Did the US recently miss a golden opportunity to take out a large number of al-Qaeda leaders, including the top lieutenant of Ayman al-Zawahiri and chief of the network’s most virulent subsidiary in Yemen? AQAP recently held a large meeting somewhere in south Yemen despite US drone warfare targeting the network in that region, and published the video on jihadi websites to emphasize their success. In the tape, AQAP leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi pledged to the terrorist leaders gathered there that he wants to attack the US soon:
A new video shows what looks like the largest and most dangerous gathering of al Qaeda in years. And the CIA and the Pentagon either didn’t know about it or couldn’t get a drone there in time to strike.
U.S. officials won’t comment on that, but every frame of the video is now being analyzed by the United States.
In the middle of the clip, the man known as al Qaeda’s crown prince, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, appears brazenly out in the open, greeting followers in Yemen. Al-Wuhayshi, the No. 2 leader of al Qaeda globally and the head of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, has said he wants to attack the United States. But in the video, he looks unconcerned that he could be hit by an American drone.
The video started appearing on jihadist websites recently, drawing the attention of U.S. officials and global terrorism experts. U.S. officials say they believe it’s authentic.
“This is quite an extraordinary video,” Paul Cruickshank, CNN terrorism analyst, said.
Did the US know about this ahead of time? If they did, they must have either had difficulty arranging the logistics of an attack — or perhaps had other assets in place for other reasons. It can’t be that we didn’t understand the value of the target, though. The Wall Street Journal recalls that Wuhayshi was one of the reasons the US closed a slew of embassies last summer:
Concerns last summer about a plot, discovered in part through intercepts of communications between Mr. Wuhayshi and al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, prompted the U.S. to temporarily close its embassy in Yemen and 18 other countries.
U.S. officials have been particularly concerned about the threat posed by the Yemen-based affiliate’s creative bomb-maker, Ibrahim al-Asiri, who built the device used in the botched 2009 effort to bring down a Detroit-bound airliner among other plots.
It could be that the effort to transition the drone program from CIA to Defense forced a lost opportunity, although that’s still speculative:
Last year, President Barack Obama announced tighter standards on U.S. drone programs and directed the CIA to transfer its drone strike program into military hands, though the pace of that transition has been slow. The military’s drone program in Yemen has been on hold since the wedding convoy strike.
However the opportunity passed us by, it may be a lost chance we end up regretting.