Conspiracies have altered the flow of civilization for thousands of years and, in an age of globalization and secrecy, remain an integral part of reality. At first the latest Yemeni scare appeared to be the real thing, hyped beyond recognition but not an “October surprise.” After all, al-Qaeda’s branch in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has its own motivations for disrupting a US election.
The last 48 hours subsequently unraveled the White House’s script. President Barack Obama confidently addressed the American people once the bombs became public, hailing vigilant US intelligence and law enforcement agencies for disrupting the plot. He opened his briefing, “Last night and earlier today, our intelligence and law enforcement professionals, working with our friends and allies, identified two suspicious packages bound for the United States - specifically, two places of Jewish worship in Chicago.”
Real conspiracies weave truth with fabrication.
“As usual, our intelligence, law enforcement and Homeland Security professionals have served with extraordinary skill and resolve and with the commitment that their enormous responsibilities demand,” Obama concluded. “We're also coordinating closely and effectively with our friends and our allies, who are essential to this fight.”
The second part of this statement has since revealed itself as the truth. Although US agencies clearly participated in the raids, the White House visibly downplayed “our allies” in favor of America’s “extraordinary intelligence professionals” - “as usual.” Obama’s account was echoed by John Brennan, the White House’s chief counter-terrorism official, in an extended briefing. Whether he did so intentionally or as a security precaution remains uncertain, but either way gets the point across.
“The American people should be very pleased that we were able to get insight into the fact that there were suspicious packages out there that we had to find,” said Brennan. “And I’m not going to go into those operational details. I think that’s the reason why we have a security system in place that has these redundancies and the ability to detect things, from inception all the way to the possible execution of an operation. So we were on to this, but I'm not going to get into details about how we knew.”
Asked, “So it’s fair to say you were looking for the suspicious packages?” Brennan replied, “We were looking for packages that were of concern, yes.”
Of course the operational details wouldn’t stay secret for long. Rather than foil AQAP’s plot through vigilant investigation, success hinged on a suspected turncoat within its leadership. Finding mysterious packages became easy once Saudi Arabia provided the tracking numbers. So while Saudi Arabia’s spy-craft in Yemen appears highly advanced, this is hardly the coup that Washington initially made it out to be.
Jabir al-Fayfi, a Saudi, fell into Guantanamo Bay after US forces invaded Afghanistan in 2001, but like many inmates found himself free in 2007. Deported to Saudi Arabia and run through its rehabilitation program, al-Fayfi jumped to Yemen after completing his term and worked his way up AQAP's ranks. Then, last month, al-Fayfi turned himself in and quickly divulged upcoming plots, including the bombs sent to two Chicago synagogues. Like the failed Christmas and Time Square bombings, luck more than vigilance saved American lives.
US officials have since admitted to the key role played by Riyadh.
If any plot did enter the realm of possibility, a Saudi double agent assisting Washington at a time of crisis sounds perfectly reasonable. Intentionally planting the bombs seems unlikely though; Saudi Arabia isn’t concerned with rescuing Obama’s Democrats from a GOP victory. The White House surely wishes to score crunch-time national security points, however the truth, while equally disturbing, likely isn’t so dramatic. More a slight of hand.
Nothing should be taken away from Saudi Arabia’s intelligence operations, advanced as they are in resources and understanding of the environment. Al Jazeera's Hashem Ahelbarra summed up, “Saudi Arabia enjoys unlimited influence and leverage in Yemen.” Saudi Arabia worked throughout the decade to infiltrate al-Qaeda cells in the peninsula, and intelligence operations further were boosted in 2009 by an assassination attempt on Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who doubles as counter-terrorism chief.
Saudi intelligence has recruited hundreds of informers from Yemen, paying cash to both tribal chiefs and elements within Yemeni security forces. But all isn’t well between neighbors. Displeased with Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s effort, Saudi Arabia has gone over the government on many occasions, including al-Fayfi.
The Saudis perceive AQAP as a direct threat (an insulting one at that) and so have every reason to expand their war in Yemen. However this means boosting US operations and influence too, and a conspiratorial wind kicked up after Washington sold Saudi Arabia’s success to justify its own military expansion. Unfortunately Riyadh's infiltration doesn’t imply a successful US counterinsurgency. If this were true AQAP would be growing weaker rather than stronger, and Yemen’s government would be rising instead of sinking.
All indications point to a widening war without an end game.
AQAP’s bomb plot has already accomplished one of Washington’s goals by redoubling the West's commitment to Yemen, an objective necessary to complete a second goal. Leaping at the possibility of expanding operations, Obama made “successful US efforts” a focal point of his remarks. But despite the logicality of stopping attacks at their point of origin, the joint effort by Saudi intelligence and US counter-terrorism has yielded conflicting results. A bomb plot provides simple justification to expand, rather than limit, an unconvincing strategy.
And apparently doubts exist inside the White House too, throwing the situation into another loop. According to Brennan, “President Saleh pledged the full cooperation of the Yemeni government," surely a lie.
CNN reports, “Officials at the White House and State Department are concerned that increasing the size of military assistance might be counterproductive and not absolutely necessary. There is also concern that President Ali Abdullah Saleh will use U.S. weapons against his political enemies and further destabilize the country.”
So if these concerns exist why is US strategy headed in that direction? The short answer is that Washington has no other choice. Its hands tied and Yemen’s government still unreliable, military operations remain the most available option to generate the illusion of action. Because the White House has justified Afghanistan with al-Qaeda’s presence, it has no choice but to enter every lair - ready or not.
Such a trap serves as al-Qaeda’s grand strategy.
Yet one suspicion rises above the rest. Having landed atop the spiritual head of AQAP after 9/11, Anwar al-Awlaki has proven a bane to Washington’s credibility with each new attack. To GOP cheers, the White House has kept all legal arms away from extra-judicial killings in hopes of tracking the rogue American citizen and eliminating him. At least until now.
al-Awlaki just went on trial in absentia, a case that isn't isolated.
First came the Time Square bomber from Bridgeport, Connecticut. Later, amid the furry of a dozen Somali-Americans implicated for financing al-Shabab, US officials claimed that a threat from within poses the greatest challenge to US national security. They aren’t wrong in the seriousness of the threat as al-Qaeda has committed itself to recruiting Westerners. Dozens of Americans have joined al-Qaeda in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, with several key players rising to prominence. Omar Hammami stars in al-Shabab propaganda when he’s not commanding units in the field.
A precedent must be set to dispose of other US citizens, and killing al-Awlaki opens the door for a whole wave of Reapers.
But, like America’s questionable counter-terrorism in general, is this the way to stop the flow of conflict? Or will Muslim-Americans all the more flock to al-Qaeda in the face of resistance, convinced that America violates its own laws to pursue a failed war? Drones fail miserably at resolving insurgencies and al-Awlaki’s death would be no different; both his tribe and the government have warned against US execution, preferring trial under Yemeni law.
Washington desperately needs additional justification because its current policy remains disoriented, an ominous sign of future events.
The blunt reality is that Yemen requires massive political and economic reform, and in their absence military force will only exacerbate the conflict. Saudi intelligence can’t nation-build. Many people seem to agree on the obvious, including US officials who reportedly acknowledged this dilemma in private. The White House is said to be reweighing its imbalance of military and non-military aid - yet it still lacks a final solution.
All roads lead to one ultimate outcome: Saleh must go. And since Washington’s power reaches its limit here, it must continue a bad policy by any means necessary. AQAP’s intentions are real and so are its parcels bombs. It’s US strategy that’s fake.