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Tenet's response was dispiriting. He told Bush and Cheney that interrogations of both the Bahraini trio and the Saudi trio still in custody had, thus far, yielded nothing. Saudi intelligence said it was keeping track of the whereabouts of the trio that recently had been let go. Short of al-Zawahiri, the only person who could potentially identify the U.S. mubtakkar cell was al-Ayeri.
Cheney was grim. The priorities were clear, he intoned. Al-Ayeri writing shrewd assessments of Iraq's future, going head-to-head with al-Zawahiri, managing al-Qaeda affairs in Saudi Arabia and, possibly, guiding the only operational WMD attack in America might be the most important active member of al-Qaeda. He must be found. As things heated up in the kingdom, calls from the White House and the CIA to the top of the Saudi hierarchy were urgent and clear: Make sure al-Ayeri is captured, alive.
On May 31, a carful of young men ran a Saudi roadblock near Mecca. As they passed, the driver threw a grenade at the guards. Saudi security forces gave chase and cornered the men in a building. A standoff took shape. The Saudis called in reinforcements. Overwhelming force was applied to the situation. All the terrorists were killed, including a man easily identified from pictures plastered across the kingdom: Yusef al-Ayeri.
In the breast pocket of the bullet-riddled body was a letter from bin Laden. It was an affectionate, personal letter, six months old, congratulating the young man on his good work and on a successful celebration of 'Id al-Fitr, the feast at the end of Ramadan. The letter was now covered in al-Ayeri's blood.
The Saudis put out no press reports in the days following the gunfight. It took several days before they notified the United States. They never bothered to collect al-Ayeri's personal effects his cell phone, his address book, the registry of his car, or trace such clues back to an apartment that might be searched.
The news hit hard at CIA. It soon became a metaphor, a Chinese box displaying the dilemmas of the "war on terror." The Saudis like the Pakistanis, the Yemenis, the Sudanese and so many "dark side" states allied with the United States in the battle had a way of often disappointing America. Beneath the warm handshakes and affectionate words, there was always that nugget of distrust. Were our interests truly aligned? What were they telling us; what were they withholding? All were ruled by dictators, who, necessarily, view power and their own self-preservation in ways that differ from a democracy.
The U.S., of course, had told the Saudis about the mubtakkar discovery, and about the report of an operational Saudi cell with chemical weapons in America. We hadn't told them exactly how we knew. We never told them about Ali, the al-Qaeda inside source in Pakistan, who fingered al-Ayeri. We couldn't because, deep down, we don't trust our friends from Riyadh. As they do not trust us.