We already knew about the plot, but we didn’t know that it might — might — have come from the very top.

Alternate headline: “Hey, maybe Bin Laden’s alive after all.”

Several months ago, sources say, bin Laden used couriers to send a message to al-Qaida’s affiliates and partners: He told them that he would like to see a Mumbai-style attack on at least three strategic targets — the United Kingdom, Germany and France.

Osama bin Laden’s directive is meaningful because it suggests that the core leadership of al-Qaida still has influence over its followers and that the group has added a new style of attack to its repertoire…

“We know that Osama bin Laden issued the directive,” said an official familiar with the intelligence surrounding the plot. “And if he issued the directive, we just don’t believe that the U.S. wouldn’t be on his short list of strategic targets. It has to be.”

I’m not sure how they “know” Bin Laden gave the order. The Telegraph says they’re working on the “assumption” that he used couriers to deliver instructions about the attack; even if we have a copy of the instructions, how on earth at this point could they verify that it was Osama himself who gave the okay instead of whoever’s running Al Qaeda right now doing so in his name? Frankly, given how seriously western intel is taking this threat, the jihadis involved have every reason to invoke Bin Laden’s name in connection with it. It’s sound psychological warfare, sowing panic by making a major operation seem even more major than thought.

More details from Fox News:

This official said it’s believed Bin Laden was giving “broader guidance” in this case, citing the suggestion for attackers to go after softer targets in Europe.

This official noted the intelligence community has not made a direct link to Bin Laden in some of the more recent Al Qaeda attacks and plots.

“At a minimum, he played a role,” this official said. “But not everyone [in the intelligence community] agrees to the level of his involvement.”

One U.S. intelligence official added, however, that the details of how the plan was directed or coordinated by the group’s core leaders is not yet clear.

Leon Panetta reportedly briefed Pakistan’s intel chief Ahmed Pasha a few days ago about the plot, telling him they believe the attacks were scheduled for late November. (Given Pakistani intel’s track record of collaboration with jihadis, Pasha might have known that already.) The source who relayed information about their meeting alluded to possibly 24 or even 36(!) jihadi operatives being involved, although I suspect his count is including everyone from the top of Al Qaeda all the way down to the most tangential facilitators. According to a Pakistani intelligence official, there are thought to be 10 attackers — eight Germans and two Brits, one of whom may have been killed in a drone strike already — and they’re currently holed up in North Waziristan, dodging the near-daily thunderbolts from CIA drones that have been launched at them this month. Until they’re dead or captured, the plot remains “active” albeit “severely disrupted.”

As for the composition of the cell, two noteworthy details. One: Europeans have been training in Pakistani terror camps for years now, precisely because it’s easier for them to avoid detection once they return to the west and prepare for the attack. A vignette from Newsweek:

For weeks now, as missiles from American drones have snuffed out their leaders and terrorized their recruits in the remote mountains of Pakistan’s North Waziristan area, Al Qaeda fighters have kept their spirits up by telling each other they were about to have their revenge. “It’s like they’ve just been waiting for news, as if they were all excited about something big about to happen in the West,” says an Afghan Taliban intelligence officer known to NEWSWEEK who operates as a liaison between his organization and Al Qaeda. For security reasons he would not allow his name to be published. The source said one senior Qaeda activist told him that Europeans and Americans think “our minds and bodies are in the mountains of the [Pakistan] tribal areas, but soon we will carry out a visible offensive with long-term consequences in their own Western homes and cities.”…

The Afghan Taliban intelligence officer interviewed by NEWSWEEK this morning said that on a recent visit to the Miranshah area of North Waziristan he heard voices on Al Qaeda walkie-talkies that he could identify as speaking in English and what he believed were French and German, although he does not speak those languages himself. (Al Qaeda has learned that cell-phone signals are easy for Western intelligence to pinpoint for drone attacks. So when Al Qaeda fighters do use cell phones, they sometimes set them on speakerphone and link them to walkie-talkies. That way the people talking over them can position themselves far enough away from the phone to escape the blast if there’s a missile attack.)

Two: Both Newsweek and NPR speculate that this isn’t an exclusively Al Qaeda operation but rather one that could involve various “affiliates,” from Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (i.e. northern Africa) to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan to the Haqqani network in Afghanistan. If so, that’s good news and bad news. Good news because it corroborates CIA reports that Al Qaeda proper has been decimated by eight years of war; if they need to recruit from other organizations just to staff an attack, they’re in worse shape than thought. (The cross-org scope also raises the question of whether a directive from Bin Laden would necessarily be obeyed by everyone involved.) Bad news, of course, because ultimately no one much cares what brand a terrorist carries. Jihad is jihad, and if the Haqqani network is getting into international terrorism now, well, that’s one more headache for western intelligence. In fact, as Bill Roggio and Tom Joscelyn remind us, AQ’s cooperation with other jihadi outfits is nothing new. They’ve been working with Lashkar e-Taiba — the actual perpetrators of the Mumbai attack — for years to terrify India. Why not hook up with Haqqani’s people to kill a few Europeans?

Possibly related to all this and possibly not is the fact that a bunch of A/V messages from jihadi all-stars have been released this week. None of them deal specifically with the European plot; Bin Laden’s new one, in fact, addresses, er, climate change, which is actually nothing new for him in attempting to pander to western liberals. But this could be a response to the CIA’s drone bombardment, essentially a way of proving that the missiles haven’t worked and they’re still alive, kicking, and planning to blow things up. Anwar al-Aulaqi is set to release a new tape “soon.” Can’t wait.