What kind of intelligence did the US develop that caused the Obama administration to take the drastic and unprecedented step of closing almost two dozen embassies for more than a week? The Daily Beast’s Eli Lake and Josh Rogin report from their sources that the intel community intercepted a global al-Qaeda conference call run by Ayman al-Zawahiri, one which demonstrated his control over the umbrella organization and the enthusiasm of its affiliate participants, including relatively new additions from Africa and the Sinai Peninsula. One source called the aggregate the “Legion of Doom”:
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. …
“This was like a meeting of the Legion of Doom,” one U.S. intelligence officer told The Daily Beast, referring to the coalition of villains featured in the Saturday morning cartoon Super Friends.
Of course, the problem with this revelation — actually the original leak specifying the intercept of the communication between Zawahiri and Wuhayshi — is that it has tipped off AQ about the lack of security on their conference calls. That will make it more difficult for the US to keep tabs on the group, but it also forces AQ to find another way to exert central control over the collective. That will continue to be a problem with an organization known for its effective coordination and strategic targeting.
This also demonstrates that the concept of “core al-Qaeda” as something separate from the whole is an illusion. Clearly, Zawahiri remains in control of the organization, demanding action from AQAP and assigning roles to individual members. Wuhayshi got promoted to a general-manager position for the entire network in the course of this call, for instance, and affiliates reported operational status to Zawahiri on attacks planned for the near future. It was this information — the assurance given that assets were already in place for the next series of attacks — which drove the response from the US:
The promotion effectively gave the leader of al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen operational control of al Qaeda’s many affiliates throughout the Muslim world, the official said, a key factor that led the State Department to close embassies, missions, and consulates throughout the region. “All you need to do is look at that list of places we shut down to get a sense of who was on the phone call,” the official said.
Not everyone agrees with the response, however. Yemen in particular expressed indignation over the closing of the embassy and the evacuation of US personnel from their country, saying it only encourages more terrorism:
Yemeni officials on Tuesday sharply denounced the United States’ decision to evacuate some of its staff from its embassy in the country in the first sign of a split between allies over the Obama administration’s reaction to what U.S. officials say is one of the most specific terrorism threats in years.
In a statement issued by the Foreign Ministry, Yemen said it “appreciates foreign governments’ concern for the safety of their citizens.” But it added that the decision by
the United States and Great Britain to evacuate “embassy staff serves the interests of the extremists and undermines the exceptional cooperation between Yemen and the international alliance against terrorism.”
“Yemen has taken all necessary precautions to ensure the safety and security of foreign missions in the capital,” the statement said. “Yemen remains strongly committed to the global effort to counter the threats of al Qaida and its affiliates.”
Even some American analysts were left scratching their heads:
If ordinary Americans are confused, they’re in good company. Analysts who’ve devoted their careers to studying al Qaida and U.S. counterterrorism strategy can’t really make sense of it, either. There’s general agreement that the diffuse list of potential targets has to do with either specific connections authorities are tracking, or places that might lack the defenses to ward off an attack. Beyond that, however, even the experts are stumped.
Take this sampling of reactions from prominent al Qaida observers:
“It’s crazy pants – you can quote me,” said Will McCants, a former State Department adviser on counterterrorism who this month joins the Brookings Saban Center as the director of its project on U.S. relations with the Islamic world.
“We just showed our hand, so now they’re obviously going to change their position on when and where” to attack, said Nada Bakos, a former CIA analyst who was part of the team that hunted Osama bin Laden for years.
“It’s not completely random, but most people are, like, ‘Whaaat?’ ” said Aaron Zelin, who researches militants for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and blogs about them at Jihadology.net.
In this case, I’d tend to agree with the Yemenis. The proper response would have been to boost security around the embassies with a show of force, along with the aggressive operations under way now in Yemen and other place to go on the offensive against al-Qaeda. It may not be “crazy pants,” but it’s handing AQ a propaganda victory on the cheap.