By Paul Cruickshank and Tim Lister
For al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, keeping a grip on a far-flung brand and staying relevant while avoiding a visit from a Hellfire missile or U.S. Navy Seals brings multiple challenges.
For a start, his authority derives from his long stint as Osama bin Laden's deputy; he certainly lacks the Saudi's aura among jihadists. He has lost many of his management team to a remorseless drone campaign.
Al Qaeda central doesn't have the money it did in the good old days before the U.S. Treasury started going after beneficiaries in the Gulf. And all the action nowadays is among the franchises in places like Yemen, Somalia and Libya.
To put it kindly, Zawahiri is like the CEO of a company where local franchises do what they want.
And then there are the massive programs by Western intelligence, notably the U.S. National Security Agency, to vacuum and crunch millions of communications daily, looking for signs and patterns – and plots.
In the past week, there has been intense speculation about how Zawahiri may have been communicating with the man he has apparently appointed as his top global deputy, Nasir al Wuhayshi, who heads al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Josh Rogin and Eli Lake at the Daily Beast reported on Wednesday that U.S. intelligence learned of the discussion of a major and imminent attack by tapping into an al Qaeda conference call between Zawahiri and the "representatives or leaders" of several al Qaeda affiliates across the Muslim world. This raised eyebrows among many current and former intelligence officials, as it would have been so alien to al Qaeda's obsession with operational secrecy.
On AC360 later Wednesday, Rogin refined his reporting.
"It's important to note, we withheld many details about exactly how al Qaeda pulled off this communication at the request of sources, but ... it was not a phone call," he said.
"In fact, al Qaeda went to extensive means to set up what you might say is a virtual meeting space."
Others who have followed the evolution of al Qaeda's hierarchy and communication say the leadership may have taken advantage of the many pro-al Qaeda online forums and social networking sites.
Imagine that beyond the "front page" of such forums are a series of doors leading deeper and deeper within the site that could be accessed by a series of passwords.
Yassin Musharbash, a German terrorism expert and investigative reporter for Die Zeit, told CNN: "According to my sources, around 2008 some investigators in Western secret services were convinced that al Qaeda leaders had built something akin to an Intranet for communication purposes."
That Intranet was supposedly hidden within an online al Qaeda propaganda mechanism called al-Fajr, an inner sanctum available to perhaps a few dozen operatives.
"The system was allegedly set up with the help of administrators of the most influential Jihadist Internet forums and was said to be used among other things for the funneling of funds," says Musharbash.
"Al Qaeda Central and cadres from Iraq and the Maghreb were believed to be involved at the time. The basic idea, I was told, was that they would be able to communicate without having to rely on the infrastructure of e-mail providers."
Musharbash cautions that there is no way to know whether such a system may still exist, "especially given that many of those Jihadist web forums have since very likely been compromised."
Laith Alkhouri, senior analyst at intelligence consultancy Flashpoint Global Partners, believes that al Qaeda's leadership still relies on a hybrid of technology and shoe-leather, but finds it "hard to swallow that top leaders may have gathered online and exchanged messages [as] they are well aware of the capacities of the intelligence community, especially Western."
"What is plausible, possible and likely is that designated couriers of top leaders, particularly in the AFPAK and Yemen regions where drones are busy, have communicated amongst each other under undetected avatars on social networking jihadi platforms," he says.
"It is not far-fetched that Zawahiri for example gave his courier bullet points to relay to other leaders (or their couriers). In this scenario, the jihadi leaders would be aware that this courier is designated to communicate with them."
However, Alkhouri notes that some senior al Qaeda figures have created accounts on web forums. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula deputy leader Sa'id al Shihri was "a frequent user of Shumukh al-Islam and other jihadi forums under the avatar "Abu Asmaa al-Kubi."
"Kubi" means "from Cuba" – likely a reference to his time at the Guantanamo Bay detention center. Alkhouri says al Shihri could also have used the private messaging function on the forum.
In the past, the social networking site Paltalk has been popular with some al Qaeda figures. A Jordanian terrorist known as Abu Kandahar al Zarqawi used it to recruit others and was also the administrator of an al Qaeda chat forum called al-Hesbah.
Al Zarqawi was killed by U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2010. But he and others like Abu Dujanah al Sanaani were among a younger group versed in internet technology and proxy software.
Internet sites proliferate
The number of blogs, chat forums and websites sympathetic to al Qaeda has mushroomed in recent years, providing far more avenues for coded communication.
Even when some are compromised or corrupted by Western intelligence, others pop up, using servers located all over the world. And jihadists have been working on camouflaging their communications through encryption software for years. One such program is called Asrar al-Mujahideen 2.
"Even five years after its release, online jihadists from all over the world as well as al-Qaeda members continue to use it," according to Rita Katz and Adam Raisman at the SITE Intelligence Institute, which monitors online activity by terrorists and their sympathizers.
Alkhouri says "the software encrypts e-mail messages between users, and currently serves as an avenue for top terrorist groups to receive messages from supporters."
A multilingual version called Asrar al-Dardashah encrypts messages relayed in instant-messenger software, and has "the functionality of user-created private chatrooms where an encrypted web "conference" can take place between multiple users," Alkhouri adds.
But such exposure carries risks even with pseudonyms and encryption techniques. Circulating passwords or instructions even to a few trusted people heightens the risk of a security breach. And where a number al Qaeda "seniors" (or more likely their designated representatives) are gathered in one online space, the risk is that Western intelligence might obtain the whole message stream.
If Western agencies can identify and follow couriers, the danger is all the greater. They may be just one or two steps removed from the top leadership if the example of bin Laden's mode of communicating is any guide.
Given all this, some terrorism analysts remain skeptical that Zawahiri would have convened any sort of virtual meeting.
One of the groups reported to have joined in the "conference" was al Qaeda's affiliate in North Africa (AQIM). Yet just 10 months ago, the group's leadership council in northern Algeria penned a letter to Moktar Belmoktar, the leader of a new al Qaeda affiliate in the Sahara in which they complained of mostly being cut off from al Qaeda's top leadership since AQIM joined the al Qaeda franchise in 2007.
"The great obstacles between us and the central leadership are not unknown to you ... for example, since we vowed our allegiance up until this very day, we have only gotten a few messages from our emirs in Khorasan [the Afghanistan-Pakistan region], the two sheikhs, bin Laden (God rest his soul) and Ayman (God preserve him) .... all this, despite our multiple letters to them for them to deal with us effectively in managing jihad here," the letter stated.
It was obtained by the Associated Press earlier this year in Timbuktu after al Qaeda and its allies were driven from towns in northern Mali.
It is possible to make one prediction with certainty: The global and virtual game of cat-and-mouse between the massive resources of intelligence agencies and the agility of small groups of jihadists will continue. And it will never be a simple battle.
A few years ago, the Washington Post reported on an online forum established by the Saudi authorities and the CIA as a "honey-pot" for would-be terrorists. It became a source of vital intelligence that helped Saudi intelligence to detain a number of extremists.
But the Post reported that the U.S. military became concerned that the site was being used to "pass operational information" at a time when Saudi jihadists were frequently crossing into Iraq.
After much debate, and to the Saudis' disgust, the site was shut down.
Recent leaks about U.S. intelligence-gathering methods – specifically Edward Snowden's revelations this summer about secret telephone and online surveillance - will have been devoured by jihadist cyber-experts for clues.
"Revealing just how they're being monitored will only strengthen their security, and will likely result in their redoubling and intensifying the efforts to continue the GIMF [Global Islamic Media Front, which develops encryption packages] path, with the development of their own counter-surveillance programs," write Katz and Raisman.