Al-Qaeda 'order' for attack led to US terror alert
Decision to close embassies came after 'most serious' plot since 9/11
A flag flutters outside the US embassy in Tel Aviv. Photograph: Nir Elias /Reuters
The Obama administration’s decision last week to close nearly two dozen diplomatic missions and issue a worldwide travel alert came after the United States intercepted electronic communications in which the head of al-Qaeda ordered the leader of the group’s affiliate in Yemen to carry out an attack as early as last Sunday, according to US officials.
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 what US intelligence officials and lawmakers have described as one of the most serious plots against US and Western interests since the attacks on September 11th , 2001.
US officials said that it was highly unusual for senior al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan to discuss operational matters with the group’s affiliates. The communication between the two men seems to indicate that Mr Zawahri - whom administration officials have portrayed as greatly diminished and hindered in running a global terror network while deep in hiding - still has a strong influence over a group in Yemen that has become al-Qaeda’s most powerful offshoot.
In recent weeks, counterterrorism officials said, Mr Zawahri has elevated Mr Wuhayshi to what one official described as the new “general manager” of the global terror network, making him the second most important man in the organisation.
The identities of the two al-Qaeda leaders whose discussions were monitored and the imminent nature of the suspected plot - in the intercepts, the terrorists mentioned Sunday as the day that the attacks were to take place - help explain why the United States, as well as other Western governments, took such extraordinary steps in the past few days to close embassies and consulates in the Middle East and North Africa.
“This was significant because it was the big guys talking, and talking about very specific timing for an attack or attacks,” said one US official who had been briefed on the intelligence reports in recent days.
Yemen experts said that Wuhayshi, who was bin Laden’s private secretary in Afghanistan, remains particularly loyal to the core group of al-Qaeda operatives who are believed to mostly be hiding in Pakistan. “Wuhayshi was groomed by Osama bin Laden to take on a leadership role, and he was able to use his connections to bin Laden to become head of AQAP,” said Gregory D. Johnsen, a Yemen scholar at Princeton and author of “The Last Refuge,” a book about al-Qaeda in Yemen.
Mr Wuhayshi fled to Iran from Afghanistan in 2001 but was extradited to Yemen in 2003. In 2006, he was part of a mass breakout from a prison in Sanaa that led to a resurgence of al-Qaeda’s operations in Yemen. In recent years, the al-Qaeda group there, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, has tried to carry out several high-profile attacks.
One was an attempt to blow up a trans-Atlantic jet over Detroit on December 25th, 2009, using explosives sewn into a passenger’s underwear. Last spring, a CIA double agent spirited out of Yemen an even more sophisticated explosive that was meant to blow up a US commercial airliner.
A campaign of US drone strikes and a Yemeni army offensive have put the al-Qaeda affiliate under heavy pressure over the past 18 months, with militants pushed out of the territory they had been holding and back into hiding. But even with these setbacks and the years of drone strikes, the group has continued to publish an English-language online magazine, Inspire.