Is the US government being played for fools by al-Qaeda?
On Sunday, I questioned the seriousness of the terror alert issued by the government over some intercepted communications from al-Qaeda:
Either the terrorist leaders were communicating over a medium where they felt absolutely secure in discussing the plot or they temporarily took leave of their senses.
So, OK -- I'll buy the Dark Knight surgically implanted phone bomb scenario. But the very specificity of the threat speaks against it being real, doesn't it? We've never received this kind of intelligence prior to an attack before, to my knowledge. Are we that lucky? Are the terrorists that stupid? Or are they simply overconfident?
All indications are that the intercept originated in Yemen. Given how we're blowing them up with great regularity with our drones, weren't they taking an awful chance in chit chatting about the plot?
My concerns are echoed here by Angelo Codevilla, former Senate intel committee staffer and professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University:
The shutdown and warnings, then, proceed from the assumption either that the terrorists "chatter" amongst themselves blissfully ignorant of what anyone who cares to look knows about NSA's reach, or that they willfully warn us. That assumption flies in the face of experience. The terrorists who have bitten us have not chattered, while those who chatter do not bite. The terrorists who brought mortars and grenade launchers to destroy US facilities in Benghazi and kill our people did not chatter. The US government is up against serious people. Unfortunately, it gives proof of unseriousness.
The US government's assertion that the "threats" emanating from this "chatter" were somehow "specific" belies itself because it is contrary to common sense. Any specificity would focus attention on specific people and places rather than eliciting meaningless general measures and warnings. That attention's effectiveness would depend on secret preparations for counter strokes, not on public displays of fear.
This leads reasonable persons to conclude that some enemies of the United States, well knowing that NSA is listening, decided to give it an earful, with a few names and places thrown in by way of example, but not enough to remove the impression they sought to give of general mayhem. And so they 'chattered." They had sound reason to believe that US intelligence executives would trigger equally incompetent policy makers, fearful of being blamed for an attack on their watch preceded by such "chatter."
The lesson to be taken from all this is that the NSA's well-known (because of the nature of modern technology) capacity to intrude and manipulate electronic communications - but only those that are not thoughtfully guarded - combined with lack of quality control, leaves it at the mercy of any of its targets that wishes to feed it disinformation and then to watch the US government's self-discrediting reactions.
We now learn from the New York Times that the parties involved in the "chatter" were none other than Osama Bin Laden's successor in al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahri, and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Penninsula #1, former Gitmo guest Nasser al-Wuhayshi.
American officials said that it was highly unusual for senior Qaeda leaders in Pakistan to discuss operational matters with the group's affiliates. The communication between the two men seems to indicate that Mr. Zawahri -- whom administration officials have portrayed as greatly diminished and hindered in running a global terror network while deep in hiding -- still has a strong influence over a group in Yemen that has become Al Qaeda's most powerful offshoot.
In recent weeks, counterterrorism officials said, Mr. Zawahri has elevated Mr. Wuhayshi to what one official described as the new "general manager" of the global terror network, making him the second most important man in the organization.
Those are high ranking terrorists, indeed. But we're stuck with the same problem; credibility. Zawahri especially is skilled at avoiding detection, otherwise he would have been killed in a drone strike or some other operation by now. Are we to believe he suddenly violated operational security to have a chat with his friend in Yemen?
I still think the government did the right thing. They had to act on the assumption that the threat was real. But if this was a dry run for some kind of mass casualty attack down the road, al-Qaeda just got a fantastic look at how we respond to such threats.