By Paul Cruickshank
CNN Terrorism Analyst
There may be a link between what sources tell CNN is evidence of final-stage planning for an attack against U.S and Western interests by al Qaeda's affiliate in Yemen and the reported recent appointment of the affiliate's leader as the new general manager of the global al Qaeda network.
Seth Jones, a senior analyst at the Rand Corporation, told CNN's Barbara Starr on Friday that there are indications that Nasir al Wuhayshi, the Yemeni leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), had recently been appointed into the role by al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri.
The appointment would effectively thrust Wuhayshi, a Yemeni national, into the No. 2 position in the global al Qaeda terrorist network, a position previously held by the Libyan Abu Yahya al Libi before his death in a drone strike in Pakistan in June 2012.
It would also provide a broader foundation to al Qaeda's top leadership at a time when the center of gravity of the group has shifted from the Afghanistan-Pakistan region to the Arab world. And it would potentially allow the group to retap fund-raising opportunities for the group in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries where Wuhayshi is more popular than Zawahiri, al Qaeda's less charismatic and sometimes divisive Egyptian leader.
Wuhayshi's appointment would almost certainly have required back-and-forth communication between the AQAP and al Qaeda Central. Given al Qaeda's past track record, that would most likely have involved couriers traveling back and forth between Yemen and Pakistan, where Zawahiri is presumed to be hiding.
This would have given Wuhayshi plenty of opportunity to inform Zawahiri of any plan in the works to hit American targets in the region. This possible foreknowledge in turn may explain Zawahiri's impassioned plea in a message posted on jihadist websites earlier this week for followers to hit American targets in the Middle East and beyond.
A high-profile attack orchestrated by Wuhayshi would cement the Yemeni's new position in the al Qaeda hierarchy.
"What I'm told by sources is - take all this together: you have got the naming of the chief from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, you have got the video [from Zawahiri], plus you have got the intelligence, all of this comes together in the last couple of weeks that leads them to take this extraordinary step of closing 21 embassies," CNN National Security Analyst Fran Townsend said on CNN's "AC360" on Friday.
A U.S. global travel alert remained in place Saturday amid fears that al Qaeda may launch attacks in the Middle East, North Africa and beyond in coming weeks.
The threat prompted the United States to announce that nearly two dozen embassies and consulates will be closed on Sunday, including in Yemen, which was a focus of concern.
The Next bin Laden?
Nasir al Wuhaysi who is known by his fighters as "Abu Basir," has a long pedigree in the global jihadist movement despite only being 36 years old. He is seen within jihadist circles as somebody with the credibility and charisma to one day fill Osama bin Laden's shoes as al Qaeda's paramount leader.
Wuhayshi was bin Laden's private secretary during the time al Qaeda was based in Taliban-run Afghanistan and, according to former al Qaeda insiders, he rarely left his side. After the U.S. military offensive to topple the Taliban, Wuhayshi fled to Iran, where he was arrested and eventually extradited to Yemen in 2003.
He was subsequently imprisoned in a high security jail in Sana'a with several other al Qaeda operatives who had been arrested in a crackdown on the group in Yemen after 9/11. But in February 2006, Wuhayshi and several other al Qaeda operatives escaped from the prison by digging a tunnel. Over the next several years Wuhayshi and the other escapees rebuilt al Qaeda's operations in the country and began launching attacks on Yemeni security services and foreign tourists.
In September 2008, Wuhayshi orchestrated a sophisticated multi-phase attack on the U.S. embassy in Sana'a involving gunmen with rocket propelled grenades and suicide bombers in cars packed with explosive. Although the attackers failed to breach the embassy perimeter, six Yemeni guards and four civilians were killed in the attack.
The following summer, Wuhayshi authorized an attempt to kill Saudi Arabia's then head of counter-terrorism, Mohammed bin Nayef. The plan was engineered by AQAP's ingenious chief bomb-maker Ibrahim al Asiri, who planted a bomb inside the rectum of his own brother. The operative gained an audience with the Saudi prince by pretending to defect and duly set off the bomb. But Nayef survived the attack.
Although nearly all AQAP's attacks have been directed against targets in Yemen, Wuhayshi made clear he supported bin Laden's campaign of attacks against the United States.
In late 2009, he green-lighted a plan by al Asiri and the American terrorist cleric Anwar al Awlaki to destroy a U.S. bound plane. On Christmas Day 2009, the Nigerian militant they recruited into the plot - Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab - came close to blowing up an airliner coming into Detroit with an explosive device hidden in his underwear.
Bin Laden, determined to once again strike the United States, signaled his approval in correspondence sent to Wuhayshi. In August 2010, the Saudi sent a message from Abbottabad praising Wuhayshi for his "qualified and capable" leadership of the group and urging him to remain in his position.
Two more thwarted plots against U.S bound aviation followed: an attempt to blow cargo planes coming into the United States with bombs hidden inside printer cartridges in October 2010 and a plot involving an even more sophisticated underwear device built by al Asiri, which was thwarted by a British-Saudi double agent in April 2012.
In September 2012, three Yemeni AQAP operatives took part in the terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi several sources told CNN. It is not clear whether they were dispatched by Wuhayshi to take part in the attack or happened to be in the city and joined in.
Despite green-lighting plots against the United States homeland, Wuhayshi never made them the group's priority. He only seconded a small number of operatives - perhaps a dozen - to AQAP's external operations outfit run by al Asiri and Awlaki.
Wuhayshi wants Islamic rule in Yemen
Wuhayshi's overriding focus, according to a former group insider, has been toppling the government in Sana'a and creating an Islamic state in Yemen.
In 2011, Wuhayshi's group took advantage of political turmoil in Sana'a to capture large areas of Yemen's southern tribal areas. He enlisted the support of some tribal factions by renaming the group "Ansar al Shariah" and casting its mission as one of restoring Islamic rule to the country.
Letters discovered in the Abbottabad compound revealed bin Laden had initially argued against the push to capture territory in Yemen fearing, rightly as it turned out, the group would not be strong enough to hold onto it, but Wuhayshi proceeded anyway. Bin Laden's opposition eventually softened.
Wuhayshi himself set up his headquarters in the town of Jaar in Yemen's southern tribal areas. For 16 months, al Qaeda effectively governed the area, taking on responsibility for electricity, water and other utilities, but also inflicting brutal medieval justice on those it judged to have broken Islamic law.
Wuhayshi was the commander at the heart of it all and his rule over territory in the heart of the Arab world further enhanced his reputation in jihadist circles worldwide.
According to former group insiders - in much the same way as bin Laden - he was extremely popular with rank and file al Qaeda fighters. He projected the same softly-spoken humble air as his mentor.
In spring 2012, the Yemeni military launched a major offensive which eventually drove al Qaeda out of several towns of the tribal areas of Yemen. But most of the group's leadership, including Wuhayshi, fled into the countryside and regrouped. In recent months, the group has been responsible for a rising number of bombings against Yemeni security services.
Is a revenge factor at work?
This week's terror threat warning may signal Wuhayshi has decided to attach greater priority to hitting U.S. and Western interests, which would be a worrying scenario for U.S. counter-terrorism officials because of the group's still significant capabilities, access to resources and expertise. Al Qaeda affiliates throughout the Middle East also have a new recruiting tool because of rising anger among the group's supporters because of what they perceive to be a U.S.-backed military coup in Egypt.
Wuhayshi's appointment as al Qaeda's de facto No. 2 will increase the pressure on him to show results in targeting U.S. interests in the Middle East.
Letters discovered from Abbottabad indicated that his boss Zawahiri disagreed with bin Laden over the relative priority that should be given to attacking the U.S. homeland.
According to the Washington Post, the correspondence indicated the Egyptian believed launching attacks against the U.S. interests in the Middle East was a more effective way of removing U.S. support for secular regimes in the region.
Wuhayshi likely also has several other motivations for ordering a strike now on U.S. interests.
In recent months U.S. drone strikes have killed several senior AQAP, including Said al Shehri, Wuhayshi's deputy last winter, and the group has signaled it wants revenge.
A successful high-profile attack may also re-energize the group after the setbacks of losing control of territory in Yemen's tribal areas last year.