Al-Qaeda had a simple but deadly plan for the eve of the 2010 American elections. Two parcel bombs would explode in the cargo holds of two cargo aircraft descending into Chicago on the eve of the elections, demonstrating the terror group could still disrupt the international airline business and strike the American homeland in what al-Qaeda called “Obama’s city.” What al-Qaeda did not count on was a defector, a Saudi, who revealed the details of the plot to the Saudi intelligence services, who in turn passed the information to the Americans and other countries so the bombs could be stopped in England and Dubai before getting into the United States.
Now the Saudis have aired the confession of the “al-Qaeda commander who came in from the cold,” as one Arabic paper described him, on Saudi television . Jabir Jubran al-Fayfi was a senior commander in al-Qaeda’s Yemen based franchise, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Pennisula (AQAP) until October 2010 when he approached the Saudi intelligence services and offered to provide inside information on the terrorists’ plans. He revealed the details behind the parcel-post bombs and more. He gave the Saudis information about another AQAP plot to attack targets in France using a cell of North Africans. The French arrested the cell before it could attack. Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux confirmed publicly the Saudi tipoff and told French TV that the AQAP threat in France is “real and active.”
So who is the Saudi informer? Jabir al-Fayfi was born in 1975 in Taif. A disgruntled prison guard in Jidda, he went to Afghanistan in 2000 to join the Taliban and train for jihad like many other young Saudis at the time. He hoped to gain battlefield experience and then go to Chechnya to fight the Russians. When the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan collapsed after the American invasion post-9/11, al-Fayfi fought with the Talban, then fled to Pakistan with other Arab fighters and was arrested by the Pakistani army. They in turn handed him over to the United States and he was sent to Guantanamo for five years.
He was released to the Saudi government in December 2006 with fifteen other Saudis to go into the Saudi rehabilitation program for former jihadists. Instead, al-Fayfi fled to Yemen and joined AQAP. That is the same path the group’s second in command, Said Ali al-Shihri, followed. Al-Shihri, also Saudi, spent time in Gitmo as well, got sent back home and then went to Yemen. The Saudis put al-Fayfi on their most wanted list and he rose to a mid-level position in AQAP.
The Saudi intelligence services who al-Fayfi defected to have been focused on al-Qaeda as their top priority since February 2003, when Osama bin Laden ordered his followers in the Kingdom to try to overthrow the House of Saud. They are run by two of the most senior princes in the Kingdom, Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz (seventy-seven years old) who is third in line to the throne now and his younger brother Prince Muqrin (sixty-five) who is head of the Saudi General Intelligence Directorate. Together they succeeded in defeating bin Laden’s attempt at an uprising and drove al-Qaeda out of Saudi Arabia into Yemen. They were especially effective in getting inside the terror group, encouraging defections and sewing dissent from within.
There is much we still don’t know about al-Fayfi. Why did he flip sides? Was he in fact a mole, a deep penetration of AQAP as some Yemeni sources hint? Or are there some internal frictions within the group that alienated him?
After 9/11 many Americans saw Saudi Arabia as part of the problem of global jihad, after all fifteen of the nineteen hijackers were Saudis. Until 2003, the Saudi family was largely in denial about the scale of the al-Qaeda infrastructure within the Kingdom. No longer.
President Obama correctly assessed the Saudis must be a key ally in the battle with al-Qaeda. He made Riyadh his first port of call on his first trip to the Arab world. Over the holidays he called King Abdullah, who is recuperating from surgery in New York, to wish him good health.
In Yemen, AQAP has found a weak state with porous borders. Twice now it has tried to strike inside America, Christmas 2008 and election eve 2010. AQAP has proudly taken credit for the parcel bomb attack in a special issue of its online magazine, Inspire, and says it successfully blew up one cargo jet in the UAE last September. Despite al-Fayfi’s defection the group remains capable of striking again. We will need more help from the Kingdom’s spies.
(Photo by Ali Mansuri )