WASHINGTON -- The thwarting of an al Qaeda plot to send an underwear bomber on a U.S.-bound jetliner is more than an intelligence coup in the battle against Islamic terrorists. It is a textbook example of how more than a decade after the 9/11 attacks, the United States must still outsource its covert operations to sometimes reliable allies like Saudi Arabia, which don't always share American interests.
Intelligence experts agree that without the double agent who infiltrated al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen and his Saudi handlers in Riyadh, it would have been difficult -- if not impossible -- to stop the plot. Emerging reports indicate the agent who posed as a willing suicide bomber had been recruited from the "jihadist orbit" in Saudi Arabia by the kingdom's powerful Interior Ministry. Its counterterrorism chief, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, was instrumental in warning U.S. officials of a plot to plant bombs in printer cartridges being shipped on cargo plane from Yemen to Chicago in 2010. His ministry and other Saudi intelligence officials also helped investigate the 2009 Christmas Day underwear bomber. In addition, the kingdom has provided targeting information for U.S. drone strikes, including the latest against a conspirator in the bombing of the USS Cole that was linked to the operation to foil the underwear bomb plot.
"Of course the Saudis have their own motivations," said Arthur Hulnick, a former Air Force and CIA intelligence officer. "But in many cases, especially in regard to terrorism, we are all on the same page."
"The Saudis are absolutely essential to this whole program," said former CIA counterterrorism chief Vincent Cannistraro, who added that Saudi intelligence agents have trained in the United States with their U.S. counterparts. "What is the alternative?"
There aren't many, given AQAP's widening grip on southern Yemen amid political upheaval following the country's Arab Spring uprisings and the departure of its longtime president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Yet as Yemen has gradually replaced Afghanistan and Pakistan as the main safe haven for Islamic terrorists, its neighbor to the north has become indispensable in clandestine operations to outwit them.
Meanwhile, the CIA, military and other U.S. agencies are still struggling to field enough human intelligence agents in critical counterterrorism hot spots. While there have been efforts to expand the number of Arabic speakers, "That doesn't blend you in," said Kenneth Katzman, a Persian Gulf expert at the Congressional Research Service. "There are a lot of complicated tribal, clan, regional dynamics within Yemen and Saudi Arabia -- local dynamics that really you have to have, a guide, a mentor in terms of understanding these schisms -- who’s likely to rat on whom, who’s protecting whom. Just having intelligence officers with language skills is not going to get you where you need to be. ... It would be very, very difficult for the U.S. to do it on its own."
Osama bin Laden, a Saudi by birth, came from a family with roots in Yemen. The al Qaeda bomb maker responsible for the devices used in both underwear plots and in the printer caper in 2010, Ibrahim al Asiri, was born in Riyadh in a family originally from Asir province in southwest Saudi Arabia near the Yemeni border -- an area that was also home to several of the 9/11 hijackers.
Such ties are rampant throughout AQAP, most of whose members are Saudis who fled across the border to Yemen in 2006 after their own government cracked down on al Qaeda. In 2009, the Yemeni and Saudi branches of al Qaeda merged to form AQAP. Many of its adherents left behind family members in Saudi Arabia whom the kingdom has been able to use as leverage to convince some militants to become informants.
"The Saudis are the logical people to do this type of operation because of the number of Saudis in AQAP, and the success they have had in their de-radicalization program," said Scott Stewart, vice president of tactical intelligence for Stratfor, a global intelligence company.
For the Saudi ruling family, the fight against al Qaeda is personal. Prince Nayef, the deputy Interior Minister, survived an assassination attempt in August 2009. The would-be assassin, who managed to kill only himself, was sent by his brother, Ibrahim al Asiri, the al Qaeda bomb maker who has so far eluded capture.
"The Saudis want to take these guys down," said Stewart. "They are very concerned about the threat AQAP poses to the house of Saud and their regime and oil industry and are natural allies to the Americans. There is very little concern for additional blow-back since AQAP has already declared war on them."
Saudi Arabia wasn't always so eager to help U.S. counterterrorism efforts. The kingdom often appeared reluctant to crack down on militants, preferring instead to banish them to other countries such as Pakistan, where their extremist views were nurtured at Saudi-funded madrassas.
"Right after 9/11 we had a difficult time, but worked with the Saudis to get on the same page on fighting Al Qaeda," said Robert Jordan, who became U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia weeks after the attacks on New York and Washington. "After the Riyadh bombings of May 2003, we saw a new level of cooperation and an aggressive assault on extremists. The Saudis continue to improve and to enlist the support of the people, enabling better infiltration and enhanced intelligence effectiveness."
But while the Saudis are "pivotal" to operations in the Arabian Peninsula, Katzman said, they have been less helpful in other Arab countries including Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.
And there are dangers to relying on foreigners, as the U.S. painfully learned in late-2009, when a Jordanian double agent blew himself up on a base in Afghanistan, killing seven CIA agents with him.
Charles Faddis, a former CIA operations officer in the Middle East, said Arab intelligence agents may have natural advantages in running covert operations in the region, but "Every time you pull something like this off, it makes the next op a little trickier. The bad guys learn and they read the papers, too. They don't get fooled twice in the same way."
There are also moral calculations over how much to cooperate with Saudis, who diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks have shown have been the chief funders for al Qaeda, the Taliban and other terrorist groups even as the kingdom's leaders have clamped down on militants within and near its borders.
"There is a downside," said Stewart. "It makes it very difficult for the U.S. to hold the Saudis accountable for all the support that the jihadis are getting from Saudi citizens, to include some members of the royal family."