Security chiefs believe the identity of the double agent who foiled an al-Qaeda underwear bomb plot will be exposed by the terrorist group within weeks.
It was hoped that the death of al-Awlaki, its chief recruiter and planner, would have proved a fatal blow to AQAP Photo: AP
By Sean Rayment, Philip Sherwell and Jason Lewis
8:30PM BST 12 May 2012
MI5 fear that militant Islamists will attempt to exact revenge on the British spy, who penetrated al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsular (AQAP), by publishing his photograph on the internet – a move designed to incite extremists to hunt him down.
Sources have described the British spy as “gold dust”, adding that he was one of just a handful of agents in the last ten years to have successfully penetrated one of the groups aligned to al-Qaeda’s concept of global Jihad.
AQAP now represents the “greatest operational threat” to Britain and America, according to senior Whitehall sources.
The group is known for its use of modern communication techniques including the publication of an English-language magazine, Inspire, which is distributed to supporters over the internet.
The agent, a British passport holder of Saudi heritage, volunteered to take part in a suicide mission but instead escaped with an underwear bomb designed to blow up a US airliner.
He is understood to have been recruited and trained by MI5’s G6 section – the ultra-secret part of the organisation responsible for agent handling – before being sent on his mission to penetrate the Yemeni-based terror group.
A former security official told The Sunday Telegraph that although the mission to penetrate AQAP was a success, the agent was now “burned” and would never be able to take part in covert operations again.
In all likelihood, the official said, the agent will have to be relocated outside of the Middle East and provided with a new identity.
It can also be revealed that al-Qaeda believed that the British double agent came from a family with radical Islamic ties and was recommended by a close relative who was trusted by leaders AQAP, the network’s Yemeni wing, according to US intelligence.
“He apparently came from what AQAP regarded as a good family, meaning that they believed he was a radical Islamist in his DNA, and was brought in to the group by a close male relative,” said Dan Goure, a Pentagon consultant and vice-president of the Lexington Institute, a national security think-tank.
“They embraced him for his family ties, or his perceived family ties. His passport was certainly also important. But they would have checked this guy out too and that is where his background came in.”
It us unclear whether the man’s radical roots were genuine, and whether he infiltrated AQAP as a mole or only changed sides later.
AQAP knew that Saudi intelligence agencies, who “handled” the agent, were trying to infiltrate the group so they would have conducted detailed checks on the foreign volunteer, helped by sympathisers in Britain.
The British spy was issued with a more sophisticated version of the underwear bomb that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian who studied in London, tried to detonate on a plane over Detroit on Christmas Day in 2009.
But instead the double agent passed the device to his Saudi handlers. It is now being analysed by the FBI, who believe that the bomb carries the signature of AQAP’s master bomb-maker, Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri.
The foiling of the plot was a major coup for British, Saudi and American agencies. But the leaking of information about the operation from US and Saudi sources is seen as a significant own-goal.
It has exasperated MI5 and MI6, which believe their operations have been compromised, and angered former US intelligence agents.
In response to the furore, Leon Panetta, the defence secretary, has ordered James Clapper, the country’s Director of National Intelligence, to head an investigation into the leaks.
This week the latest edition of Inspire magazine, was published, containing alarming new messages from AQAP including:
* Planning for an assassination campaign targeting individuals on Western city streets.
* An order to set forest fires during the dry summer in the western states of America.
* Detail plans for a so-called “ember bomb”.
It was hoped that the death of al-Awlaki, its chief recruiter and planner, would have proved a fatal blow to AQAP.
But senior Whitehall sourcessaid that unlike al-Qaida’s original leadership, isolated in Pakistan and Afghanistan and focusing on survival, AQAP was “now home to some significant players” and was expanding its territory at a time of unrest in Yemen.
In the article advocating assassinations in the West, the author “Uthman ibn Al-Ightiyal” (“the son of assassination”) sets out the qualities needed for a successful killing campaign including the “ability to intermingle well in modern society and its culture”.
Featuring a photograph of an assassin pulling a hand gun from the waist band of his jeans has he approaches his target, a smart suited businessman, on an escalator, he writes: “The terror felt amongst the people when an assassin strikes in the enemy’s land is much greater proportion than him striking the enemy on the battlefield.”
The magazine features pictures of al-Awlaki in “heroic” poses, including firing an automatic weapon and smiling alongside Abu Baseer al-Wuhaishi.
Abu Basir, as he is often known, has previously been named as leader of AQAP but his current whereabouts is unclear. The magazine’s presentation suggests he is still alive.