AP obtained information on the underwear bomb more than a week ago, when U.S. law enforcement insisted that there were “no indication of any specific, credible threats or plots against the U.S.” linked to the anniversary of the Osama bin Laden killing. The secret operation against the underwear bomb was however ongoing when that statement was made.