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Saudi Disinformation?

Sometimes the news just seems a little off. A few days ago I was watching al-Arabiyya and caught the tail end of brief about a former Guantanamo detainee, Jabir Jabran al-Fayfi, who had turned himself back into Saudi authorities. They threw a picture of a wild-eyed guy up on the screen and said he was one of the list of 85 and then moved on to other news.

But something didn’t quite seem right. The only real reason I heard for his returning to Saudi Arabia was that he wanted to return to the kingdom. Maybe that is true, I thought, but it still seems a bit off. Two previous cases – Muhammad al-‘Awfi and Abdullah ‘Asiri – were not just guys who had a change of heart and wanted to come in off the warpath. Al-‘Awfi was pressured to come in and ‘Asiri was working undercover in his attempt to assassinate Muhammad bin Nayyif. So, if the al-Fayfi story was true it would be a first.

This morning Scott Sayare and Eric Schmitt of the New York Times have a story out that provides sketchy details about a terror plot in France that is being worked on by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,

The story links the “credible but not specific” threat to al-Fayfi:

The new warning came at roughly the same time that a former Saudi detainee at Guantánamo Bay who went through Saudi Arabia’s militant rehabilitation program and then joined Al Qaeda in Yemen turned himself in, the government said.

The former detainee, Jabir Jubran al Fayfi, contacted Saudi authorities from Yemen to express his regret and readiness to surrender, the Saudi Interior Ministry said in statement on Friday, The Associated Press reported.

Yemeni authorities arranged for his return. Mr. Fayfi joined Al Qaeda in Yemen sometime after his December 2006 release from Guantánamo and his participation in the rehabilitation program and rose to become one of the group’s top dozen leaders, the official in Washington said.

Other reporting on al-Fayfi claims that he contacted the Saudis back in Ramadan and told them that he wanted to come in, but at this point I still haven’t heard a reason for his wanting to return. As I was searching around the internet, something reminded me of a recent AQAP statement, in this case, statement #23, which was released in Ramadan (September 4, 2010). The statement says that the Yemeni security forces managed to arrest Jabir al-Fayfi, and prays for his quick release.

I haven’t seen AQAP’s version in the press, but it does beg an interesting question: is Saudi Arabia’s version of the story just disinformation, designed to make it look like AQAP is weaker than it actually is?

Beyond a statement from the Ministry of the Interior in Saudi Arabia, I haven’t heard many comments on al-Fayfi and certainly no one has seen him since he returned to Saudi.

I tend to buy AQAP’s version of the story: that al-Fayfi was captured, and then turned over to Saudi Arabia. For the simple reason that it came out more than a month before news broke that al-Fayfi was back in Saudi custody.

One could make the argument that AQAP knew he was turning himself in, after all its statement came out at the end of Ramadan, when Saudi Arabia claims that al-Fayfi contacted them. But wouldn’t al-Fayfi want to keep his former friends in AQ in the dark about turning himself back in for fear that they might not want to see him leave?

This is all conjecture of course, but the real story is much murkier than the scattered news reports are making it seem. If – and it is a big if – the Saudis are spreading disinformation about al-Fayfi, what else are they shading and manipulating. And who is their target audience?

I agree that putting the story out that al-Fayfi turned himself in makes it seem like AQAP is a fractured group rife with in-fighting and disagreements, in short a bunch of rank amateurs, the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. And that may, in a way, dissuade some from wanting to join the group. After all, success breeds success. But very little of this actually seems to be resonating with people in Saudi Arabia or Yemen. Instead, this seems to be having a bigger impact on perceptions of AQAP in the US and Europe – and I guess, with Samir Khan and Anwar al-Awlaqi, there is a reason for that as well, but I’m not entirely sold.

It will be interesting to see what happens to al-Fayfi. Is he released quietly like what reportedly happened to al-‘Awfi or is he kept in prison?

One final note, both France and Australia have warned their citizens to leave Yemen – US citizens have been warned away from the country for years. This is yet another example of foriegn civilian workers leaving a country and foreign military personnel entering the country. As I have said to a number of reporters in recent weeks, this growing trend in Yemen is, to my mind, an indicator of serious problems. This lopsided equation is not a recipe for success.


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