Exclusive: Courier Led U.S. to Al Qaeda Internet Conference
U.S. officials followed the Internet trail of an al Qaeda courier to learn the details of an electronic conference between more than 20 of the organization’s top officials. Eli Lake and Josh Rogin report.
Prior to the worldwide security alert that temporarily shuttered U.S. embassies throughout the Middle East earlier this month, authorities captured an al Qaeda courier who had in his possession a recording of a seven-hour Internet-hosted meeting between more than 20 senior al Qaeda leaders from around the globe, U.S. intelligence officials said.
On August 7, The Daily Beast first reported that intelligence officials had learned of a remote conference between senior al Qaeda leaders, as well as representatives from al Qaeda branches in Iraq, the Maghreb, and Southeast Asia. The conversations that occurred on the conference, put together with other communications intelligence, prompted the Obama administration to take drastic security precautions to address a vague but seemingly imminent threat on Western interests being planned by the terrorist organization.
The Daily Beast has learned new details about the conference, including that it was conducted over a secure Internet messaging system and that U.S. and Yemeni officials learned about it after intercepting the communications of an al Qaeda courier, who was subsequently captured by Yemen’s National Security Bureau with help from the CIA.
Earlier this summer, the al Qaeda courier began uploading messages to a series of encrypted accounts containing minutes of what appeared to have been an important meeting. A U.S. intelligence agency was able to exploit a flaw in the courier’s operational security, intercepting the digital packets and locating the courier, according to two U.S. intelligence officials and one U.S. official who reviewed the intelligence. All three officials spoke on condition of anonymity.
The courier remains in Yemeni custody. According to the three U.S. officials, Yemeni intelligence discovered a treasure trove of information in the courier’s possession, including not only meeting minutes but an actual Web recording of the seven-hour, Internet-based al Qaeda conference between the organization’s top leaders and representatives of its many affiliates and aspiring affiliates.
The conference was conducted in classical Arabic and included proxies and leaders from al Qaeda’s regional branches as well as the heads of the group’s various committees. Some participants in the conference joined via a video connection, others communicated only through audio, and still others in the conference communicated via text. The discussion ranged from routine business affairs to theological matters, according to the two U.S. intelligence officials who analyzed the intelligence haul from the courier.
The recording begins with a video address from Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al Qaeda’s network. His participation surprised U.S. intelligence analysts, who believed the al Qaeda leader wouldn’t risk being part of real-time communication.
Zawahiri’s message begins with an assessment of current uprisings in the Middle East, the U.S. intelligence officials said, and compares America’s regional position with the Soviet Union in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell and the communist empire collapsed. Zawahiri urged others in the conference to take advantage of America’s declining influence in the region.
Zawahiri then announced his decision to make Nasser al-Wuhayshi the general manager of the group for a new phase in al Qaeda’s war strategy. He then disappeared from the virtual conference, but reappeared at later points with other messages during the seven-hour meeting.
Zawahiri did not answer direct questions, leading some U.S. intelligence agencies to assess that he monitored the session remotely and provided a third party with videos to be plugged into the conference. Other U.S. intelligence analysts, however, concluded that Zawahiri did participate directly. Wuhayshi answered questions from the participants, indicating that he was participating in real time.
Several other news outlets have reported various details of the al Qaeda conference. On August 6, NBC News reported that at least three al Qaeda operatives participated in the communication. On August 9, CNN reported that the operatives communicated through “some kind of encrypted messaging system, with multiple points of entry to allow for various parties to join in.”
CNN also quoted U.S. officials saying the communication was not a “traditional conference call,” taking issue with how The Daily Beast characterized the communication in the original report. On August 9, Bloomberg News reported that the embassy closings were prompted by the intercept of a communication between Zawahiri, Wuhayshi, and “other regional terrorist commanders.”
Around the time of the courier’s arrest, U.S. intelligence agencies also obtained what was believed to be coded messages that signaled an attack was imminent, a story first reported by CNN.
American intelligence agencies have cracked al Qaeda’s secure online communications before. In 2007, U.S. intelligence agencies intercepted a speech from Osama bin Laden. That channel was compromised after details of the speech leaked to the U.S. media.
Since the September 11 attacks, U.S. intelligence agencies have monitored a series of password-protected websites, Internet forums, and other kinds of communications. But al Qaeda has developed advanced encryption methods and a proprietary technology allowing the group to conduct remote meetings, including video, voice, and chat capabilities.
“The technology is there for al Qaeda to have an encrypted cyber Web conference that exists over instant-message software with each other in a onetime-only chat room that disappears as soon as the conference is over,” said Laith al-Khouri, a senior consultant at Flashpoint Global Partners, an intelligence consulting group. “This can also carry video from the participants if they are using instant-messaging software that has the functionality of a video teleconference. I believe al Qaeda has that capability.”