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.
The United States has heightened its security stance by issuing a worldwide travel alert and closing a number of embassies and consulates over a large area of the Middle East and Africa this week.
The White House said the substantial security steps reflect an "abundance of caution" over intelligence information that indicated final planning by al Qaeda in Yemen for possible terrorist attacks on Western targets to coincide with the end of Ramadan this week.
The intercepted message further intensified concerns already heightened by increased terrorist chatter detected by intelligence agencies, as well as a series of prison breaks that freed al Qaeda figures.
A senior official with Iraq's interior ministry told CNN on condition of not being identified that top officials of al Qaeda in Iraq, including Adnan Ismail Najim Abdullah al-Dulaimi, escaped from Abu Ghraib prison during a jailbreak there last month and remain at large.
Yemen is an area of particular concern.
Three sources said the United States has information that members of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula are in the final stages of planning for an unspecified attack.
White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters on Monday that U.S. anti-terrorism efforts had decimated al Qaeda's global leadership and greatly diminished its core in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. But the threat still posed "has shifted to some of these affiliates, in particular AQAP."
Over the weekend, Interpol warned that al Qaeda has been tied to the prison breaks on July 23 in Iraq, on July 26 in Libya and four days later in Pakistan.
Separately, 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.