CIA sacrifices valuable intelligence source to foil underwear bomb plot


(CBS News) NEW YORK - It's a stunning revelation in the foiled plot to blow up a U.S.-bound airliner: The triggerman chosen by al Qaeda was actually a double agent who was working for the CIA and Saudi intelligence services.

He delivered the explosive device to U.S. intelligence officials and provided information on the whereabouts of Fahd al Quso, the senior commander of al Qaeda's wing in Yemen, who was killed in a drone strike last weekend. It's an intelligence victory, but it came with a cost.

U.S. intelligence officials faced a difficult decision. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was looking for a suicide bomber. The target: an American jetliner. The only way for intelligence officials to ensure they controlled the plot was to have their own agent volunteer to be the bomber and then hand the bomb to the CIA. The tradeoff: They would lose a source penetrated deep inside the organization - but they would save lives.

"This is an intelligence coup; the fact that the CIA and partner intelligence agencies got inside the al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula networks to not only disrupt this plot, but also to get information about the location of senior al Qaeda figures, including Fahd al-Quso, who was killed last week," observes CBS News national security consultant Juan Zarate.

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Intelligence agencies and senior officials tell CBS News they're not going anywhere near commenting on the issue for obvious reasons.

The Associated Press has reported that the alleged double agent has been removed from Yemen and apparently is safe.

Penetrating an organization like AQAP is extraordinarily difficult. It means finding someone they know and will trust, and getting them to turn.

Former CIA analyst Philip Mudd said on "CBS This Morning" that, while it "sounds easy" to infiltrate terrorist groups from the outside, it's extremely tough in practice.

"What you want is somebody who's disaffected within the organization," said Mudd, a former deputy director of the CIA's counter-terrorism center and the FBI's national security branch. "Maybe someone who's going home, seeing that his friends are starting to have a family, realizing that his life as a terrorist is going nowhere. He starts to say 'What's the way out?' The way out is to go to a security service and say, 'I'll serve as a double agent if you give me a live afterward."'

The CIA informant is looking at a big payoff in the neighborhood of seven figures, and he'll be relocated with his family.

Few know more about AQAP and its members than former FBI agent Ali Soufan.

What drives them? "Most of these individuals are brainwashed into believing that their concept of jihad is basically their earthly dimension of believing in God," Soufan says. "So, there is that ideological drive, religious drive that they have."

The newest bomb is said to be a new design of the underwear bomb that failed to blow up a flight over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009.

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"Our team has to get it right every time," points out Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R, Ga.). "The bad guys have to get it right only one time. This time, our guys got it right again."

The latest design is said to have an improved detonation system created by Ibrihim al Asiri, AQAP's explosives expert.

What do his bombs tell another explosives expert?

"It tells you that he has the assets, he has the intent, and he has no conscience," says Kevin Barry, a former New York Police Department bomb technician.

Does he have talent?

"Yes," Barry replied. "He has talent. And he's good at it."

Mudd noted on "CBS This Morning" that, "There is & another shoe to drop, which is -- when does the bomb-maker go down? My question wouldn't be, 'Did we stop the plot?' My question would be, 'Did we get enough information to stop the plotter?' That's the bomb-maker still out in the field."

To see John Miller's report, click on the video in the player above.

  • John Miller
    John Miller

    John Miller is a senior correspondent for CBS News, with extensive experience in intelligence, law enforcement and journalism, including stints in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the FBI.