Was It NSA or a Yemeni “Ally” Leaking the “Clear Orders” from Zawahiri to Wuhayshi?

Apparently, it wasn’t enough for someone to leak this information to the NYT (which said that it withheld some information at the request from the government).

The United States intercepted electronic communications this week among senior operatives of Al Qaeda, in which the terrorists discussed attacks against American interests in the Middle East and North Africa, American officials said Friday.

The intercepts and a subsequent analysis of them by American intelligence agencies prompted the United States to issue an unusual global travel alert to American citizens on Friday, warning of the potential for terrorist attacks by operatives of Al Qaeda and their associates beginning Sunday through the end of August.

Then someone apparently in Sanaa leaked this to McClatchy.

An official who’d been briefed on the matter in Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, told McClatchy that the embassy closings and travel advisory were the result of an intercepted communication between Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the head of the Yemen-based Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, and al Qaida leader Ayman al Zawahiri in which Zawahiri gave “clear orders” to al-Wuhaysi, who was recently named al Qaida’s general manager, to carry out an attack.

The official, however, said he could not divulge details of the plot. AQAP’s last major attack in Sanaa took place in May 2012 when a suicide bomber killed more than 100 military cadets at a rehearsal for a military parade. [my emphasis]

Which the WaPo has now reported too.

Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri ordered the head of the terrorist group’s Yemen affiliate to carry out an attack, according to intercepted communications that have led to the closure of U.S. embassies and a global travel alert, said a person briefed on the case.

In one communication, Zawahiri, who succeeded Osama bin Laden, gave “clear orders” to Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the founder of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, to undertake an attack, the source said. McClatchy newspapers first reported the exchange on Sunday. [my emphasis]

In a follow-up story, McClatchy attributes their information to a Yemeni official.

U.S. officials have been secretive about what precise information led to the worldwide travel advisory and embassy closings, but a Yemeni official told McClatchy on Sunday that authorities had intercepted “clear orders” from al Qaida leader Ayman Zawahiri to Nasir al Wuhayshi, the head of the affiliate in Yemen, to carry out an attack.

Remember, Saudis and Yemeni sources have a well-established history of leaking sensitive intelligence about our thwarted plots. But in this case, the original source (to the NYT) seems to be American, with a Yemeni first providing the really remarkable level of detail.

And thus far, no one from the government has called for the NYT, McClatchy, and WaPo sources to be jailed. How … telling.

Perhaps just as interesting, the US has used a C-17 to evacuate what State is calling emergency personnel from Yemen.

Pentagon officials said a U.S. Air Force C-17 transport plane carrying some American government personnel had taken off from Yemen. They said the State Department had ordered non-essential personnel to leave the country.

An unknown number of U.S. Embassy personnel remain in Sanaa.

Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said the Defense Department “continues to have personnel on the ground in Yemen to support the U.S. State Department and monitor the security situation.”

But someone wants Andrea Mitchell not to report this as an evacuation; whatever it is, almost 100 people have been, um, evacuated.

Are these “emergency personnel” people whose identity has been leaked?

Now, as a threshold level, the news that the US has collections of whatever presumably well-protected communication channel exist(ed) between Zawahiri and Wuhayshi sure seems to undermine government claims that Edward Snowden has ruined their collections, given that two of our very sharpest targets are still using communications accessible to US targeting.

Consider one more thing. If our collections are that good that we have a bead on either Zawahiri or Wuhayshi, why don’t we have their location?

We’ve launched 4 drone strikes in 10 days in Yemen. If we did have means of intercepting Wuhayshi’s communications and are clearly on a drone strike binge, then what does it mean that sources — including at least one Yemeni official — are leaking news that we have those intercepts?

Update: And here’s Michael Hayden, who for weeks has been arguing that Edward Snowden should be made an example of, suggesting this alert is good because it lets the bad guys know we’re onto them.

“The announcement itself may also be designed to interrupt Al Qaeda planning, to put them off stride,” Michael V. Hayden, a former C.I.A. director, said on “Fox News Sunday.” “To put them on the back foot, to let them know that we’re alert and that we’re on at least to a portion of this plotline.”

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

26 replies
  1. Jim White says:

    If our collections are that good that we have a bead on either Zawahiri or Wuhayshi, why don’t we have their location?

    Yeah, that bit has been bothering me, too. It seems to me that whether the intercept is electronic or human, location info almost would be required as part of the process of authenticating it.

  2. scribe says:

    I have to say, this whole paroxysm of droning, terra alerts, personnel evacuation, and leaks leading to news stories, right down to Huckleberry Graham and Peter King providing their own droning to be followed by Obama going on Leno tonight has struck me as being a terra theater exercise designed to support continuing the NSA programs as-is or even more extensively.

    All of which tells me Snowden has accomplished far more than anyone in TPTB dares to admit. If the workin’ guys at my corner coffee shop understand and are pissed about all their emails and phone calls being recorded and analyzed, you can be sure the polls by which this Administration lives are telling them a message they definitely don’t want to hear. Thus, the PR offensive shouting terra, terra, terra we see this week.

    Look for a legislative push to ratify that which has been done, after Labor Day.

  3. mbair says:

    Oh please – the American people have been played again. The story that the NSA is collecting virtually all phone calls in Yemen prompts these two al Qaida chiefs to an session where they discuss, in the clear and over a phone they know is being tapped, their significant new plot to attack America.

    In the mean time, Obama who is feeling the heat over spying, plays up this story by closing embassies and issuing world wide travel alerts thus diverting attention from the civil liberties issues and instead the focus is now “America is being attacked – run for your lives!”

    These two al Qaida leaders are laughing their heads off at the response to their “major terrorist” plan.

    NSA does not have their phone location, because after the prank phone call was completed, the phones were disposed of.

  4. greengiant says:

    If the threat was to the Saudi masters then one would expect a bigger flurry of activity than before 9/11. Perhaps blowback from something happening in Mecca.
    This may have nothing to do with the Snowden psych wars and just be a head fake to get AQ to do something revealing.

  5. orionATL says:

    hall of mirrors.
    earlier this week (or last) befpre the “clear orders” became the talk of the town, zawahiri (an egyptian) expressed extreme displeasure at the events unfolding in egypt, specifically the suppression of morsi and the muslim brptherhood. it seems entirely likely that this anger is behind any “orders” that zawahiri gave the yemeni. the focus of al-z’s ire could be egyptian or american or both.

    rather than turn this into a vague, menacing “abundance of caution” drama, it would seem more honest of administration officials to state that the center was yemen and the target was likely egyptian or american (or some oil companies).

    that these two highly sought officials could have been talking on any phone is not very credible unless they were using one of the encrypted internet “deep sites” just busted.

    it seems at least as likely that another of our moles inside al-q ap saw a courrier message.

    as for that “clear order”, i suppose it is possible, but “blessing” or “plea” might have been as appropriate.

    finally, i have suddenly noticed the word “franchise” being used to describe al-q national units. it was my understanding that the al-q’s in any nation were self-originating, self-financed, and self-controlled. i wonder if “francise” is part of the new propaganda barrage being loosed by ametican officials. or have i just missed it.

  6. orionATL says:

    “… Late on Sunday, the State Department confirmed the closures would continue for several days.

    “Given that a number of our embassies and consulates were going to be closed in accordance with local custom and practice for the bulk of the week for the Eid celebration at the end of Ramadan, and out of an abundance of caution, we’ve decided to extend the closure of several embassies and consulates including a small number of additional posts,” the department said in a statement.

    “This is not an indication of a new threat stream, merely an indication of our commitment to exercise caution and take appropriate steps to protect our employees including local employees and visitors to our facilities.”

    Posts in Abu Dhabi, Amman, Cairo, Riyadh, Dhahran, Jeddah, Doha, Dubai, Kuwait, Manama, Muscat, Sanaa, Tripoli, Antanarivo, Bujumbura, Djibouti, Khartoum, Kigali, and Port Louis are instructed to close for normal operations from Monday, August 5 through to Saturday August 10…”

    http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/aug/05/us-embassy-closure-nsa-surveillance

    of special interest:

    “Given that a number of our embassies and consulates were going to be closed in accordance with local custom and practice for the bulk of the week for the Eid celebration at the end of Ramadan, and out of an abundance of caution, we’ve decided to extend the closure of several embassies and consulates, …”

  7. orionATL says:

    there is a personal relationship between the al-q leaders. furtheremore, the yemeni was just promoted to general manager of terrorism for all of al-q.

    “..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 organization..”

    and

    “…Yemen experts said that Mr. Wuhayshi, who was Bin Laden’s private secretary in Afghanistan, remains particularly loyal to the core group of 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 Sana that led to a resurgence of Al Qaeda’s operations in Yemen. In recent years, the Qaeda group there, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, has tried to carry out several high-profile attacks…”

    source:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/06/world/middleeast/qaeda-chiefs-order-to-yemen-affiliate-said-to-prompt-alert.html?_r=0

    al-zawahiri’s power and influence seem to me to have become marginal. the yemeni and his a-qap may be the only organization zawaahiri could communicate with commandingly and that only because of their personal relationship.

    from my viewpoint this could be seen as an effort by al-zawahiri to regain some stature by working with the only al-q organization left around who can do more than the occassional suicide bombing or drive-by shooting, and even that capability may not exist except in al-z’s and mike roger’s and saxby chambliss’ perfervid dreams.

  8. JThomason says:

    So has AQ perfected the deployment of the “double-army” after the “double-agent” concept in aligning with the US in Libya and Syria? Its especially pertinent if there is something of a “general management” feature to the organization as the embassy shut down seems to infer.

  9. Arbusto says:

    The intel industry seems to think Ayman al-Zawahiri doesn’t know we can intercept his calls. What if Ayman al-Zawahiri yanked our wang, just for the hell of it.

  10. seedeevee says:

    Sorry to interrupt, but because I don’t do twitter and don’t know bmaz well enough and I’m trying to be compassionate dad today . . .

    What does bmaz get out of engaging Lynnae Williams in this manner? — “@bmaz You are fucking psycho and need help.
    about 1 hour ago ”

    Seems needless.

  11. Dan says:

    @Arbusto: Exactly! We have been hearing only the two options; real threat or wag-the-dog. But until Arbusto, no one brought up the possibility that AQ just wanted to watch US operatives run around like their hair was on fire. I bet they are ROFLMAO.

  12. orionATL says:

    @Dan:

    the explanation i am coming to like best involves first a p.r. effort by al-z to bring al-q back into tight focus specifically for fundamentalist muslims in egypt, syria, tunisia, yemen and to re-acquire some of its old cachet.

    at it happens, al-q’s effort provides the obama admin and its intelligence behemoth with a perfect opportunity to engage in their own propaganda campaign to protect nsa/fbi electronic spying from legislatively mandated changes.

    and now we’re back to 2001 – al-q does severe, though unintentional, damage to american constitutuionalism and world reputation.

  13. peasantparty says:

    I have a real SNEAKY suspicion that the US is getting their AQ members confused. The ones they support and recruit from the ones they name terrorists when they get angry and fight back over needless deaths.

    Al Qaida is who the US says it is at any certain point in time and events. Keep that in mind.

  14. peasantparty says:

    @orionATL: I too have been thinking about that “franchise” wording.

    Could it be that the US, EU, and Saudi backed/supported militants have become SO profitable they now warrant investment/banking assistance?

    Could their arms and military hardware be the new unsuspected finance bubble globally?

    Thanks for hitting on something I’ve been pondering over, Orion! Anytime terminology used in finance and business is expressed, it raises all sorts of questions. The man one being, “WHO PROFITS”?

  15. Jeff Kaye says:

    If our collections are that good that we have a bead on either Zawahiri or Wuhayshi, why don’t we have their location?

    I also made the same observation on Twitter yesterday. The fact the powers conducting psyops on the American people, and the citizens of their allies, do not even consider how transparent their lies are is also… telling.

    Greenwald was correct to note the timing of all this “worst threat since 9/11” BS.

    The true spiritual mentor of our time is PT Barnum, who realized there was one born every minute. What I wouldn’t give for some implementation of Lincoln’s famous warning about fooling all the people, etc.

  16. earlofhuntingdon says:

    If those 100 or so people evacuated by C-17 (which could airlift a lot of equipment, on top of 100 people) from Yemen are emergency personnel or first responders, then Jason Bourne was a fire department medic.

  17. bmaz says:

    The whole premise of this post seems so impertinent and questioning of the heroic leaders in government that speak and act in our name to protect our FREEDOMS!

    I am confused; should I heed the intellectual logic evidenced here at Emptywheel…

    …OR bite off on the TERROR warnings shouted by Wolf Blitzer, Barbara Starr and James Gordon Meek? This is hard stuff I tell ya, hard stuff.

  18. orionATL says:

    @bmaz:

    never fret, don’t sweat the logic. it’s not really all that necessary, as we learn from listening to the very effective logic of our leaders’ persuasive arguments,

    leader-logic presented persuasively by bysuch intellectually superior media-leaders as wolf i-work-for-israeli-intelligence blitzer and barbara i-just-got-it-from-good-authority-and-it-was-good-it-was-goddamned-good starr.

    know your place and stay there; to be happy it’s only necessary to relax and enjoy it. but do remember to yell “huzzah” three times as our leaders pass on parade on cnn on that hi-def teevee of yours. nsa’s analysts of proper deference will be recording and storing your reactions.

  19. Bill Michtom says:

    @scribe: “Thus, the PR offensive shouting terra, terra, terra we see this week.”

    It was so much easier under W. All they had to do for Terror Theater® then was change the color of the alert.

    Ah, the good old days.

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