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 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 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 Paul Cruickshank
Editor's note: "Al Qaeda," a five-volume collection of writings about the terrorist network, edited and introduced by CNN Terrorism Analyst Paul Cruickshank, was published last week.
Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri again referenced the Benghazi, Libya, attack in an audio tape posted on jihadist websites last week, in remarks that, like all his statements, were immediately carefully scrutinized by counter-terrorism analysts searching for clues about the terrorist network's operations.
Al-Zawahiri had called for Americans to be targeted in Libya the day before the diplomatic mission was attacked, leading to speculation that al Qaeda's leadership in Pakistan had some sort of role or influence in the attack.
Al-Zawahiri made the passing reference to the September 11 attack on Benghazi in a message addressed to al Qaeda's affiliate Al-Shabaab in Somalia, in which he also referenced violent protests outside U.S embassies in Egypt and Yemen that occurred just before and just after the Benghazi attack. But notably, the al Qaeda chief did not claim responsibility for the deadly attack in eastern Libya.
"They were defeated in Iraq and they are withdrawing from Afghanistan, and their ambassador in Benghazi was killed and the flags of their embassies were lowered in Cairo and Sanaa (Yemen), and in their places were raised the flags of tawhid (monotheism) and jihad," al-Zawahiri stated, according to a translation by the SITE Intelligence Group
By Wes Bruer
American born al Qaeda spokesman Adam Gadahn has released a new propaganda video in support of rebel uprisings throughout the Middle East and North Africa.
The nearly 84-minute video, "Advice and Support to Our Rebel Brothers Against Injustice," was released on extremist websites and forums on September 20, and was reported to have been produced on April 30 by al Qaeda's As-Sahab media wing.
The address to rebels is the second appearance this month Gadahn has made in al Qaeda videos released on jihadist forums. The two videos are the first Gadahn videos since before Osama bin Laden was killed.
Remarks by the California-born jihadist were included in Ayman Al-Zawahiri's 9/11 anniversary message last Tuesday. In that video, "Truth has Come and Falsehood has Perished," Gadahn condemned statements by President Barack Obama that the United States was not at war with Islam.
"America is crystal clear about its opposition to Islam as a political system, Islam as a ruling system ... and the essence of Islam. So, how can America say that it is not at war with Islam?" Gadahn said. FULL POST
By Paul Cruickshank and Tim Lister
(CNN) - The latest in a flurry of messages from al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri shows his growing interest in exploiting violence in Syria. In a 35-minute audio address posted on jihadist forums on Wednesday, Zawahiri claimed the United States was actually supporting the Assad regime to prevent an Islamist state from taking its place.
"Supporting jihad in Syria to establish a Muslim state is a basic step towards Jerusalem, and thus America is giving the secular Baathist regime one chance after another, for fear that a government is established in Syria that would threaten Israel," Zawahiri said, according to a translation provided by the SITE Monitoring Service.
It is not the first time Zawahiri has cast a covetous eye over events in Syria.
In February, he used most of an address to try to graft al Qaeda onto the growing insurgency.
By Paul Cruickshank and Tim Lister
As al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri takes stock of the terrorist network’s fortunes eleven years after 9/11 he is likely to have mixed emotions.
Many of al Qaeda’s senior figures, including Osama bin Laden, are dead or captured as a result of counter-terrorism operations in Pakistan. Those lost include many of its operational experts, such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Younis al Mauretani and Rashid Rauf. Most of al Qaeda’s terrorist plots against the West since 9/11 have been aborted or broken up. It’s unclear how far al Qaeda ‘central’ even knew about significant attacks such as that in Madrid in March 2004 – although Rauf appears to have been intimately involved in the London bombings the following year.
The group's sources of finance in the Gulf have come under remorseless attack from the U.S. Treasury and encrypted documents discovered last year by German intelligence revealed an organization under pressure, scrambling to find new ways of attacking the West.
One of the documents, entitled "Future Works" and thought to have been written in 2009, suggests al Qaeda was in a hurry to prove its relevance, amid intense pressure from western counter-terrorism agencies.
[Updated August 3, 2012, with details]
In a modest house on a quiet street in Cairo, Mohamed al-Zawahiri is getting used to being a free man once again. He was released from prison in March, after serving more than a decade for conspiring to overthrow the Egyptian government. If the name is familiar, it should be. Mohamed is the younger brother of al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, and shares many of his views.
He is suspicious of the international media, and it took calls over several weeks before he would agree to meet with CNN at the family's home in the middle-class neighborhood of Maadi. It was his first interview with a western network.
Mohamed al-Zawahiri takes the long view when talking about the rise and endurance of al Qaeda.
"Before you call me and my brother terrorists, let's define its meaning. If it means those who are bloodthirsty merciless killers then this is not what we are about," he says. "We only try to regain some of our rights that have been hijacked by Western powers throughout history," al-Zawahiri told CNN.
Despite the deaths of many senior al Qaeda figures, Mohamed al-Zawahiri does not believe the organization led by his brother is a spent force.
"If you read American literature, now they have understood that the strength of Al Qaeda is not in its leaders but in its ideology. Any person obtains power when his work matches his principles. Those who reached martyrdom have won life on earth and Allah's heaven. Those who were killed by the US have shown us the light and proven that they have committed to their cause and spread the ideology," Al-Zawahiri said.
Listening in were his younger brother Hussain and oldest son Abdel Rahman. Mohamed credits the revolution that toppled long-time President Hosni Mubarak last year for his release from prison. He describes what had happened in Egypt as "merciful times."
A 1974 graduate of the engineering college at Cairo University, Mohamed al-Zawahiri left Egypt to work in Saudi Arabia. In 1981, along with both Ayman and Hussain, he was one of dozens charged in the conspiracy to assassinate President Anwar Sadat. Mohamed was acquitted in absentia and Hussain spent 13 months in prison before charges were dropped.
Ayman, the oldest brother, spent three years in prison. After he was released, he left Egypt to live in Saudi Arabia. He first met bin Laden on a visit to Peshawar, Pakistan in 1986. According to Human Rights Watch, the brothers spent some time together in Sudan in the early 1990s. Mohamed says he last saw his older brother in 1996 in Azerbaijan.
He also spent some time working for the International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO) as an architect, helping to build schools and hospitals. The IIRO had connections to the Saudi government but would later be accused of links to militant Islamist groups, including al Qaeda, and was designated as a terrorist organization by the United States.
Mohamed al-Zawahiri also spent time in Yemen and the United Arab Emirates, where he was arrested in 1999 and subsequently sent back to Egypt.
"The UAE subjected me to horrible psychological and physical torture for four months," he alleges.
He claims that he was given drugs that weakened his nervous system. The UAE has denied claims he was tortured. Mohamed believes his brother's growing role in Islamist extremism was responsible for his arrest and secret deportation to Egypt – and says he was interrogated relentlessly about his brother's whereabouts.
"I was targeted simply because I am the brother of Ayman al-Zawahiri," he told CNN. "The US does not want his ideology to spread globally. Zawahiri says during his time in an Egyptian prison he was tortured by electrocution, sleep deprivation and beatings. He was permitted to shower only once every four months and was kept in a tiny cell with no windows. All the while, his family had no clue whether he was alive or dead. He had simply disappeared.
In 2004 an Arabic newspaper based in London reported he was still alive and held at a high security prison in Cairo, and published a photograph of him. The Egyptian authorities confirmed he was being held. Despite or maybe because of his long incarceration, Mohamed al-Zawahiri is unrepentant about his beliefs.
"If the West wants to live in peace then they must give the Muslims their rights back. Occupation of our lands is one thing, but interference in our religious beliefs is the worst kind of breach of human rights. We only want to build our Islamic nations the way we like it and want no confrontation with the West as long as they stop occupying our land, killing innocent women and children and above all interfering in our religious beliefs," al-Zawahiri said.
"We call for fasting, prayers, spreading Allah's word and Jihad if we are attacked or restricted from practicing our religion. In this case, we invite the oppressor first into the Islamic community to learn our religion. If they refuse, and we are stopped from spreading our religion, then Allah has ordered us to confront them, and this is Jihad," Al-Zawahiri said.
When asked if he believes the United States is a legitimate target for attack, al-Zawahiri says: "He who kills our women and children should not be sad when I kill his. I tell them not to lead us into a cycle of violence. Your interest so that we all live in peace is to avoid following world leaders who use Islamists as an excuse to ignite this war for their own gains."
Now that Mubarak is gone, Mohamed Al-Zawahiri continues to dream of an Egypt governed by Shariah law. He has little time for democracy as it's recognized in the West.
And he believes the example of Turkey, where a party with Islamist foundations embraces a system of secular, constitutional government with regular elections.
"I don't believe in constitutions, or this secular system created by America to distort the true Islam like we see in the Turkey model. Democracy is not against dictatorship as some try to portray it. It is against Allah's supreme authority, against Islam," he insists. Read a full transcript of the interview
By the CNN Wire Staff
A 70-year-old U.S. citizen kidnapped in Pakistan last year has made an emotional plea to President Barack Obama to meet al Qaeda's demands in order to save his life, according to a video released on several Islamist websites Sunday.
"My life is in your hands, Mr. President," Warren Weinstein said in the video. "If you accept the demands, I live. If you don't accept the demands, then I die."
Weinstein, a development consultant, was abducted in August from his home in the city of Lahore. In December, al Qaeda claimed responsibility for his capture.
Ayman al-Zawahiri, leader of the terror network, listed eight demands that he said, if met, would result in Weinstein's release. The demands related to issues in the Middle East, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Somalia.