Saudi Intelligence Key In Detecting Bomb Plot

Saudi Arabia played a key role in stopping last week's attempted terrorist plot involving bombs that originated in Yemen. Steve Inskeep talks with security expert Thomas Hegghammer about how Saudi Arabia has improved both intelligence gathering and sharing over the past decade.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Americans found out about bombs headed for American borders thanks to a tip. The tip came from the intelligence service of Saudi Arabia. They were the ones who learned of a plot to send explosives from Yemen to Chicago by international air freight.

We're going to talk about Saudi intelligence and how they collaborate with the United States with Thomas Hegghammer. He's a research fellow with the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment, a government research group in Norway.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. THOMAS HEGGHAMMER (Norwegian Defense Research Establishment): Thank you very much.

INSKEEP: So how effective are the Saudis at tracking radical groups?

Mr. HEGGHAMMER: Oh, they've become very effective indeed since 2003, when al-Qaida launched a terrorism campaign in Saudi Arabia. That really woke up the Saudis to the threat from militant Islamism, and it really sparked a complete overhaul of the Saudi security system.

INSKEEP: Well, now, this is interesting. I mean, this has always been an authoritarian government. They've always had internal security and that sort of thing. But you're saying they just weren't very good at tracking radicals until they were attacked themselves?

Mr. HEGGHAMMER: That's right. I think before 2003 they had a very reactive approach to militant Islamism. After 2003, their intelligence service became much better and they were able to sort of monitor communities and preempt attacks before they happen.

INSKEEP: Now, if they do their job well, we usually wouldn't know everything that they're doing, but do you have a sense of how it is that the Saudis have become more effective?

Mr. HEGGHAMMER: The backbone of their system is technology. They've made enormous investments in the past six, seven years in various forms of surveillance technology and they've been able to do so mostly because of their oil wealth. At times in the past few years, the Saudis have showed off some of their capabilities. They have invited journalists into, for example, the control rooms where they monitor every street, every yard, by camera, for example. But another important component of their capability increase is assistance from Western services. U.S. agencies and also British agencies have been involved in providing advice and support for Saudi intelligence analysts and so on.

INSKEEP: Now, some years ago there was an undercurrent of distrust, at least on a political level, between Saudi Arabia and the United States. Americans couldn't help but notice that most of the 9/11 hijackers were linked to Saudi Arabia - the country, not the government. There were people who questioned the motives of the Saudi government, whether they were really serious about cracking down on militants, whether they were really serious about preventing money from leaving Saudi Arabia to support militant groups. Have the intelligence agencies, though, of the United States and Saudi Arabia been able to work quite closely together all these years?

Mr. HEGGHAMMER: I think that there was tension, particularly after 9/11 and before the terrorism campaign in Saudi in 2003. But I think since 2003, cooperation has greatly increased and media reported very close collaboration, where, for example, teams of U.S. intelligence analysts were embedded on Saudi soil and provided direct assistance, working side-by-side with Saudi analysts.

INSKEEP: Now, this incident would suggest that in addition to keeping a close eye on what's happening within Saudi Arabia, that the Saudis have some grip on what's going on in their neighboring country, Yemen, which is where this plot originated that the Saudi's exposed.

Mr. HEGGHAMMER: Yes, that would seem to be the case. I think, though, that this is a relatively recent development that has much to do with the attempted attack on the life of Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the Deputy Interior Minister, who...

INSKEEP: This was - this happened last year, in 2009?

Mr. HEGGHAMMER: That's right, in late August, 2009. And that attack was instigated by the Yemen-based al-Qaida, and I think that really woke up the Saudis to a threat from Yemen and motivated greater involvement.

INSKEEP: And what form has that involvement taken as far as you can tell?

Mr. HEGGHAMMER: It seems from hints given by - I use the Saudi spokesman and also from information provided by al-Qaida in their own propaganda, that agents have been sent to Yemen to try and recruit informants and infiltrate al-Qaida. In the past they relied mainly on surveillance technology, but in Yemen they're clearly relying more on human intelligence.

INSKEEP: Getting people on the ground to give them information directly.

Mr. HEGGHAMMER: That's right. That's right.

INSKEEP: Thomas Hegghammer is a research fellow at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment. He is also a researcher at New York University in the United States.

Thanks very much.

Mr. HEGGHAMMER: Thank you.

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