Al Qaeda's Conference Call
So why did Canada close its diplomatic mission in Bangladesh Sunday, or the U.S. Air Force evacuate Americans from Sanaa, Yemen at dawn Tuesday, or why did the U.S. State Department issue a worldwide travel alert for the month of August?
Apparently, according to the Daily Beast, Al Qaeda had a conference call.
That's what three unnamed U.S. officials told Eli Lake and Josh Rogin. "This was like a meeting of the Legion of Doom,” one intelligence officers said in the story posted online Wednesday, referring to the coalition of villains featured in the Saturday morning cartoon Super Friends.
Those on the call included, "representatives or leaders from Nigeria’s Boko Haram,
the Pakistani Taliban, al Qaeda in Iraq, al Qaeda in the Islamic
Maghreb, and more obscure al Qaeda affiliates such as the Uzbekistan
branch. Also on the call were representatives of aspiring al Qaeda
affiliates such as al Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula," the story stated.
This assertion is remarkable for a number of reasons.
First, the upper echelon of Al Qaeda is skilled at avoiding detection and the idea that up to 20 leaders of the group would participate on what was described as a "conference call" seems fantastic.
Second, the list of so-called "Super Friends" is also curious. While there are known ties between Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and Al Qaeda's branches in Yemen or Iraq, including members from Uzbekistan or Sinai or Nigeria on what was purportedly a high-level strategy session seems reckless for a group that is anything but reckless.
Third, one of the officials told the Daily Beast: "All you need to do is look at that list of places we shut down to get a sense of who was on the phone call." But the embassy in Abuja, Nigeria did not close this week? And why are the embassies in Kigali, Rwanda, and Antananarivo, Madagascar still shut while the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan re-opened?
Even before the story of the conference call was posted, McClatchy journalist Hannah Allam had gathered an amusing assortment of comments from Washington's counterterrorism analysts, who remain baffled by the extreme security measures.
Top prize goes to former State Department adviser Will McCants, who recently joined the Brookings Saban Center. "It's crazy pants," he said. "You can quote me."
Meanwhile, news seems to be breaking by the hour in Yemen, where Yemenis are also perplexed by the fuss, analyst Abdul Ghani al-Iryani told me in an interview Tuesday. "It’s puzzling to me," he said. "The heightened threat is to be expected because the drones were very busy in the past few days and have killed quite a few of the top leadership of the AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) but we have not seen anything like this. I don’t know why they felt they had to go to these extremes. The Yemenis are not paying attention to it at all. For us it’s just weird Americans do weird things, basically."
Although the alerts started Friday, one Western intelligence official told me the risk is expected to rise following the Muslim holiday of Ramadan, which ends tonight.
Much more of this story to come.
(For a backgrounder on AQAP, here's one I wrote for TNR a couple years ago - as a primer it's still relevant: http://www.newrepublic.com/article/politics/al-qaeda-the-arab-peninsula-primer#. For on-the-ground reporting in Sanaa, follow on Twitter: Iona Craig, Khaled al-Hammadi, Nasser Arrabyee , Adam Baron and Casey Coombs. Great analysis always from Gregory Johnsen.)
Michelle Shephard is the Star's National Security correspondent and author of "Decade of Fear: Reporting from Terrorism's Grey Zone." She is a three-time recipient of Canada's National Newspaper Award. Follow her on Twitter @shephardm