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Qaeda chief’s message to Yemen branch sparked alert
Intercepted communication between al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri (pictured) and the Yemen-based head of AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) sparked this weekend’s closures of Western diplomatic posts in the region, according to US reports.
An intercepted message from al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri to the head of the group’s Yemeni branch ordering him to “do something” triggered the weekend’s closures of several US diplomatic missions, according to US media reports.
The conversation last week between Zawahiri and Nasir al-Wuhayshi, head of AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) represented one of the most serious plots against Western interests since the 9/11 attacks, the New York Times reported Monday.
Zawahiri took over as the head of what counter-terror experts call “al Qaeda central command” following the May 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden.
Wuhayshi, who was bin Laden’s private secretary in Afghanistan, is the “emir” of AQAP, one of al Qaeda’s most dangerous branches. US intelligence believes the Yemeni militant, who is believed to be particularly loyal to al Qaeda central command figures, has recently been appointed the terror organisation's No. 2.
AQAP, unlike many al Qaeda affiliates, is particularly effective at targeting Western interests and issuing media statements calling on its followers to attack US and European targets abroad. A recent analysis of AQAP messages in 2013 by a private US intelligence firm found that France ranked second as the main focus of the group’s jihadist propaganda, after the US.
The intercepted electronic communication between Zawahiri and Wuhayshi revealed that the two al Qaeda leaders mentioned Sunday as a possible day for the attacks, according to the New York Times.
The intelligence sparked an unprecedented closure of several US diplomatic posts in the Middle East and North Africa over the weekend. On Monday, the US extended the closures of several missions in the region, including Yemen, Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
On Tuesday, the US ordered the evacuation of all non-emergency US government personnel from Yemen “due to the continued potential for terrorist attacks”. The latest State Department statement also called on US citizens currently living in Yemen to “depart immediately”.
Shortly after the State Department statement was issued Tuesday, Britain’s Foreign Office announced that it was withdrawing all staff from the British embassy in Sanaa due to the terror threat.
France has announced that its embassy in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa will remain closed until at least Thursday, when the Muslim holy month of Ramadan is likely to end.
Surveillance of electronic communication between Yemeni militants
Yemen has once again become the focus of US counter-terror operations after al Qaeda expanded its presence there following the political disturbances of the 2011 Arab uprisings.
On Tuesday, Yemeni news reports quoted a tribal source as saying a US drone strike killed four suspected al Qaeda militants in the eastern Marib province.
Last month, al Qaeda confirmed the killing of AQAP deputy Saeed al-Shihri in a US drone strike while he was speaking on his mobile phone in the northern province of Saadah. "Lax security measures during his telephone contacts has enabled the enemy to (identify and) kill him," said AQAP's chief theologian – or mufti – Ibrahim al-Rubaish, in a video statement released on July 17.
Top al Qaeda leaders have been known to avoid electronic communications for fear of being intercepted. Following bin Laden’s killing in Abbottabad, Pakistan, US officials revealed that the former terror mastermind relied solely on human couriers to carry messages to other al Qaeda militants.
Prison breaks spark heightened security
Wuhayshi, a Yemeni national, is believed to closely model himself on bin Laden, according to US journalists who have interviewed people who knew him.
The wiry, but charismatic al Qaeda militant was in Afghanistan during the 9/11 attacks, but fled to Iran following the 2001 US military operation. He was extradited to Yemen two years later, but escaped – along with a number of battle-hardened militants – in a 2006 prison break.
The latest embassy closures come amid heightened security fears following last month’s prison break in Iraq, in which a number of senior militants are believed to have escaped.
There have been jail breaks in recent weeks in nine countries, including Libya and Pakistan, according to Interpol. Over the weekend, the French-based international policing agency issued an alert asking its 190 member countries to swiftly process any information linked to the prison breaks, some of which may be connected to al Qaeda.