On Friday, the State Department announced that 21 diplomatic facilities (now updated to 22), from North Africa through the Middle East and into South Asia, are to be closed this weekend in response to an al Qaeda threat. The State Department’s travel alert warned of “terrorist attacks…possibly occurring in or emanating from the Arabian Peninsula.” The implication was that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was behind the threat.
And indeed, press reporting says that is the case. CNN reports: “Fresh intelligence led the United States to conclude that operatives of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula were in the final stages of planning an attack against U.S. and Western targets, several U.S. officials told CNN.”
The Wall Street Journal, citing a former U.S. official, reports that intelligence officials are tracking an “active” AQAP plot. U.S. authorities “grew more concerned recently when they started to intercept communications in which the wording suggested an imminent attack, the former official added.”
The intelligence wasn’t specific enough to indicate a time or place for the intended attack, but it was considered credible enough to force the widespread diplomatic closures.
Both the Wall Street Journal and CNN accounts include an especially interesting nugget for al Qaeda watchers: Ayman al Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s emir, has appointed Nasir al Wuhayshi, who heads AQAP, to be al Qaeda’s overall general manager.
This is an incredibly important position within al Qaeda. The general manager oversees much of al Qaeda’s infrastructure and is responsible for coordinating al Qaeda’s operations, including, as best we can tell, the organization’s affiliates.
The appointment of Wuhayshi to the general manager position, which was previously filled by al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan who were killed by U.S. drones, highlights a basic flaw in the Obama administration’s thinking about the al Qaeda threat.
In June, I took on the Obama administration’s hard distinction between al Qaeda’s “core” in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and al Qaeda’s affiliates elsewhere. The Western concept of an al Qaeda “core” predates the Obama administration, but the president and other top U.S. officials have seized upon it to argue that the al Qaeda threat has been sufficiently decimated.
The president’s thinking is that it is this “core” that leads the charge against the U.S. homeland and the affiliates are less capable and less committed to attacking the homeland today. The group’s leadership losses in Afghanistan and Pakistan, therefore, have substantially reduced the terrorist threat even if new al Qaeda affiliates are expanding. As I’ve written, it is a shortsighted argument for many reasons.
Here is the first example I gave for why this distinction between the al Qaeda “core” and the affiliates is, at best, imprecise:
Consider just some of the terrorists who run al Qaeda’s operations outside of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Headquartered in Yemen, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is led by Nasir al Wuhayshi, a terrorist who served as Osama bin Laden’s aide-de-camp for several years prior to 9/11. Wuhayshi was bin Laden’s protégé and remained loyal to the al Qaeda master even through the darkest times, including the Battle of Tora Bora in late 2001, when all could have been lost. Bin Laden later returned the favor, rejecting a plea by some AQAP members to replace Wuhayshi as their leader with Anwar al Awlaki, the charismatic al Qaeda ideologue who has since been killed in a drone strike. Some of Wuhayshi’s lieutenants also served al Qaeda in Afghanistan well before the 9/11 attacks. And together they are advancing al Qaeda’s global jihadist agenda, simultaneously fighting for territory inside Yemen while overseeing plots against the United States.
By what standard is Wuhayshi today not a core member of al Qaeda? Is the reason simply that he lives in Yemen, and not Afghanistan or Pakistan?
If the CNN and Wall Street Journal accounts are correct, then Wuhayshi is now the general manager for al Qaeda’s global operations.
He is, by any standard, a “core” al Qaeda member.
And the Obama administration’s and U.S. intelligence community’s definition of al Qaeda needs to be reworked.
Twenty-two American diplomatic facilities across a large swath of the globe are closed this weekend because “core” al Qaeda isn’t just located in South Asia.
Thomas Joscelyn is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.