In the wake of last month’s near miss with terrorist catastrophe – the successful shipping but failed detonation of PETN bombs – much focus has fallen on improving our cargo security posture, strengthening international scanning techniques and determining just how heavy a hand should fall on Yemen.

Many in the security field have been beating the Yemen war drum for sometime, seeing al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) as a growing problem threatening the region, as well as the world. TSA Administrator John Pistole called AQAP a “determined and creative enemy,” and the bombs shipped from Yemen are good evidence that they are capable and ready to engage this year’s terror campaign with potentially lethal results.

While the United States and its allies focus on taking the fight to AQAP, along with tighter security and a heightened awareness, there are lingering questions about how the initial intelligence was uncovered.

The official story is that Jabir Jubran al Fayfi, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee who was in Yemen working with AQAP, defected to Saudi authorities on October 16, 2010. He shared valuable knowledge, including information about the bomb plot.

On the face of it, Fayfi rejected al Qaeda, recognizing their wickedness, and in betraying their confidence, he embodied the ideal end to the war on terror – everyone simply stops. The plot was interrupted to such a degree that Fayfi’s information potentially saved lives. The repentant sinner becomes a hero.

It’s a nice story, truly.

But it lacks context. When set within a more nuanced milieu, the once plausible story becomes less so. Rather than an unlikely ally who saw the light in the eleventh hour, Fayfi is better understood as a smoke screen for Saudi intelligence operations in Yemen.

In reviewing the publically available information, and applying healthy doses of skepticism and logical reasoning, it becomes clear that there has been a lot more going on in Yemen than a simple change of heart.

Who is Jabir Jubran al Fayfi?

Jabir Fayfi

Fayfi was recruited by al Qaeda before the 9/11 attacks. He traveled to Afghanistan via Pakistan to join fighting there. After the attacks, Fayfi hid at a Tora Bora camp – perhaps the same camp where bin Laden was hiding at the time – before fleeing to Pakistan. There he was captured and taken to Guantanamo Bay – Internment Serial Number 188.

In early 2007, Fayfi was released into Saudi custody, where he was put in a rehabilitation program designed to coax militants back from the brink of terrorism. This is done with a mix of religious instruction and financial incentives. The program, however, appears to have failed initially, because after completing his “rehabilitation,” Fayfi escaped to Yemen to join AQAP.

Interestingly, an article in the recently released second edition of the AQAP magazine, Inspire, reveals what post-Guantanamo life in Saudi may have been like for Fayfi. Inspire describes the trajectory of Uthman al Ghamidi from fledgling mujahedeen to AQAP commander, a story that is almost identical to Fayfi’s, including detention at Guantanamo. Of particular note is Ghamidi’s recollection about how the Saudi government monitored his movements once he was returned from the U.S. detention center. Inspire reads:

“The vehicles of the intelligence services would follow us wherever we went. Our every move was being monitored…if I went into the [mosque] to pray, they would come in and pray. If I entered a store, they enter after me, if I ride my car they ride theirs, if I come out of my car they would come out of theirs.”

Though the Saudis took in several former Guantanamo detainees, they nevertheless kept a close watch on them. Not close enough, evidently, as Fayfi, Ghamidi and others have made the journey south to Yemen.

As reported by the Saudi-owned newspaper al Hayat, Fayfi was surprised by the harsh conditions for AQAP in Yemen. Yet, Fayfi had previously fought on in Afghanistan. Do current conditions in Yemen dwarf those of fighting in Afghanistan? Possibly.

After contacting Saudi authorities with a request to leave Yemen, a private jet was sent to Yemen to bring Fayfi back to Saudi Arabia. Recent reports in al Hayat have stated that Fayfi is in a Saudi prison. The information he has since shared has been the basis for the response to the bomb plot, and also, according to some reports, the heightened security posture in Europe (particularly France) in mid-October, when an AQAP attack was thought to be imminent.

That’s what the media is reporting, anyway. But there are parts of this story that just don’t add up. If true, the story could surely stand up to some specific questions, and if not, all the more reason to start asking exactly what happened here.

The Devil’s in the Details

It is surprising there has not been a more robust public/journalistic response to or inspection of the story put forward by Saudi Arabia. There are numerous questions journalists and bloggers should be asking; yet, media outlets throughout the world (including major American and British publications) have simply re-reported the facts first printed in Saudi newspapers, citing al Hayat and al Watan as reliable sources.

This is poor journalistic practice. Not only is relying on a single source a bad idea, it’s even more important to remember that freedom of the press does not exist for most Middle Eastern media outlets. Information from a Saudi-owned newspaper should be taken with a large grain of salt. There is a definite skepticism amongst Middle Eastern populations when it comes to state-owned media, one we in the United States would do well to follow.

With the currently available information, the story doesn’t quite check out. One issue is, how did Fayfi get from an AQAP hideaway in Yemen to a private Saudi jet?

It’s easy enough to Google the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs and find their contact information. Did he call the operator and say he’d had enough? Perhaps Fayfi had contacts from his time in the rehabilitation program. But did he memorize that number? Was it saved on his phone?

Certainly, Fayfi wasn’t chatting away with Saudi intelligence agents while with AQAP. From an article in Inspire (first edition) about what to expect when joining jihad, we know cell phone use at AQ camps is highly restricted. If phones are allowed, they must have the battery removed and can only be used with permission from a superior.

After the initial contact, someone sent a flight to Yemen, but Fayfi would have needed to be given its arrival time and location. It follows that there must have been at least two communications between Fayfi and the Saudi authorities. Could Fayfi have managed these multiple communications without raising suspicion amongst his al Qaeda brethren? Sure, but this is starting to get complicated.

Once the Saudis got him, presumably it was time to start talking. After all, Fayfi was the driving force behind his return to Saudi. But did he sit around silent for two weeks, biding his time, before announcing on October 29 that bombs were in the air? Unlikely.

And would the Saudi government, as well as numerous other governments and intelligence and security agencies around the world, raise the call to action based on one source of information?

Perhaps the most revealing evidence is that when Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief, Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, shared the intelligence with the United States, he included the packages’ tracking numbers. If Fayfi returned to Saudi in mid-October, he could not have known these tracking numbers. By this, it’s clear there were other sources of information.

Who is Behind the Curtain?

The Yemeni government has suggested Fayfi was working as a double agent for the Saudis. That’s hard to believe – sending a former Guantanamo detainee into the lion’s den is not the wisest way to covertly gather intelligence, and it requires a good deal of faith to believe Fayfi wouldn’t return to his militant ideals or feed misinformation to his controllers.

Yet, it is clear the Saudis have excellent intelligence. They alerted France to an impending attack in mid-October, and then alerted the United States and Britain to the bomb plot. This information wasn’t dated or vague – it was precise and just in time. Media is now reporting one of the PETN bombs was defused only 17 minutes before detonation.

This kind of timely information shows Saudi intelligence has penetrated AQAP, with access to key elements of more than one plot. Indeed, as reported by the Guardian, Saudi has “recruited hundreds of informers, gives powerful tribal chiefs generous stipends to ensure their loyalty and even passes out money within Yemen’s security forces.”

It is safe to assume the real heroes of the initial intelligence gathering are the unsung, unknown informers and intel agents buried deep in al Qaeda’s organization. Certainly, U.S. and other intelligence and security agencies should be praised for their quick work, taking the Saudi information and running with it. Yet, the plot may not have been uncovered (until after the explosions) had it not been for this impressive intelligence work in Yemen.

Justin Hienz is Editor for Security Debrief. He blogs primarily on radicalization, aviation security, religious and Middle Eastern affairs, and communications. Read More