Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian who succeeded Osama bin Laden as boss of Al Qaeda, has spent his adult life operating in clandestine organizations. He has been intensely hunted by the United States since at least February 1998, when he and bin Laden issued a declaration calling on Muslims the world over to kill Americans wherever they might find them.
On Aug. 7 of that year, Al Qaeda had its first major success against the US: attacks on the US embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Cruise missile strikes ordered by President Bill Clinton on alleged Al Qaeda training camps in the Sudan and Afghanistan soon followed, but Mr. Zawahiri managed to survive those attacks – as he did the US invasion of Afghanistan after Al Qaeda's attack on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon outside Washington on Sept. 11, 2001.
In the years since, literally billions have been spent tracking Zawahiri and his close associates. He's managed to remain alive this long thanks to limiting his exposure to a broader network of people via direct telephone or email communication. That's how bin Laden avoided detection for so many years, too. After the daring US raid on bin Laden's compound in Abbotobad, Pakistan, in 2011, it emerged that no internet or phone lines were allowed in the house. Bin Laden communicated with the outside world via a network of trusted couriers.
But a story today in The Daily Beast claims the reason that 19 US embassies and consulates in Africa and the Middle East have been shuttered this week – the broadest such closures since the week after 9/11 – is because US intelligence successfully eavesdropped on a conference call involving Zawahiri, the leader of Al Qaeda in Yemen Nasser al-Wuhayshi, and about 19 other people who belong to either Al Qaeda or affiliated terrorist groups.
That's passing strange, to say the least. The story cites three unnamed US "officials" as providing the information about a conference call one of the officials likened to a meeting of the Legion of Doom.
The conference call provided a new sense of urgency for the US government, the sources said. Al Qaeda members 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, according to a U.S. intelligence official.
The claim flies in the face of every assumption and informed opinion about Al Qaeda's operational security that there is. That many people, on a call all at once, would appear to dramatically increase the exposure of all of them – as would the simple logistics of setting up a calling time for all those people to be on the phone. There's the simple chance that one of the participants is already an informant to the US or another intelligence service. And then there's the chance that the National Security Agency (NSA) would be listening in on the call.
The Daily Beast story says that "Al Qaeda leaders had assumed the conference calls, which give Zawahiri the ability to manage his organization from a remote location, were secure." But that's astonishing too. No matter what kind of encryption or other method was being used to hide the conversations, Zawahiri would have been a fool to believe security was ironclad. And whatever else he's known for, Zawahiri has not exactly developed a reputation as a fool (and, as someone pointed out to me on Twitter, everyone knows that 20-person conference calls never accomplish anything).
But if the information being provided by anonymous US officials is both honest and accurate, that might be even worse than if it's disinformation, since what it amounts to is the US blowing the cover off an opportunity to listen in to the unguarded conversations of the members of its A-list of wanted terrorists. In other words, as leaks go, this ranks right up there at the top of those that have compromised US national security (again, assuming that it's true). What could have been a flood of candid conversations from an overconfident Zawahiri, itching for Al Qaeda's first successful international attack in years, will now have dried up completely.