Years of U.S.-Saudi teamwork led to airline plot's failure

SANAA, Yemen — For al-Qaida's affiliate in Yemen, the volunteer seemed ideal. He was willing to die in a suicide operation, and he had travel papers that would let him board a U.S.-bound flight.

It was a perfect dangle, in the parlance of spycraft, and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula took the bait.

The group's bombmaker fitted the man with a new version of a nonmetallic "underwear bomb." What he didn't know was that the would-be martyr was an agent run by Saudi Arabia. And the man turned the device over to his Saudi handlers inside Yemen.

The Saudis flew the bomb out of the country on a noncommercial jet and handed it over to American officials in an unidentified third country, according to Mustafa Alani, director of security and defense studies at the Gulf Research Center in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, who has close contacts with the kingdom's intelligence and counterterrorism agencies. A U.S. official confirmed aspects of his account, the Washington Post reported.

Those details follow the revelation this week that U.S. and Saudi intelligence agencies had infiltrated al-Qaida in Yemen and foiled the bombing effort, working closely together against a militant network that remains determined to strike U.S. targets. The collaboration between Saudi Arabia and the United States appears to have intensified in the past two years, despite a history of mistrust rooted in the role of Saudi hijackers in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

When it comes to counterterrorism, the Saudis have been crucial partners for an array of other Western powers. The crucial testing ground for that partnership is now Yemen, where the local affiliate of al-Qaida continues to plan attacks against Western targets even after the killing of its chief ideologue, Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born cleric, in a drone strike in September.

"The Saudis have a special position in Yemen — they can do what the Americans cannot do," Alani said. "They understand the culture, and they provide the human intelligence, which is the crucial and dangerous part. The Americans provide the electronic surveillance."

The agent who foiled the bomb plot — apparently by volunteering for the suicide mission himself — is now safely in Saudi Arabia, officials there say. But analysts have speculated that the disclosure may already have damaged Saudi Arabia's carefully cultivated network of informants.

In Washington, FBI Director Robert Mueller told the House Judiciary Committee the FBI is examining the explosive device. He said the scheme demonstrates that it's essential for Congress to reauthorize counterterrorism tools enacted in 2008, some of which expire at the end of the year.

Information from Washington Post, New York Times and Associated Press was used in this report.

Years of U.S.-Saudi teamwork led to airline plot's failure 05/09/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 9, 2012 11:31pm]

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