When Ayman al Zawahiri reached out and touched terrorists on a conference all it was intercepted by intelligence.” width=”640″ height=”360″ class=”size-full wp-image-185254″ /> When Ayman al Zawahiri.reached out and touched terrorists on a conference all it was intercepted by intelligence.[/caption]
heard of the old World War II saying “Loose lips sink ships?” A report in The Daily Beast indicating that an Al Qaeda conference call involving some 20th terrorist was intercepted and (presumably) foiled suggests it needs to be updated to the 21st century, terrorist-punctuated world: Blabbing beards botch bombs.
The crucial intercept that prompted the U.S. government to close embassies in 22 countries was a conference call between al Qaeda’s senior leaders and representatives of several of the group’s affiliates throughout the region.
The intercept provided the U.S. intelligence community with a rare glimpse into how al Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, manages a global organization that includes affiliates in Africa, the Middle East, and southwest and southeast Asia.
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.
And lest you think that Edward Snowden will have little impact on having the U.S. kep safe from the REAL versus perceived, ideological, or stereotypical U.S. government bad guys, THINK AGAIN:
Al Qaeda leaders had assumed the conference calls, which give Zawahiri the ability to manage his organization from a remote location, were secure. But leaks about the original intercepts have likely exposed the operation that allowed the U.S. intelligence community to listen in on the al Qaeda board meetings.
In other words: if this had not been intercepted it would have greatly enhanced the likelihood that the plot would come off with out a hitch. Which is what could happen in the future.
The report also contains some other fascinating details. The Week’s Keith Wagstaff notes:
So what do al Qaeda leaders talk about on a conference call?
U.S. intelligence officials who were listening in say the terrorists discussed having teams ready to carry out a pending attack. Also, Wuhayshi got a promotion to “Ma’sul al-Amm,” which translates roughly to “general manager,” putting him in charge of multiple al Qaeda affiliates across the Muslim world.
While promoting someone to general manager might seem a little corporate for a terrorist organization, al Qaeda actually has a history of Office Space-like politics, once admonishing an operative for turning in expense reports late, failing to meet financial goals, and not getting along with team members.
Holding a conference call, however, was almost certainly a mistake for al Qaeda, as the United States followed up with a drone strike that killed six suspected militants in Yemen. Earlier today, Yemeni officials claimed to have broken up a plot to blow up oil pipelines and seize control of some of the country’s ports.
Most of the publicity will surround the fact that a conference call exposed the operation — but the real thinking here should be about the facts that Mr. Snowden’s leaks that are being hailed as saving Americans from those bad guys in the U.S. government may make it more difficult for the U.S. government to save Americans from those bad guys who plot mass murder behind closed doors.
SOME OTHER VIEWPOINTS ON THIS STORY:
And thanks to Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald, this is probably the last time we’ll be able to pull off this trick…A look around the web and Twitter shows that Greenwald and his army of apologists are already casting doubt on this report and suggesting it was leaked to the Daily Beast’s reporters in order to shore up the case for NSA surveillance. Of course. Once you start down Conspiracy Theory Avenue, you discover that there are no turn-offs.
But the story’s assorted details — the intercept, the precise title of an al Qaeda official (“Ma’sul al-Amm”), the locations of the call’s participants, and so on — suggest a coordinated leak by U.S. intelligence leaders at the exact moment the same group of leaders seek to punish individual leakers like Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden. That or the unnamed officials are lying. Which they are known to do.
The political upshot of the described intercept is clear: this intelligence, and the number of lives it (potentially) saved, bolsters the case for a secret yet massive surveillance state. We caught the terrorists! We won! Former NSA spook John Schindler, a vocal critic of Edward Snowden’s leak campaign, admitted as much this morning.
In which case, it doesn’t really matter whether the story is true. The embassies are closed, the Daily Beast got their scoop, Edward Snowden is holed up in Russia, and Bradley Manning awaits sentencing at Fort Meade, Maryland.
I feel like we’re in the middle of a Great Unraveling, that now that the lid has been lifted on the extent of government spying on law-abiding American citizens (thank you, Ed Snowden), there’s a frantic effort to put the lid back on. What’s happening with the official reaction to the alleged al-Qaeda plot is clearly a part of that effort — regardless of whether the actual plot is bogus or all too real.
Lake points out that al Qaeda thought its conference calls were secure, but now that the Obama administration is disclosing that we’re listening in on them, the terrorists will stop using them. Ditto the courier that we’ve disclosed intercepting. So we’ve jeopardized a potential gold mine of intelligence.
The conference calls do point toward central al Qaeda control and management of its far-flung affiliates, which is something the Obama administration has insisted is not happening after Osama bin Laden’s demise. They’ll probably go on insisting that it’s not happening. They’ll insist that “core al Qaeda” is still on the run, despite the fact that its conference call caused the Obama administration to go on the run from embassies across about a quarter of the planet, more or less.
Long-time intel hands are looking at the closures and
evacuationsordered departures as a “crazy pants” move. Disclosing the fact that the US had tapped into al Qaeda’s “Legion of Doom” conference call is just as crazy pants.
In case you were wondering why al Qaeda has thus far been unable to follow up on the spectacularly successful (from their point of view) September 11 attacks, this conference call may provide a critical clue: Perhaps, like many a Silicon Valley wunderkind before them, al Qaeda’s senior management team transformed a once-agile organization into a stodgy, hidebound old clunker of a corporation and have since occupied themselves with meetings, PowerPoints and mission / vision statement revisions. Either that or someone droned the s— out of every new project launch leader.
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…
A CROSS SECTION OF TWEETS:
Al-Qaeda conducts conference calls? "Bing! Ayman Zawahiri has joined" http://t.co/Ii4W0nosqq
— Reza Aslan (@rezaaslan) August 7, 2013
An Al Qaeda conference call is revealed, classified info clearly exposed. Odds of a leak investigation? http://t.co/rrCZUXJ5hm
— David Barstow (@DavidBarstow) August 7, 2013
I am really struggling with the notion of Zawahiri being stupid enough to have a global conference call. http://t.co/yKEig2mx4M
— Dan Murphy (@bungdan) August 7, 2013
— davidfrum (@davidfrum) August 7, 2013
Now we know what makes al Qaeda so angry: the hold music on conference calls. http://t.co/RfqxX8EtaS
— Jeff Jarvis (@jeffjarvis) August 7, 2013
US intercepted conference call between Al Qaeda’s leaders. Callers thought it was secure but it isn't? Could be Skype http://t.co/v96Fbr8WnU
— Christopher Soghoian (@csoghoian) August 7, 2013
NSA caught conference call no doubt because all its participants were busy doing email during it. http://t.co/RfqxX8EtaS
— Jeff Jarvis (@jeffjarvis) August 7, 2013
What are the chances al Qaeda knew NSA would be listening in – and they simply staged a ruse of a conference call? http://t.co/juypz1IkYr
— Doug Rink (@TalkSouthRadio) August 7, 2013
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.