WASHINGTON – Al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri ordered the head of the terrorist group’s Yemen affiliate to carry out an attack, according to intercepted communications that have led to the closure of U.S. embassies and a global travel alert, said a person briefed on the case.
In one communication, al-Zawahri, who succeeded Osama bin Laden, gave “clear orders” to Nasser al-Wahishi, the founder of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), to undertake an attack, the source said. McClatchy newspapers first reported the exchange Sunday.
Al-Wahishi, who was once bin Laden’s personal secretary, recently was elevated by al-Zawahri to the No. 2 position in al-Qaida. That is a sign, analysts said, that al-Zawahri is seeking to compensate for the weakness of al-Qaida’s core group in Pakistan by working more through regional affiliates.
“It’s very worrisome because al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is the most effective and threatening affiliate,” said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert and Georgetown University professor. “So now the leader of the most consequential affiliate has an intimate command role in the overall organization. From Al-Zawahri’s point of view, there’s no better exemplar of the Qaida brand than AQAP.”
The Yemen-based terrorist group, once a poor stepchild of bin Laden’s al-Qaida organization in Afghanistan and Pakistan, has become the chief focus of U.S. counterterrorism efforts.
In another sign of the Yemeni group’s growing clout, al-Zawahri has designated al-Wahishi to become “some sort of general manager” for what remains of the core al-Qaida organization based in Pakistan, said Seth Jones, a terrorism analyst at the Santa Monica, California-based RAND Corp.
The Yemen chief’s new role “significantly increases his importance” and makes him a potential successor to al-Zawahri to lead al-Qaida globally, Jones said.
“That would push the core over to Yemen from Pakistan,” he said. That would send al-Qaida’s center back to bin Laden’s ancestral homeland, a remote region called the Hadramaut that straddles the ill-defined border between eastern Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
The latest threat from an al-Qaida offshoot creates a political challenge for U.S. President Barack Obama, as Republicans accuse him of hyping claims to have terrorists on the run and privacy advocates say the warning may be used to justify greater government surveillance.
The threat posed by the Yemen branch is attributable largely to its chief bomb-maker, Ibrahim al-Asiri.
U.S. officials have said the Saudi national designed the underwear bomb worn by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who attempted to blow up a Northwest Airlines plane over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009. Abdulmutallab was arrested after the bomb malfunctioned.
Al-Asiri is also considered responsible for attempting to kill a Saudi deputy minister that year by designing a device that was implanted inside a suicide bomber’s body cavity. The explosion killed the bomber; his Saudi target survived.
Yemen’s Supreme Security Committee on Monday released the names of 25 al-Qaida militants plotting attacks in the country, including al-Asiri, the Yemeni Defense Ministry said on its website. It offered 5 million Yemeni rials ($23,250) for information leading to the arrest of any of them.
Hoffman called al-Asiri “the single most evil genius in the terrorism field today,” even though his attempts to kill targets and blow up airliners have failed so far.
“A terrorist’s stock in trade is generating fear and anxiety,” Hoffman said. “From their point of view, they’re doing pretty good. They just talk about a plot, and it gets us to shut down embassies and consulates.”
Officials in the U.S. wouldn’t say who intercepted the initial suspect communications — the CIA, the National Security Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency or one of the other intelligence agencies — that kicked off the sweeping pre-emptive closure of U.S. facilities. But an intelligence official said the controversial NSA programs that gather data on American phone calls or track Internet communications with suspected terrorists played no part in detecting the initial tip.
Some U.S. intelligence officials and others say the relative ease with which U.S. officials intercepted communications among top al-Qaida leaders — especially amid a worldwide debate about eavesdropping — may indicate that they were designed as a deliberate distraction, a publicity stunt or a test of American surveillance capabilities.
“It’s been almost too easy to hear what they’re purportedly talking about,” said Barbara Bodine, the U.S. ambassador to Yemen from 1997 to 2001.
“That’s the part of the puzzle I find the most confusing,” Bodine said in an interview with National Public Radio. “They know, at least to a very large extent, what we can pick up” through electronic surveillance, said Bodine, who now teaches at Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey.
If al-Zawahri and associates were talking on mobile phones, “they know we can pick this up,” Bodine said. “This is why I’m concerned this may be a distraction from a real attack.”
Jones and other analysts discount the possibility that the threat is bogus.
“A terrorist always faces a trade-off between operational effectiveness on one hand and efficiency on the other hand,” said Paul Pillar, a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst.
While al-Qaida leaders are leery of using phones or email because of the danger of eavesdropping, there may be times when communicating across continents cannot be done efficiently by a courier, said Pillar, a senior fellow at the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University.
“I would be surprised if they had given up electronic communications and phone communications entirely,” he said.
While the Yemen branch probably isn’t capable of conducting a 9/11-style attack, it has the resources to blow up embassies or take down an airliner, Jones said.
“They’re not big, but they’re very capable,” said Rick “Ozzie” Nelson, a senior associate in the homeland security and counterterrorism program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “They’re very creative. They’re continuing trying to adapt their technologies. And they have the freedom to operate in Yemen,” a loosely governed, tribal society.
Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has been making threats against U.S. interests since 2011, when one of its chief propagandists, Anwar al-Awlaki, was killed in a U.S. drone strike, said Tom Lynch, a research fellow at the National Defense University in Washington and a former U.S. Army officer.
The U.S. also is taking the group’s threats more seriously now because security in the region is crumbling, Lynch said.
The Arab Spring and the ouster of once-stable autocratic regimes have “put into question the capability of the region’s intelligence services in Egypt, Libya, Syria and adjoining Lebanon,” Lynch said.
“If we had specific intelligence, we would want countries in the region to run to ground local leads, but I think because of the unsettled nature of the intelligence apparatus,” the U.S. is less able to disrupt plots or declare false leads, he said.
Pillar said he doubts that there will be an attack in coming days because the U.S. is now on guard and so many embassies have been shuttered.
“If I were a plotter, I certainly wouldn’t want to hit a vacated or closed embassy,” Pillar said.
Nelson, a 20-year intelligence officer who’s worked for the National Security Council and National Counterterrorism Center, wasn’t willing to rule out an attack.
“My level of concern is still high,” he said. “This is a very real and credible warning, and they are a very creative and adaptive adversary.”