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.