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Posted at 8:00 AM ET, 03/29/2010

CIA and Yemen playing a doubles game

By Jeff Stein

If Yemen seems like a terrorist playground today, the answer might be that its top intelligence service is run by jihadis.

According to a report in the reliable Paris-based Intelligence Online newsletter, White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, “who has traveled twice to Yemen in the last six months, has been told by his advisers that Yemen's Political Security Organization has been infiltrated at the highest levels by jihadists active in the country."

A Brennan spokesman declined to comment on the report, which most likely originated in the region. But it came as no surprise to a top former CIA counterterrorism official, who said with a chuckle: “that report is stating the obvious.”

“In 2006,” the IO newsletter continues, “Political Security let Nasser al-Wahayshi, the former secretary of Osama bin Laden, and a dozen of his associates escape from prison in Sanaa. The escapees are believed to have established jihadists camps in the province of Chabwa, to the east of Sanaa. Political Security is run by Ghaled al-Qimch, President Ali Abdallah Saleh’s trusted right hand man.”

All this may be obvious, indeed, but it raises all sorts of troubling questions about Yemen, a virtual arms and manpower supply depot for al-Qaeda’s assault on Saudi Arabia and the rest of the region.

“Last October,” my Post colleague David Ignatius reported Friday, “the Yemeni government came to the CIA with a request: Could the agency collect intelligence that might help target the network of a U.S.-born al-Qaeda recruiter named Anwar al-Aulaqi?”

Aulaqi, Ignatius reminds us, is linked to the Fort Hood shootings and the recruitment of Nigerian underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab:

“On Nov. 5, U.S. Army Maj. Nidal Hasan killed 13 of his fellow soldiers at Fort Hood, Tex.; Hasan had exchanged 18 or more e-mails with Aulaqi in the months before the shootings, according to the Associated Press. Then, on Christmas Day, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian who had been living in Yemen, tried to blow up an airliner bound for Detroit; he is said to have confessed later that Aulaqi was one of his trainers for this mission,” Ignatius wrote.

The Yemenis wanted CIA help to get Aulaqi, Ignatius writes. His sources told him:

“The primary reason was that the agency lacked specific evidence that he threatened the lives of Americans -- which is the threshold for any capture-or-kill operation against a U.S. citizen. The Yemenis also wanted U.S. Special Forces' help on the ground in pursuing Aulaqi; that, too, was refused.”

But given the jihadist inclinations of some elements of the PSO, it's also an intriguing possibilty that the CIA suspected the Yemenis were playing a double game -- angling for clues about sensitive sources and sophisticated electronic methods the agency is using to pusue al-Qaeda in the region.

A Yemeni official acknowledged to me Friday that the PSO has had security problems, noting that 11 “junior officers” were prosecuted for their role in the 2006 jail break.

“It’s a poor country,” where even intelligence officers are susceptible to bribes, said the official on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

The problems began back in the late 1980s-early 1990s, he said, when the PSO recruited Yemeni veterans of the Afghan war against the Soviets.

"It was a double-edged sword," he said. Some remained jihadis, others would eventually help the PSO penetrate terrorist cells.

“We’re addressing this,” he added. “We’ve demoted and shuffled people around” and taken other measures to tighten security.

Indeed, in recent months Yemen and U.S. security services have dramatically ramped up their counterterrorism cooperation while, behind the scenes, they each play a double game.

If the Yemen scenario sounds familiar, it’s because U.S. intelligence grapples with similar challenges today in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. Indeed, throughout the Vietnam War, the CIA and military intelligence services had to work with South Vietnamese security services they knew had been thoroughly penetrated by the communists.

That’s why the CIA runs on two tracks in Yemen and virtually everywhere else around the world, including most allied countries.

On one track it works with the host country’s intelligence and military services.

On the other, it goes alone.

By Jeff Stein  | March 29, 2010; 8:00 AM ET
Categories:  Intelligence  | Tags:  Afghanistan, David Ignatius, Ghaled al-Qimch, Intelligence Online newsletter, John O. Brennan, Nidal Hasan, Osama Bin Laden, PSO, Pakistan, Political Security Organization, Qaeda, Saudi Arabia, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, Yemen. CIA  
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