"This was like a meeting of the Legion of Doom," said one intel officer who talked to Josh Rogin and Eli Lake at The Daily Beast. Judging by the names and organizations that were on this terrorist conference call, that description isn't far off:
Several news outlets reported Monday on an intercepted communication last week between Zawahiri and Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the leader of al Qaeda's affiliate based in Yemen. But The Daily Beast has learned that the discussion between the two al Qaeda leaders happened in a conference call that included the leaders or representatives of the top leadership of al Qaeda and its affiliates calling in from different locations, according to three U.S. officials familiar with the intelligence. All told, said one U.S. intelligence official, more than 20 al Qaeda operatives were on the call.
To be sure, the CIA had been tracking the threat posed by Wuhayshi for months. An earlier communication between Zawahiri and Wuhayshi delivered through a courier was picked up last month, according to three U.S. intelligence officials. But the conference call provided a new sense of urgency for the U.S. government, the sources said.
Al Qaeda members included representatives or leaders from Nigeria's Boko Haram, the Pakistani Taliban, al Qaeda in Iraq, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and more obscure al Qaeda affiliates such as the Uzbekistan branch. Also on the call were representatives of aspiring al Qaeda affiliates such as al Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula, according to a U.S. intelligence official. The presence of aspiring al Qaeda affiliates operating in the Sinai was one reason the State Department closed the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, according to one U.S. intelligence official. "These guys already proved they could hit Eilat. It's not out of the range of possibilities that they could hit us in Tel Aviv," the official said.
Al Qaeda leaders had assumed the conference calls, which give Zawahiri the ability to manage his organization from a remote location, were secure. But leaks about the original intercepts have likely exposed the operation that allowed the U.S. intelligence community to listen in on the al Qaeda board meetings.
Does this sound like an organization "on the run?"
Also during the meeting, the various al Qaeda leaders discussed in vague terms plans for a pending attack and mentioned that a team or teams were already in place for such an attack. For some leading members of Congress, the revelation that al Qaeda's leadership in Pakistan is actively managing and directing the operations of several affiliates directly refutes the Obama administration's repeated assertion that the leadership of the core of the group has been decimated by American drone strikes and special operations forces while the affiliate groups have been strengthened.
"This may punch a sizable hole in the theory that al Qaeda is on the run," Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) told The Daily Beast on Tuesday.
It sounds like Zawahiri has taken a stronger hand in running AQ and its affiliates than Osama bin Laden. Given that AQ can finance itself in any number of ways, including running drugs, human trafficking, and other smuggling operations, this makes the core al-Qaeda organization incredibly dangerous. The leadership may have been "decimated" but others have stepped into the void faster than we can kill them.
Interpol issued an alert over the weekend that some of the recent mass jail breaks in the Middle East were planned and executed by al-Qaeda affiliates.
The alert was issued after "a series of prison escapes across nine INTERPOL member countries in the past month alone, including in Iraq, Libya and Pakistan." INTERPOL highlighted the "suspected Al Qaeda involvement in several of the breakouts," which "led to the escape of hundreds of terrorists and other criminals."
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), an al Qaeda affiliate, claimed responsibility for an assault on two Iraqi prisons in late July. According to the Washington Post, "U.S. officials put the number of escapees at between 500 and 600, including a significant number of al Qaeda operatives."
Days later, the Pakistani Taliban led an assault on a prison in Dera Islmail Khan. Nearly 250 prisoners were reportedly freed, including dozens of hardened terrorists. As Bill Roggio pointed out, the assault was likely led by "Ansar al Aseer, a joint unit created by" the Pakistani Taliban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).
All of this points to al-Qaeda planning something out of the ordinary - perhaps something spectacular. I am less skeptical than I was about the seriousness of the terror alert, especially if AQ leadership actually believed their communications were secure.
One more point: What does this conference call say about the success of the drone war? We've been firing missiles from drones for 5 years, killing a lot of terrorists (and innocents) and apparently have had little effect on AQ's ability to plan attacks. Perhaps a change in strategy should be considered?