Big fish: Source of new terror threat is Zawahiri's communications with head of Al Qaeda in Yemen

I’ve seen both lefties and righties suggest today that the new terror threat is being exaggerated in order to serve as a sort of ad for the NSA. Okay, but … unless I missed it, no one’s said a word about the new jihadi “chatter” being linked to domestic electronic communications. If you were looking to trump something up to make the public more chill about PRISM, that’s where you’d start; if the chatter’s exclusively foreign, then the NSA’s simply doing what everyone thought the NSA was doing in the first place.


Per the Times, not only is it foreign, it’s between Numbers One and Two:

The intercepted conversations last week between Ayman al-Zawahri, who succeeded Osama bin Laden as the head of the global terrorist group, and Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the head of the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, revealed one of the most serious plots against American and other Western interests since the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, American intelligence officials and lawmakers have said.

It is highly unusual for senior Qaeda leaders in Pakistan to discuss operational matters with the group’s affiliates, so when the intercepts between the two senior Qaeda leaders were collected and analyzed last week, senior officials at the C.I.A., the State Department and the White House immediately seized on their significance. Members of Congress were quickly provided classified briefings on the matter, American officials said.

“This was significant because it was the big guys talking, and talking about very specific timing for an attack or attacks,” said one American official who had been briefed on the intelligence reports in recent days.

The Times says it knew that Zawahiri and Wuhayshi were the sources of the threat as early as Friday but sat on the information at the request of U.S. officials. McClatchy, however, did not — they published it last night. A Twitter buddy raises a point I was mulling myself: Could this mean that the U.S. knows where Zawahiri is and has held off on moving in so that they can continue to monitor his communications surreptitiously? If they’re reading his e-mail, then arguably the country’s safer with him out in the field, unwittingly telegraphing AQ’s moves to the NSA, than he is at Gitmo. But that’s all gone now, thanks to McClatchy. If they do know where he is, presumably they’re now prepared to move in with drones or troops. No use having him running around in Pakistan now that he knows we’re listening in.


As for who Wuhayshi is, if you believe CNN, he’s the new second-in-command. Not for Al Qaeda in Yemen, but for Al Qaeda globally.

Wuhayshi’s elevation would almost certainly have required communication between his organization and “al Qaeda Central.”…

CNN first reported Wuhayshi’s new role last week when Seth Jones, a Rand Corporation analyst, said the appointment had occurred. Jones called it “unprecedented because he’s living in Yemen, he’s not living in Pakistan.”…

It would also provide a broader foundation to al Qaeda’s top leadership at a time when its center of gravity has shifted from the Afghanistan-Pakistan region to the Arab world.

And it would potentially allow the group to re-tap fundraising opportunities in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries where Wuhayshi is more popular than Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s less charismatic and sometimes divisive Egyptian leader, Cruickshank said.

That makes all kinds of sense. And it may explain the nature of the new terror threat: If Wuhayshi’s only recently been appointed deputy, Zawahiri may want him to make a splash right away. Doubtless there were true believers close to Zawahiri in Pakistan who, despite the threat from America’s eyes in the sky, wanted a more exalted role in the group. Instead someone abroad was chosen. To prove himself, Wuhayshi needs to make something happen. More on him from counterterror expert Gregory Johnsen, who specializes in Yemen:


The chief threat, as Ed noted this morning, is to embassies in the Middle East, but no one’s ruling out an attempt on the U.S. mainland and this new ABC story describing an “ingenious” innovation in bomb-making sounds like something aimed more at passenger jets than at fortified buildings. The fear, per ABC’s sources, is that rather than hide a bomb in a suitcase or in a, er, body cavity, AQ might now be dipping the clothes of its operatives in an explosive solution and then leaving them to dry. That might be able to punch a hole in the side of a plane when ignited — and no, according to counterterror officials, the security theater you endure at the airport from TSA won’t detect it. Who could have guessed that Al Qaeda would change its methods 10 years after America started checking people’s shoes?

Via Mediaite, here’s Bret Baier revealing the not-so-secret reason why Susan Rice was keen to have embassies close this weekend rather than having something very, very bad happen.


Update: Good question from Josh Greenman:

The One has a funny habit of not worrying much about leaks that make him look good. Is he going to punish the person who revealed that SuperPresident is spying successfully on the leader of Al Qaeda, even though the revelation could be highly damaging operationally by tipping Zawahiri off?

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