here are two important elements to the Saudi-CIA double agent story, the details of which are still emerging. The first is that the lethal intent of Al-Qaeda affiliates like Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula remains a potent threat to U.S. national security. Anyone who doubts otherwise needs to watch the webcast of a recent event at the esteemed Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington featuring the who’s who of U.S. security experts discussing the very real menace Al-Qaeda affiliates pose to U.S. safety.
The second is evidence of superior intelligence work, reflecting a dedication in particular to the one thing some of us have worried the CIA undervalues: human intelligence.
One of the main concerns of the 9/11 Commission was that the intelligence community had failed to understand the nature of Al-Qaeda, not the threat they posed, but the group’s ideology and its ultimate goals. One of the main reasons for this “failure” was an utter lack of human intelligence.
The instance of a Saudi spy infiltrating the most lethal of Al-Qaeda’s affiliates, gaining their trust, maintaining his cover, relaying the proper intel to both the CIA and Saudi officials resulting in an incisive drone strike was nothing short of what the New York Times said so crisply, “an extraordinary intelligence coup.” This is just the sort of work we asked of our intelligence community 10 years ago, and they delivered brilliantly. And they did so in close partnership with Saudi intelligence, an organization that works as hard at counter-terrorism in the Arabian Peninsula as any U.S. drone.
For the naysayers, like PolicyMic’s own Robert Taylor, this crack intelligence work might seem like it ought to be routine. But gathering human intelligence is an exceedingly tricky business, made even more challenging when groups like AQAP are paranoid about infiltration. Not only is getting an agent into AQAP a challenge, there is the added nightmare that all double agents pose: that he might in fact turn on you.
None of this kind of work is routine. It is dangerous, diligent and frustrating and more often than not, goes unrewarded. This episode is a classic case of “know your enemy,” for which we once faulted our intelligence community of not doing.
There is nothing phony or manufactured about the threat AQAP, or the other Al-Qaeda affiliates, pose. They have learned over the past decade to adjust their goals and their tactics, as evidenced in this very plot. But so has the U.S. and its intelligence partners, and the urgency to always stay one step ahead deserves the public’s praise, not its cynicism.