The U.S. government’s decision to shutter more than 20 diplomatic facilities earlier this month was based on intelligence showing that al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri was in contact with multiple subordinates. And that intelligence undermines a widely-held assumption: Many have argued that Zawahiri, and other senior al Qaeda leaders, hold little sway over the international network that fights in al Qaeda’s name. Zawahiri is supposed to be huddled somewhere in Pakistan, waiting for a drone-fired missile to come raining down on him, not communicating with terrorist commanders around the globe.
Contrary to this conventional wisdom, Zawahiri is still very much in the game.
Early reports said that Zawahiri had been in contact with Nasir al Wuhayshi, the head of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and that Wuhayshi had been appointed to the position of al Qaeda’s overall general manager. The intercepted communications showed that Wuhayshi was also plotting against American interests, thereby forcing the widespread embassy closures.
But there is more to the story, and the additional details further undermine the idea that Zawahiri retains no influence over al Qaeda’s many branches.
The Daily Beastfirst reported that Zawahiri led a “conference call” of “more than 20 AQ operatives,” including “representatives or leaders” from Boko Haram in Nigeria, the Pakistani Taliban, al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (or its offshoot, the Islamic Jihad Union), and al Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula.
Some scoffed at the idea that al Qaeda would hold such a “conference call,” but those words are simply a shorthand description for a more complex communication system. Well-informed intelligence sources quickly told me and my colleague Bill Roggio that the Zawahiri-led communications had taken place.
Other press reporting affirms the heart of the Daily Beast story. NBC News previously reported that “a third al Qaeda operative who was part of the communication did express a willingness to die in a suicide attack -- a request that had been denied in the past.” According to NBC’s sources, therefore, more than two al Qaeda leaders were part of the communication.
CNN reported that “the al Qaeda leaders communicated via some kind of encrypted messaging system, with multiple points of entry to allow for various parties to join in.” This again expands the communications beyond Zawahiri and Wuhayshi.
Bloomberg News’s sources said the communications involved “other regional terrorist commanders.” And while the two U.S. officials who spoke to Bloomberg News didn’t describe these communications as a “conference call,” they conceded that Zawahiri “has been trying to coordinate terrorist activities in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Africa, Egypt's Sinai desert, Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere.”
Yesterday, the Associated Press reported that the al Qaeda communications used “multi-layered subterfuge to pass messages from couriers to tech-savvy underlings to attackers,” and this “provoked a quick reaction by the U.S. to protect Americans in far-flung corners of the world where the terror network is evolving into regional hubs.”
The AP continued: “A U.S. intelligence official said the unspecified threat was discussed in an online forum joined by so many jihadist groups that it included a representative from Boko Haram…” According to the AP’s telling, Wuhayshi “essentially sought out al-Zawahiri’s blessing to launch attacks” and Zawahiri, “in turn, sent out a response that was shared on the secretive online jihadi forum.”
Zawahiri still retains power within the al Qaeda network. Zawahiri’s underlings seek his “blessing” before launching attacks, he has appointed a new general manager for the global organization, and he is still communicating with commanders throughout Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.
Ayman al Zawahiri is still the boss.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.