January 17, 2010

Out of the box thinking - U.S. intelligence in Yemen

There has been a spotlight on the American intelligence and security agencies in the wake of the failed al-Qa'idah Christmas bombing of a Northwest flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. A review of procedures and policies is obviously warranted in light of the abject failure of the agencies to prevent 'Umar Faruq 'Abd al-Mutallab from getting on an airliner with a bomb secreted on his body.

However, it is also right to point out some of the things the intelligence community is doing to get it right. There has been reporting over the last few months of a good program, generally overlooked by those of us that follow events in the region or the intelligence community. It has to do with Yemen and former adversaries of the United States.

Shortly after the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, many Iraqi intelligence officers loyal to Saddam Husayn sought refuge in Yemen. Yemen's president, 'Ali 'Abdullah Salih, had been a long-time ally and supporter of the Iraqi president. Once the officers arrived, Salih took full advantage of the presence of these professional intelligence officers to improve his services' limited capabilities. In the Arab world, the Iraqis are good intelligence officers, probably second only to the Jordanians.

The Iraqi officers also took advantage of the situation. Having arrived in the country with some but not unlimited resources, the opportunity to practice their craft offered a chance to make a good living. Because of their professionalism compared to that of the Yemeni intelligence officers, they were able to assume prominent and influential positions in the country's intelligence and security services. Most of them have remained in Yemen rather than return to an Iraq where their experience - they did after all play key role in the repression that characterized the Ba'th regime - is neither valued nor desired.

When al-Qa'idah realized that its ability to conduct effective operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia came to an end, it moved many of its operatives and training bases to Yemen. Yemen, a backward country with poor infrastructure, a weak and highly corrupt central government and a growing Islamic fundamentalist movement, seemed a perfect place for the terrorist group. It also has a sketchy record when it comes to keeping terrorists in custody. Numerous convicted and alleged terrorists have been released or "escaped" - virtually all of the bombers of the USS Cole are at large in the country, as well as at least one member of the "Lackawanna Six" wanted in the United States.

As American intelligence began to focus on the country, it became apparent that cooperation with the local intelligence and security services was an imperative in the fight against al-Qa'idah. It only made sense to approach the Iraqis working for the Yemeni services and propose a cooperative relationship to deal with the growing al-Qa'idah problem in the country. It is useful to note that several of the Iraqi intelligence officers were familiar with the American intelligence services - they have been involved in the relationship in the 1980's between the Iraqi Intelligence Service and the Directorate of Military Intelligence on one side, and the Central Intelligence Agency and Defense Intelligence Agency on the other.

While we hurl stones at our intelligence and security agencies, we should also remember to acknowledge that they can think "out of the box" on occasion. This is a good example of a slightly unorthodox means of getting the job done.