Analysis: Recent embassy closures triggered by Zawahiri communications with multiple subordinates

On Aug. 7, the Daily Beast’s Eli Lake and Josh Rogin reported that the US government’s decision to shutter more than 20 diplomatic facilities was based in part on intercepted communications between al Qaeda’s emir, Ayman al Zawahiri, and “more than 20 AQ operatives.” Citing three US officials “familiar with the intelligence,” Lake and Rogin described the communications as “a conference call that included the leaders or representatives of the top leadership of al Qaeda and its affiliates calling in from different locations.”

Several US officials contacted by The Long War Journal have confirmed that the Zawahiri-led communication first reported by the Daily Beast did in fact occur.

As both Lake and Rogin have subsequently reported, the communication was much more complex than a typical “conference call,” which they used as a shorthand description.

The original Daily Beast article set off controversy and speculation, with many assuming that such a communication would not take place because it would compromise al Qaeda’s operational security. But much of that speculation was fueled by the idea that what had transpired was akin to an ordinary business call. It was not.

The Long War Journal is withholding additional technical details at the request of US officials.

Journalists at major media organizations contacted by The Long War Journal say that US government officials have warned against pursuing the story. Some journalists have been told that the idea of a “conference call” is “not credible.”

Thus far, however, there does not appear to have been any official denial by the US government.

The original press reporting stated that the communication was between al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri and Nasir al Wuhayshi, who heads al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Zawahiri appointed Wuhayshi to the position of al Qaeda’s general manager during the discussion. [See LWJ report, AQAP’s emir also serves as al Qaeda’s general manager.]

But subsequent press reporting indicates that additional al Qaeda operatives were involved in the conversation. 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.”

This means, of course, that NBC‘s sources have confirmed that the discussion was not limited to Zawahiri and Wuhayshi.

Other press reporting has rightly observed that al Qaeda has long maintained a sophisticated Internet-based communications infrastructure. A segment aired on Aug. 8 by CNN detailed how al Qaeda operatives communicate over the Internet.

Writing for The Week, Marc Ambinder noted that early reports said a courier had been intercepted and that this “might — might — mean that the US got its hands on a copy of the tape” without actually intercepting a communication in real-time.

Many of the details concerning how the communication was obtained, and what exactly was said during it, remain unreported.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal. Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • mike merlo says:

    this is indicative of ‘communications’ possibly taking place over a ‘secure communication(s) network(s)’ administered & maintained by various Intelligence Agencies such as the ISI & any number of the other ‘State’ run & sponsored Intelligence Agencies in any of the GCC Member States or other ‘Islamic’ Governments.

  • M.H says:

    @mike merlo,
    Good point mike, in addition I will not exclude the Iranian involvement in providing an encrypted communication to AQ. Iran is the most country who have a direct contact wit AQ members when they crossed to Iran, based on their announcement, they confirmed the extradition of more than 500 AQ members( Arabs, Europeans and Africans) including Nacir al-Wuhayshi who stayed for 2 years with the Iranian intel authorities ( they call it a house arrest) and still have some high ranking
    In the Canada plot to derail a passenger train,Canada police confirmed that the two men suspected of plotting were guided by AQ elements from Iran.
    Are we experiencing a new treat from AQ elements who use Iran as a safe house for planing and conducting attacks? Can we consider AQ elements in Iran as a new Affiliate similar to AQAP, AQIM?
    Here is a link to an excellent article to read published by Foreigner Affairs and presented by Seth G. Jones.

  • Jeff Edelman says:

    “Journalists at major media organizations contacted by The Long War Journal say that US government officials have warned against pursuing the story.” Why? Because what happened to Fox News reporter James Rosen or happened to the woman reporter at CBS might happen to a reporter(s) that defy the warning: be labeled a co-conspirator or, the government will demonstrate to you how they can’t/don’t read your emails except that you might be involved in terrorism. How should a reporter react when warned away from a story? The administration leaks the story but, then warns reporters not to purse it. Why? Is the DOJ going to investigate this leak? The whole story just somehow don’t ring true, to paraphrase an old blues song. Perhaps it’s the fog of journalism.

  • . says:

    A courier intercepted with a thumb drive, notes or other documentation sounds more realistic than top al Qaeda figures engaging in a typical business-like conference call. This whole episode may be a ruse.

  • ayamo says:

    A hoax, maybe? A test?
    One of their primary weapons is fear and all they need to do is drop hints here and there and all of this will happen all over again.

  • mike merlo says:

    I don’t think that the Iranians or any of the other Muslim Government Intelligence Agencies & Military’s are actually providing/giving these Terror Organizations high end encryption equipment or weapons systems. What I believe is happening & has been for many decades is that these various Government Institutions, or ‘parts’ of them, have made ‘Common Cause’ with a range of people & groups whose interests encompass criminal activity, political interests, ideological, religious, etc.,. Basically any activity that runs counter to Domestic or acceptable International norms, ‘protocols’ & Governance.
    I believe the various Institutions make available the equipment in question at specific/designated secure locations or the equipment if made available to a remote off site location is accompanied by a security detachment & technical personnel with the requisite level of expertise.
    It should be noted that there is always the possibility of ‘anything’ be made available to these people or groups could be used against the State itself. So the notion of self preservation & ones own self interests are surely paramount in all these ‘ventures.’

  • mike merlo says:

    thanks for the FA article link. It was an ‘illuminating’ piece. I use to read the FA regularly till the internet ‘burst’ into lives. Now sites such as the TLWJ have managed to eclipse or relegate Print Media to a ‘secondary role’ or ‘information’ not included in ones Daily consumption. I’m surprised that some of the News Papers’ major players or next ‘tier’s’ down haven’t simply ‘cut a deal’ with sites such as TLWJ & included them in their Daily Publications

  • blert says:

    The word is out now that America has re-opened most of the embassies….
    Some sources (Yemenis) are claiming that the whole affair was a diplomatic cover oriented towards moving the drone drama off the front page — particularly within Yemen, itself.
    Apparently, only Pakistan and Yemen stations are still curtailed in their operations.


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