By Barbara Starr
New details are emerging about some of the communication between al Qaeda leaders that prompted so much concern among U.S. officials about an imminent terror threat they decided to close nearly two dozen embassies in the Middle East and Africa.
CNN has previously reported U.S. officials intercepted a message between al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and a top ally in Yemen, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, with al-Zawahiri telling al-Wuhayshi to "do something" - an inference to a terror plot.
Now, two U.S. officials tell CNN that in his communication with al-Zawahiri, al-Wuhayshi, who is the leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), laid out a plan for a plot; then, al-Zawahiri acknowledged the communication. Al-Wuhayshi, the officials said, was not asking for permission from al- Zawahiri - but rather informing him of his plans.
This scenario - that al-Wuhayski presented al-Zawahiri with a plan - was first reported Friday in the Wall Street Journal.
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.
By Tim Lister and Paul Cruickshank
The revelation that al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has been communicating directly with the group's Yemeni franchise about future operations is causing plenty of consternation among western counter-terrorism officials.
It suggests a heightened level of co-ordination between al Qaeda 'central' and its branches, and an initiative by Zawahiri to leverage instability in places far away from his hideout – thought to be somewhere along the Pakistan-Afghan border.
There are still few confirmed specifics about the nature of the plot that Zawahiri was supposedly discussing with Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). But he has clearly identified that group as an effective affiliate, possibly the one best placed to attack U.S. interests directly.
U.S. officials were concerned that a plot was timed to go into operation to coincide with the end of Ramadan, which has often been a period of increased terrorist activity. The Muslim holy month ends on Wednesday.
By Barbara Starr
A message from al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri to his second in command in Yemen told him to "do something," causing U.S. and Yemeni officials to fear imminent terrorist action, CNN has learned.
For weeks, U.S. and Yemeni officials watched a rising stream of intelligence about the possibility of a major terrorist attack in Yemen but grew increasingly alarmed after intercepting a message within the past several days said to be from al-Zawahiri, who is believed to be in Pakistan. The message was sent to Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the terror group's Yemeni affiliate. U.S. intelligence believes al-Wuhayshi has recently been appointed the overall terror organization's No. 2 leader.
U.S. officials cautioned that there may be multiple sources of intelligence including intercepts of electronic information from phone calls, web postings, but also interrogation of couriers or other operatives.
CNN had the information over the weekend and decided not to report the details about al-Zawahiri's involvement based on U.S. government concerns about the sensitivity of the information. Now that it has been widely reported in other media, including the New York Times and McClatchy, CNN has now decided to report it as well. FULL POST
By Barbara Starr
American special forces units overseas have been on alert for the past several days for a mission to attack potential al Qaeda targets if those behind the most recent terror threats against U.S. interests can be identified, a senior Obama administration official told CNN.
The official declined to identify the units or their locations because of the sensitive nature of the information.
The units, along with several others, were put on heightened alert by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel last week.
The United States closed embassies and consulates across an area of Africa and the Middle East and imposed a global travel alert for Americans following threats against U.S. interests described as serious and credible.
By Barbara Starr
In what may be a disturbing sign of al Qaeda’s resurgence, U.S. intelligence believes the Yemeni head of its affiliate in the Arabian peninsula is now the overall terror organization’s No. 2 leader.
A U.S. official with access to the latest intelligence said that Nasir al Wuhayshi was appointed over the past few weeks by al Qaeda chief Ayman Al Zawahiri.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is widely thought by the Obama administration to be behind the latest terror threat that prompted the closure this week of U.S. diplomatic facilities in the Middle East and North Africa.
The official declined to be identified because of the sensitive nature of the information. The source also would not say how specifically Wuhayshi’s appointment may be related to the new developments.
What started as an unprecedented move to close almost two dozen diplomatic posts for a day has broadened to week-long closures for most of them as the United States mulls the threat of a possible attack.
A trio of factors prompted officials to extend most of its embassy and consulate closures until Saturday: an intercepted message among senior al Qaeda operatives, the end of Ramadan, and concerns over several major prison breaks in the region.
Originally, officials decided to close 22 embassies and consulates this past Sunday - a day when they would normally be open for business.
But Sunday afternoon, the State Department extended embassy and consulate closures in 15 of the locations through Saturday, and added four other posts - all in Africa - to the list. This brings the total to 19.FULL STORY
By Chris Lawrence. Barbara Starr and Tom Cohen
An intercepted message among senior al Qaeda operatives in the last several days raised alarm bells that led to the closing of embassies and consulates Sunday across the Middle East and North Africa, CNN has learned.
CNN has agreed to a request from an Obama administration official not to publish or broadcast additional details because of the sensitivity of the information.
Several U.S. officials also emphasized they have been watching growing threats emerging from Yemen for weeks.
Those threats, combined with the coming end of the month of Ramadan, plus the concern over several major prison breaks in the region, all contributed to the U.S. decision to shut down diplomatic installations.FULL STORY
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.
By Elise Labott and Dan Merica
Editor's note: This is one in a series of stories and opinion pieces surrounding the Aspen Security Forum currently taking place in Aspen, Colorado. Security Clearance is a media sponsor of the event, which is taking place from July 17 to 20 in Aspen, Colorado.
The instability and changing governments in the Middle East have redrawn lines in the region and created instability that has provided a breeding ground for terrorism, the former head of the CIA said Thursday.
John McLaughlin, the former acting director of the CIA, also told the Aspen Security Forum that the terrorist threat facing the United States has undergone a sea change, posing challenges to U.S. agencies seeking to understand and dismantle them.
“The changes in terrorism and not whether there is an end point are so transformational as to compare plausibly with the changes of the Berlin Wall coming down,” McLaughlin said.