A CIA Sting Foils al-Qaeda, But We'd Have Been Safer Not Knowing

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Larry Downing / Reuters

A man walks across the lobby of the CIA Headquarters Building in McLean, Virginia, August 14, 2008.

The foiling of a new al-Qaeda attempt to bring down a passenger airliner — apparently a knock-off of the failed "underwear bomb" plot that nearly brought down a Northwest flight landing at Detroit on Christmas Day, 2009 — has been a good-news, bad-news story.

The good news is that in a CIA-coordinated operation, a mole was inserted into the organization intending to bring down an airplane — a small affiliate of the Yemen-based Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The mole, according to reports, was to have been the designated "martyr" wearing the explosive underpants that would be detonated on a U.S.-bound plane. Instead, he turned over the device to his handlers, along with what I would imagine is a lot of valuable, actionable intelligence —indeed, officials claim that the mole's information helped direct a drone strike that killed one of the plotters, also suspected of involvement in the bombing of USS Cole in Yemen in 2000.

If the reports are to be believed, it was a stunningly successful operation; espionage at its best. As the CIA well knows, getting inside a small group of zealots has been virtually impossible. People who are ready to die for a cause are not enticed by the rewards the CIA is typically able to offer. It's not necessarily much easier for an Arab intelligence agency to do the same, as we saw when a Jordanian-recruited mole blew himself up in Afghanistan, killing six CIA personnel.

Now to the bad news: al-Qaeda is not dead. Osama Bin-Laden may be long gone, and the rest of the movement's leadership in Pakistan hollowed out and neutered, but he stubborn truth is that such victories can't stop a small group of dedicated men and women from continuing to attempt mass slaughter.

Evidence garnered during the Bin-Laden raid last year revealed that al-Qaeda was never more than a loose structure, really not much more than an idea or a brand. That means it's as dangerous as its most lethal affiliate.

The other bad news is that AQAP in Yemen, despite the setbacks of losing some of its key leaders such as the American-born Anwar al- Awlakki in drone strikes, is hard at work innovating. The design of the bomb turned over by the mole reflects the fact that AQAP is meticulously studying aviation security in search of flaws, and learning from its previous failures. That's troubling, because al-Qaeda is at its most dangerous when it innovates.

On September 11, 2001 the Qaeda-affiliated "Hamburg cell" hijacked four airplanes by employing box cutters, the simplest of expedients. It had studied and cleverly figured out how to exploit long-standing flaws in aviation security — unlocked cockpit doors. They also understood that crews were likely to turn over a plane to hijackers when the lives of the passengers are threatened.

As soon as those flaws were fixed, al-Qaeda experimented with airplane bombs made of concentrated hydrogen peroxide and acetone. The liquids are bought anywhere, and easily prepared. But after a plot was interrupted in Britain, the airlines banned passengers from carrying liquids aboard. But al-Qaeda's designers were already at work on a new iteration of an airplane bomb.

In late 2001, a British convert to Islam, Richard Reid, was apprehended and subdued when trying to ignite his shoe on board a U.S.-bound plane. The sneaker's sole was made of pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN), a particularly lethal, military-grade explosive capable of ripping through the skin of an airplane. It's also extremely malleable, which is how it could be made to resemble the sole of a shoe. Reid's bomb only failed to go off because he lacked a proper detonator.

The Christmas Day bombing attempt on a Northwest flight tried to improve on the shoe-bomb by using a "chemical initiator" — cascading chemical reactions that should have been enough to ignite the main charge. It failed, sending al-Qaeda once again back to the drawing boards.

The latest device apparently employed two detonators, a main one and a second up in case the first failed. There'll be a lot of back-and- forth over whether this device would have ever made it through airport security. I'll defer to the experts. But considering that the Christmas Day bomber got through security at Amsterdam airport, I'd have to say these devices do pose a grave threat to aviation.

The other bad news is that the New York Times and the Washington Post reported that the mole who'd foiled the plot had been recruited by the Saudis. Riyadh might be delighted with being credited in Washington for preventing a terror attack on a U.S. target, but it will nonetheless be furious that an alleged Saudi role was highlighted. To understand why, simply look at a map: Saudi Arabia shares a long, porous border with Yemen, which is in the throes of a civil war and a growing al-Qaeda insurgency that show no signs of abating. The Kingdom's worst nightmare is that the civil war next door spills across the border, affecting the large number of its citizens who are of Yemeni origin. Considering that Yemen's civil war is tainted with militant Islam and anti- Americanism, to be exposed playing the American game anywhere on the Arabian Peninsula can't help.

Saudi Arabia is not going to stop cooperating with the United States on counter-terrorism. But I'd guess its going to have more than a few second thoughts before it invites the United States into a risky operations like this.

And, frankly, did we really need to know that there was a mole, or in fact that it had been a joint Saudi-American sting? It's one thing telling the airlines about the newest device, even showing them pictures of it. But spy work is most effective when it goes unnoticed, and unpublicized. With all the press leaks, you can count on it that al-Qaeda is back to innovating, having learned valuable lessons from having been stung. And that's not good news for anyone.

Baer, a former Middle East CIA field officer, is TIME.com's intelligence columnist and the author of See No Evil and The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower.