Al-Qaeda’s Rallying Call

Eli Lake and Josh Rogin report on the purported intel behind recent terror alerts that closed US embassies across the Mideast and Africa. Intelligence officials say the US got wind of an impending attack by intercepting a conference call between al-Qaeda HQ and its affiliates in Iraq, Pakistan, Nigeria and elsewhere:

“This was like a meeting of the Legion of Doom,” one U.S. intelligence officer told The Daily Beast, referring to the coalition of villains featured in the Saturday morning cartoon Super Friends. … [D]uring the meeting, the various al Qaeda leaders discussed in vague terms plans for a pending attack and mentioned that a team or teams were already in place for such an attack.

Max Fisher explains that a new planned attack may have been due to al-Qaeda’s own fractured politics:

Something to keep in mind about al-Qaeda and its affiliates is that they’re separated by thousands of miles, not to mention differing priorities, personnel and, potentially, missions and ideologies. Especially now that Osama bin Laden is gone, there’s not quite as much tying them all together. Zawahiri is ostensibly in charge of all of those affiliates, to some degree. But Watts suggests that the group structure may be fracturing, and with it the ability of Zawahiri and “al-Qaeda Central” to lead.

In this theory, the Yemen plot would be a way for Zawahiri to reassert his leadership and to revitalize the part of the al-Qaeda network over which he has the most control. That could be about more than just Zawahiri jockeying for more of a personal role: It could also be about holding together the broader al-Qaeda network, which has always had infighting but may actually be on the verge of splitting in two.

The Economist questions the logic of the US closing embassies and publicly announcing the foiled attack:

It is also not yet apparent why the White House opted to make such a dramatic public statement of its concerns rather than use the information to disrupt the plot. Not only is there a significant economic cost from the consequent delays to travel, but according to intelligence sources there are potentially major security drawbacks as well. First,

al-Qaeda has been given precious information about American surveillance capabilities that will help it keep its communications more secure in future. Secondly, the plotters might have a “plan B” up their sleeves that the intelligence agencies have as yet no knowledge of. Thirdly, it goes strongly counter to the administration’s previous claims that, thanks to its efforts, al-Qaeda’s ability to carry out complex operations against Western targets had declined to such an extent that it was on the brink of strategic defeat.

Friedersdorf remains generally skeptical of the story:

As with the Bush Administration’s color-coded terror alerts, I can’t help but wonder if the State Department warning and this week’s news stories about renewed threats from Al Qaeda are being hyped. To what extent does this week’s news reflect changes in that threat, and to what extent is the American public being manipulated, or else misled so that Team Obama can manipulate Al Qaeda? There’s just no way to know. It wouldn’t shock me if the closure of diplomatic facilities abroad is entirely threat based… or if the threat were being exaggerated to undermine the growing Congressional backlash to NSA surveillance. Or to give Team Obama cover for a surge of drone strikes in Yemen, despite that recent drone speech.

Meanwhile, Max Read puzzles why, after all the fuss about Snowden, intelligence officers are leaking this national security info to the press.