Outing Of Al-Qaida Double Agent May Benefit CIA

U.S. officials now say that the man picked to bring a bomb onboard an airliner bound for the United States was actually an agent working on behalf of the CIA. That's the latest twist in a complicated tale — and it raises questions about just how dangerous the group behind the plot really is.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. We begin this hour with the story of an undercover agent who penetrated the ranks of the al-Qaida arm in Yemen. As we learned this week, he managed to get the group's latest bomb into the hands of the CIA. U.S. officials say they're upset that the story leaked. They say it compromised their informant, who is now apparently safely out of Yemen.

But there may be a benefit, as NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports, distrust sewn within the terrorist group.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: For some time now, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, has known that Saudi intelligence has dispatched networks of spies to infiltrate their ranks.

GREGORY JOHNSON: Earlier this year, they put to death three individuals who they claimed were actually spying.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Gregory Johnson, an expert on Yemen at Princeton University. He says what's so unusual about this latest story is that a double agent managed to be accepted into the group so easily.

JOHNSON: What is new is that they got so close and they got so high up within AQAP.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Officials say that the group's top operations chief, a man named Fahd al-Quso was the one who gave the agent his suicide mission. His instructions were simple. Board a U.S.-bound airline with the new underwear bomb and blow up the plane. Instead, the agent fled with the bomb. His al-Qaida contact was killed in a drone attack over the weekend and officials say the agent provided the information the CIA needed to target him.

Johnson says that because AQAP is so suspicious, the undercover agent must have possessed something the group couldn't resist.

JOHNSON: It suggests that this undercover agent must have been someone who was able to show the organization that he could freely travel in the West, someone who had a visa either to the U.S. or who could readily get one because that's something that AQAP has had difficulties in finding individuals who are able to travel in the West.

TEMPLE-RASTON: While penetrating AQAP and delivering its latest explosive to the CIA will undoubtedly help the U.S. fight the group, it may be the less obvious aftereffects of the operation that could prove to be of value.

JOHNSON: There's a lot of concerns about the leaks that have come out, how this operation very secret, very tightly held, is being talked about so quickly after it happened.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Again, Princeton's Gregory Johnson.

JOHNSON: And I think really the only silver lining that we can take away, we in the West can take away from that, is the hope that this will somehow lead to a mole hunt within AQAP that will possibly tear the organization apart.

BRUCE HOFFMAN: In any counterterrorist operation, it's not only foiling the terrorist attack that's important.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Bruce Hoffman is a scholar at the Wilson Center and a professor at Georgetown University.

HOFFMAN: It's the deterrent message. We know more than you think we know. You're more vulnerable than you imagined and we're going to stop you.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Now, even if it is the case that the U.S. can't stop every attack, Hoffman says that being infiltrated must give the terrorist group pause.

HOFFMAN: What that's designed to do is lengthen the planning chain of a terrorist operation, which in turn, in the future, will give us more time to identify an operation as it unfolds and more time to interdict and to stop it.

TEMPLE-RASTON: There are media reports that the Saudis still have another operative in AQAP's ranks. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News.

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