By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 10, 2010; 10:10 PM
SANA'A, YEMEN -- As deputy director of Yemen's feared internal security agency a few years ago, Mohammed al-Surmi was in charge of monitoring al-Qaeda extremists. But he also allegedly lived a double life, feeding the terrorist network information to uncover informants within its ranks.
Surmi was removed from his job, but still wields influence: He is now deputy mayor of the capital, Sana'a, where some residents call him "His Excellency."
Surmi is a testament to the obstacles the Obama administration faces as it deepens its partnership with Yemen. U.S. and some Yemeni officials remain concerned that radical Islamists and corrupt officials who can be bought off by al-Qaeda still pervade the Political Security Organization, the country's largest security and intelligence agency, which is vital to America's counterterrorism initiatives here.
"Al-Qaeda has a very aggressive effort to get whatever information they can from those individuals," said a senior Obama Administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
In 2006, al-Qaeda militants broke out of a maximum-security prison in 2006. Today, senior Yemeni officials acknowledge that PSO officials with sympathies to al-Qaeda facilitated the jail break.
"It could not have happened without people deeply inside the PSO," said Abdul Karim al-Iriyani, a former prime minister and current political adviser to Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Among those who escaped was Nasir al-Wuhaysi and Qassim al-Raymi. They went to rebuild al-Qaeda's Yemen branch into al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which hatched the failed plot to bomb a Detroit-bound American airliner on Christmas.
A 2002 report in the Wall Street Journal linked Surmi, who spent more than a decade at the PSO, to an attempt to betray an Egyptian militant who was willing to help weaken al-Qaeda. Surmi's alleged involvement was detailed in a report found inside a computer owned by an al-Qaeda operative.
In a recent interview, Surmi denied the allegations, but declined to speak further because he said he was no longer authorized to discuss security matters. "I never read, never saw or heard what was written about me," he said.
Senior Yemeni officials said they do not believe that Surmi was an al-Qaeda infiltrator, but said he sought to abuse his position for financial again. Surmi, said Iriyani, was removed from his position partly because he ran a scheme in which, for $20,000 a person, he provided fake Yemeni passports and "shipped" non-Yemeni jihadists returning from Afghanistan to Europe or Latin America.
"He went to the highest bidder," added Iriyani. "He could easily have been hired by al-Qaeda."
Senior Yemeni officials publicly insist the PSO, which is responsible for day-to-day security in Yemen, is not infiltrated by Islamic extremists today.
"It's serving the country, and they are doing their job," said Mohammed al-Anisi, the nation's intelligence chief. "These stories are totally wrong."
U.S. officials, though, remain concerned. And Yemeni counterterrorism officials are not taking chances. On Dec. 17, Yemeni forces, backed by the United States, launched an airstrike on suspected al-Qaeda militants in Abyan province as well as two raids in and around Sana'a. According to two senior Yemeni government officials briefed on the operation, the PSO was not informed of the operation until it was over.