Al Qaeda calling?
August 8th, 2013
01:44 PM ET

Al Qaeda calling?

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.

Technology infrastructure

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.

Cat-and-mouse game

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.

Post by: ,
Filed under: Al Qaeda • Al-Zawahiri • AQAP • NSA • Terrorism
soundoff (40 Responses)
  1. Felica Dumbleton

    March 29, 2021 at 1:21 pm | Reply
  2. tantric massage london

    Very good blog article.Really thank you! Will read on...

    March 21, 2021 at 5:50 pm | Reply
  3. Candance Provenzo

    March 6, 2021 at 2:16 pm | Reply
  4. Karri Pecararo

    I was examining some of your blog posts on this internet site and I believe this internet site is rattling informative ! Continue putting up.

    March 4, 2021 at 10:00 am | Reply
  5. Gilbert Gloster

    This web page can be a walk-by way of for all the info you wished about this and didn’t know who to ask. Glimpse right here, and you’ll definitely uncover it.

    February 23, 2021 at 6:34 pm | Reply
  6. High-Do-Follow Forum-Backlinks

    1500 USA Visitors Daily For 30 Days From Niche Targeted Organic Traffic From Google:

    February 16, 2021 at 10:00 am | Reply

    Hi there! Quick question that's totally off topic. Do you know how to make your site mobile friendly? My weblog looks weird when browsing from my apple iphone. I'm trying to find a theme or plugin that might be able to resolve this problem. If you have any suggestions, please share. Thank you!|

    February 6, 2021 at 11:46 am | Reply
  8. Nathanael Adzhabakyan

    Earn 500 a Day With Our Passive Income System Doing These 3 Steps: Step 1: Get our ready made niche websites, Step 2: Setup your Paypal account. Step 3: Run our Unlimited Traffic System from our Free 850 sources of traffic and start earning your income in same day.

    February 6, 2021 at 10:14 am | Reply
  9. Barbra Steinbach

    Hi, Neat post. There's a problem along with your website in internet explorer, might check this… IE still is the marketplace chief and a huge component to people will leave out your wonderful writing due to this problem.

    January 28, 2021 at 10:09 pm | Reply
  10. Kip Backey

    Best Marketing Services – Cheapest on Market. SMM Supreme is the Top 5 Best Social Media Website in the World. Best Quality-Price Ratio on the market with 714,928 orders until now. – Facebook Fan Page Likes for $4.50/1000 – Instagram Followers for $0.78/1000 – Youtube Views: $1.62/1000 – Twitter followers: $2.10/1000 – Paypal Deposit – Bitcoin Deposit – Fast order processing – 1 Hour Delivery (Click on the link in the profile for more details)

    January 28, 2021 at 1:00 am | Reply
  11. Dick Sabal

    What i do not realize is in reality how you're not really much more neatly-appreciated than you might be now. You are so intelligent. You realize thus considerably in relation to this subject, produced me for my part imagine it from numerous numerous angles. Its like women and men don't seem to be interested except it is something to do with Lady gaga! Your individual stuffs nice. All the time care for it up!

    January 24, 2021 at 3:49 pm | Reply
  12. izmir escort, izmir eskort, bayan orospu izmir

    thnak baby admin

    January 10, 2021 at 2:27 pm | Reply
  13. Tseafd56245afsdfsaf5621

    How to Tell your own Single courting webpage young It's not working

    dating online is a whole bunch much less complicated unlike outdated dating. All you need to do could be described as charmdate join to a adult dating site, develop your collection, research for plausible connect them federal express, and begin interacting like a e-mail otherwise immediate message. It's really quite simple, it's true? however,web based single going on a date sitehas its unique side effects. one such negatives call for irritatingly prolonged people who wish to attach if you are achievement "knowledge" folks. which means, secure say it's not going to work out between the pair of you? surely "withdraw technique" you'll be able to.

    claim, "virtually no, thanks for the tips" with reasons.

    you'll want to know that you are not only at date anybody, more than ever on line. So once you report little regarding anyone you've been toddler experience around the, causes it to be small, pleasant and / or secure. No pounding around the perimeter of bush without any putting together cop out. expert ethical and / or grateful, in addition never ever apologetic.

    you will begin before it starts which you like to be colleagues and nothing more. If your own time frame is not that heavy, He can come up up the "for instance just be great friends" air you were looking for a way radiate. keep from using relation to endearment along the lines of baby, sweetie, and etc. amazingly, instead, exercise buddie, chum, or maybe a guy.

    buy some new marital position rrn your upvc profile.

    This is kind of a sly tactics, even so it can figure to your advantage. This is an effective way to enhance that you should available in the market, now warding off enticing singletons.

    give up answering their information.

    quiet is a fantastic withdraw manner. This does not mean going for the silent treatment method as it could encourage them to continue an individual whole lot. recently break addressing their voice messages and / or take part in invisible as needed. Your deficiency may be a sign that your chosen return has ended.

    filter all of them with as many come intense.

    in the case all else faltering, have a tendency really feel in the wrong to simply neutralize the lender because your secrecy on thatonline courting internet site siteand safeguard must not be exactly in danger in the interest of virtual distance learning. additional, if they're great ample, they would frequently know when to add upon it's own.

    January 7, 2021 at 9:38 pm | Reply
  14. vreyro linomit

    Can I just say what a relief to find someone who actually knows what theyre talking about on the internet. You definitely know how to bring an issue to light and make it important. More people need to read this and understand this side of the story. I cant believe youre not more popular because you definitely have the gift.

    December 23, 2020 at 10:28 am | Reply
  15. bitcoin to paypal

    Transfer from bitcoin to paypal very fast and low cost.

    December 15, 2020 at 8:25 pm | Reply
  16. detectives privados castilla de la mancha

    detectives privados formentera

    December 11, 2020 at 12:18 am | Reply
  17. hop over to these guys electrician free estimate

    This actually answered my downside, thank you!

    December 2, 2020 at 10:59 am | Reply
  18. Frances

    Excellent site. A lot of helpful info here. I'm sending
    it to a few buddies ans additionally sharing in delicious.
    And obviously, thank you on your effort!

    October 12, 2014 at 7:40 am | Reply
  19. nike sko billig

    That's a good post.Thank you for sharing.
    nike sko billig

    June 3, 2014 at 11:33 pm | Reply
  20. In home personal training

    I want Ayman al-Zawahiri coaught or killed he is the last one that needs to be brought to justice for September 11th attacks. We need to send this message. They need to know that we will hunt them down.

    April 21, 2014 at 10:19 pm | Reply
  21. In home personal training

    You can't rule anything out. They are most likely using technology to communicate. I would think that it would be safer then trusting someone with your whereabouts. This is a crazy war!

    April 2, 2014 at 8:04 am | Reply
  22. NYC Fitness Event

    Fred they are defiantly overpowered by hate. They only want to spread their version of Islam and their warped view on the world.

    February 3, 2014 at 9:40 pm | Reply
  23. Al-Quedas Number One Fan :D:D

    I'm his best friend

    September 5, 2013 at 4:47 pm | Reply
  24. USAPeasant

    Good article, but I find the Edward Snowden blaming at the end to be gross. If AQ has developped some sort of intranet then wow, it sounds to me like they all ready found the way around all the NSA, Xkeyscore, etc. spying. In fact by that standard this very article has leaked more useful information to the enemy than Snowden's revelations of domestic surveillance. Also never heard the word intranet before so I look forward to that enterring the lexicon, but from the very in depth article description it sounds like an internet inside the internet which is pretty wild. Man the future gets darker every day really. No place to run for the innocent civillian. Either the government is spying on you or the terrorists have invented some crazy new crap to plot to kill us. That's okay I guess, no one ever promised the World would ever be good.

    August 12, 2013 at 3:58 am | Reply
  25. PEPPY

    When you have a wimp in the White house, this is what happens, a wimp is a wimp. Either repub or dem, Its clear we have the biggest flake ever to hold that office in there now !!!!!!!!!!

    August 9, 2013 at 10:31 am | Reply
    • George patton

      The same thing occurred in Russia when they put that fool Boris Yeltsin in office in 1991, Peppy. He crawled to the West for aid after he made a mess out of the Russian economy. Moreover, he was never a true Communist but just a mere opportunist who used the Communist Party to his personal advantage. However, the Americans, the British and the French could not have more pleased!!!

      August 10, 2013 at 8:13 am | Reply
    • Pete

      @Peppy,is that like GWBush hiding behind his dad and serving here in Texas in the National Guard never to go overseas because his dad made it so,please chime in meathead!!Check out that only about 30% republicans ever served in any armed service where over 70% of democrates had..That's why republicans are so fast to be warmongering fools with the MIC wanting wars everywhere and democrates are the diplomatic ones wanting peace to war because they saw the death,destruction war brings ..Now Peppy quit saying things you really know nothing about which really covers everything here..Just a parrot for FAUX news that's all,all squalk,no talk wimpy!!

      August 10, 2013 at 7:06 pm | Reply

    Besides killing people, what else do these people do? What do they exactly want, except to kill everyone that doesn't agree with them ! They just seemed to be overpowered by hate.

    August 9, 2013 at 10:16 am | Reply
  27. George patton

    This glorification of killing is just plain repulsive. It's also telling the young people in this country that murder is not quite the bad thing to do! Shame on the right-wing news media!!!

    August 8, 2013 at 4:44 pm | Reply
    • ;;

      shouldn't talk about Pakistan like that

      August 8, 2013 at 8:45 pm | Reply
      • George patton

        Wrong, ;;. I was talking about about the ignorance of the general public here at home. The gist of what I said as I did so many times before, is that quite contrary to public opinion, there is absolutely no glory in either war or killing people!

        August 9, 2013 at 8:49 am |

Post a comment


CNN welcomes a lively and courteous discussion as long as you follow the Rules of Conduct set forth in our Terms of Service. Comments are not pre-screened before they post. You agree that anything you post may be used, along with your name and profile picture, in accordance with our Privacy Policy and the license you have granted pursuant to our Terms of Service.