US President Barack Obama’s administration’s decision last week to close nearly two dozen diplomatic missions and issue a worldwide travel alert came after the US intercepted electronic communications in which the head of al-Qaeda ordered the leader of the group’s affiliate in Yemen to carry out an attack as early as this past Sunday, US officials said.
The intercepted conversations last week between Ayman al--Zawahiri, who succeeded slain al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden as the head of the global terrorist group, and Nasser al-Wuhayshi, head of the Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), revealed what US intelligence officials and lawmakers have described as one of the most serious plots against US and Western interests since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
US officials said that it was highly unusual for senior al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan to discuss operational matters with the group’s affiliates. The communication between the two men seems to indicate that al-Zawahiri — whom administration officials have portrayed as greatly diminished and hindered in running a global terror network while deep in hiding — still has a strong influence over a group in Yemen that has become al-Qaeda’s most powerful offshoot.
In recent weeks, al-Zawahiri has elevated al-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, counterterrorism officials said.
The identities of the two al-Qaeda leaders whose discussions were monitored and the imminent nature of the suspected plot — in the intercepts, the terrorists mentioned Sunday as the day that the attacks were to take place — help explain why the US, as well as other Western governments, took such extraordinary steps in the past few days to close embassies and consulates in the Middle East and North Africa.
“This was significant because it was the big guys talking, and talking about very specific timing for an attack or attacks,” one US official who had been briefed on the intelligence reports in recent days said.
Yemen experts said that al-Wuhayshi, who was bin Laden’s private secretary in Afghanistan, remains particularly loyal to the core group of al-Qaeda operatives who are believed to mostly be hiding in Pakistan.
Meanwhile, a statement issued yesterday says the US State Department has ordered the departure of non-emergency US government personnel from Yemen “due to the continued potential for terrorist attacks.”
The travel warning says US citizens currently in Yemen should depart and calls the security threat level in Yemen “extremely high.”
The move came after Yemeni authorities released the names of 25 wanted al-Qaeda suspects on Monday, saying they were planning terrorist attacks in the capital, Sana’a, and other cities across the country.
The UK government also announced yesterday that all staff at the British embassy in Sana’a have been temporarily withdrawn due to the terror theat.
Additional reporting by AP