Yemen — Information that helped thwart the plot of US-bound mail bombs
wired to explode on cargo planes came from an al-Qaida insider who was
secreted out of Yemen after surrendering to Saudi authorities, according
to Yemeni security officials.
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The tip reflects how Saudi Arabia
has worked aggressively for years to infiltrate al-Qaida in the Arabian
Peninsula, which is operating in the unruly, impoverished nation on its
tip came from Jabir al-Fayfi, a Saudi who was held for years at the US
military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and was released to Saudi
Arabia in 2007. Soon after, he fled Saudi Arabia and joined the al-Qaida
affiliate in Yemen, until he turned himself in to Saudi authorities in
Yemeni security officials said Monday they
believe al-Fayfi may have been a double agent, planted by Saudi Arabia
in Yemen among al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula militants to uncover
their plots. The officials said that after his return to the kingdom, he
told authorities that al-Qaida was planning to send bomb-laden
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not
authorized to talk to the media. Tribal leaders in Yemen aware of the
situation, and similarly speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed
al-Fayfi's role. Saudi officials did not respond to calls for comment.
Saudi Arabia has been recruiting informants in the terrorist network and
also has been paying Yemeni tribal chiefs — and even gives cash to
figures in the Yemeni military — to gain their loyalty.
US President Barack Obama thanked Saudi King Abdullah, a top US ally, in
a Saturday telephone call for the "critical role" by Saudi
counter-terrorism authorities in uncovering the plot. After the Saudi
alert, two bombs hidden in packages mailed from Yemen and addressed to
synagogues in Chicago were discovered Friday on planes transiting
through Dubai and Britain.
Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, considered a key figure in al-Qaida in the
Arabian Peninsula, is the chief suspect behind assembling the
sophisticated mail bombs, according to US intelligence officials.
German officials said Monday the mail bombs contained 10.58 ounces (300
grams) and 15.11 ounces (400 grams) of the explosive PETN — enough to
cause "significant" damage to the planes. By contrast, the explosives
that failed to work last Christmas on a Detroit-bound airliner used 80
grams of PETN secreted in the underwear of a Nigerian passenger.
Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility for that.
The warning from Germany came as investigators tried to trace bomb parts
and look for any more explosives possibly sent from Yemen.
While al-Fayfi may have provided broad outlines about the plot, it appears Saudi Arabia had other sources.
US officials have said the tip was specific enough that it identified the tracking numbers of the packages. The Saudi newspaper Al-Watan
on Monday cited Saudi security officials as saying the kingdom gave US
investigators the tracking numbers, which al-Fayfi likely would not have
known since he surrendered well before the packages were mailed.
Al-Fayfi's surrender may have revealed other plots as well. In
mid-October, a couple of weeks after his surrender, Saudi Arabia warned
European authorities of a threat from al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula,
saying the group's operatives were active on the continent,
Al-Fayfi was held at Guantanamo until early 2007, when he was released to Saudi Arabia.
There, he was put through the kingdom's rehabilitation program for
militants. But soon after leaving the program, he fled to Yemen and
joined al-Qaida, according to the Saudi Interior Ministry. In September,
he contacted Saudi authorities, saying he wanted to turn himself in. A
private jet was sent to the capital of San'a to bring him to Riyadh,
Saudi security officials told the Saudi-owned daily Al-Hayat
Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is made up of several hundred
militants and appears to be aggressively seeking to recruit American and
European radicals who could provide a way for the group to carry out
attacks in their homelands. Yemen provides a potentially easy entry
point for foreign radicals to link up with al-Qaida, with a number of
popular Islamic religious and Arabic-language schools that attract
students from around the world.
Most of the militants, however, are Yemenis and Saudis — including many
Saudis who belonged to al-Qaida's branch in the kingdom until it was
crushed by a heavy crackdown in the mid-2000s.
Since then, Saudi intelligence has aggressively been pursuing them, even
as the militants have vowed both to kill Saudi officials and to topple
the Yemeni government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The Saudis deeply
distrust the ability of Saleh's regime to crack down on militants,
seeing Yemen's security forces as incompetent.
The frustration with the Yemenis climaxed last year when al-Qaida in the
Arabian Peninsula came close to killing Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, a
member of the royal family who runs the Saudi counter-terrorism program.
Al-Asiri's brother, Abdullah, posing as a reformed jihadist, detonated a
bomb hidden inside a body cavity, killing himself but only slightly
wounding the prince.
Forensic analysis indicates that Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri built the bomb
carried by his brother, as well as the explosives carried by the
Nigerian on the Detroit-bound flight.
The attack on the prince "was the thing that infuriated the Saudis and
made them step up their intelligence operations in Yemen and almost
completely sidestep the Yemenis," said a Yemeni security official
familiar with the kingdom's activity in his country.
"They recruited hundreds of informers and began to spend even more
lavishly on their allies," said the official, who agreed to share the
information in exchange for anonymity because he was not authorized to
speak to the media.
For years, Saudi Arabia has also been known to be giving cash rewards to
tribal chiefs, senior military officers and politicians.
"It is a case of the Saudis distrusting the Yemenis on the war against
terror," said Mohammed al-Sabry, a Yemeni analyst. "What was once a lack
of coordination between the two nations is now a serious problem
Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi expert on al-Qaida, said the Saudis
"managed to do a superb job in Yemen. ... You have to have someone
inside in order to get the job done."
He said Saudi Arabia has been working to infiltrate al-Qaida elsewhere,
especially in Iraq and Afghanistan, "but we have done a better job in