By Fred Burton
The world continues to be fascinated by the latest audiotape from Osama bin Laden. The statements he makes are certainly interesting: simultaneously threatening more attacks against the United States and offering a truce
. But even more interesting, in our view, is the context in which the newest recording was released: amid a rash of other releases attributed to top al Qaeda leaders — including a recording in which Ayman al-Zawahiri reads poetry praising mujahideen. If the tapes are authentic, they are of course noteworthy in several ways. In addition to the obvious — the continued survival of bin Laden, who had not been seen or heard from since December 2004 — the level of activity featuring al-Zawahiri is the highest it has been since January 2003. Though he has issued statements at fairly regular intervals during the past year, al-Zawahiri has emerged three times this month: first on Jan. 6, then a day later (with an image of al-Zawahiri shown while "Azzam the American" read a statement in English), and then again with the poetry reading Jan. 20. Under any circumstances, four appearances by top al Qaeda leaders in the span of a month is somewhat unusual. In addition to these recordings, there is also the Jan. 13 Predator strike in a small Pakistani village that apparently killed four senior al Qaeda members. This strike
has fascinated us for some time: Initially, it was thought to have caused the death of al-Zawahiri, who apparently had been invited to attend a dinner
in the village but cancelled at the last minute. Considering the identities of those who actually were in attendance, logistical factors affecting the transport and release of al Qaeda recordings and the subsequent surge in airtime for bin Laden and al-Zawahiri, it is logical to assume a connection between the two sets of events.
Public attention has focused, with good reason, on bin Laden's statements and whether they signal a pending attack in the United States. In the tape recording, he says: "Operations are in preparation and you will see them in your own homeland as soon as they are ready, Allah willing." Though al Qaeda's tactical ability to carry out operations might often be called into question, and many planned strikes have been thwarted, any threat of this sort from the group's top leadership should always be taken seriously. Historically, al Qaeda always has attempted — with some notable successes, such as the East Africa embassy bombings and other strikes — to follow up on its threats. All of which brings us back to the blow the United States struck so recently against al Qaeda in Pakistan, which is significant in many ways. It was in the early hours of Jan. 13, following a dinner celebrating the holiday of Eid al-Adha, that Hellfire missiles rained down on a hut in Damadola, in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas near the border with Afghanistan. Though al-Zawahiri apparently was not present at the time of the attack, the Pakistani government later revealed that four senior al Qaeda members — identified as Abdul al-Maghribi, Midhat Mursi al-Sayid Umar, Khalid Habib and Abu Obaidah al-Masri — were killed, along with several villagers. The identities of these four men, and the role they apparently played within al Qaeda, is key:
- Al-Maghribi: Believed to be al-Zawahiri's son-in-law and to be involved in al Qaeda's media relations operations.
- Al-Sayid Umar: Also known as Abu Khabab al-Masri. A leading al Qaeda bomb-maker and instructor, who is believed to have trained suicide operatives for several anti-U.S. strikes — including the attack against the USS Cole in October 2000.
- Habib: Reportedly al Qaeda's operations chief in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. Believed to have helped plan assassination attempts against Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf. Close ties to Abu Farj al-Libi, who was arrested in Pakistan in May 2005.
- Al-Masri: An Egyptian, believed to be in charge of planning attacks against coalition forces in eastern Afghanistan.
In short, these were men who all had histories with al Qaeda and would have been well-placed, trusted operatives. From a tactical perspective, a lineup like this is difficult to dismiss as four colleagues merely getting together to celebrate a religious holiday. While it is true that al Qaeda operatives at a certain level have committed their fair share of operational security gaffes
, a firm line must be drawn somewhere near the apex leadership. For bin Laden, al-Zawahiri and those in their immediate circle, operational security qualifies as a religion in itself: $25 million bounties aside, their very survival depends on it. And in many cases, that means not being seen to associate with other known members of al Qaeda, who might already have attracted unwanted surveillance. Beyond that point, the experience and functions of these men fit together in a specific way: Among them, we find strategic planners, ordnance experts, public relations functions — all components of a high-ranking operations cell. Though there is much that can only be speculated about what such a committee might be drawn together to discuss, it is clear that they did not die in a freak accident involving a passing Predator. U.S. intelligence obviously was aware that a meeting was under way, and in all likelihood that information came from a human intelligence (humint) source who was able, somehow, to guarantee the presence of high-value targets (HVTs) in the village. If we had to guess where the link was, our money would be on al-Maghribi. As al-Zawahiri's son-in-law, he would be in communication with al Qaeda's top leadership and, as a trusted family member, likely would be able to speak on their behalf as a delegate to wider circles. But his role in media relations is equally interesting: Al-Maghribi is believed to have played a part in distributing statements, CDs and videos featuring al Qaeda leaders, and to have maintained contacts with some Arab journalists. The leadership's need for publicity, along with these outside contacts, may have created an opening that U.S. intelligence exploited in efforts to track down bin Laden and al-Zawahiri. If there was a humint source involved in orchestrating the Pakistan strike, it probably was someone who kept their eyes on al-Maghribi. Find al-Maghribi, and he eventually might lead you back to al-Zawahiri. It was probably al-Maghribi's presence, more than the other three, that drew the rain of missiles down, with U.S. intelligence believing al-Zawahiri would be nearby. At any rate, judging from photos of the destruction, it seems obvious that the United States did not want to take the chance of having anyone they were targeting survive. Given the dangers involved — highlighted by other successful Predator strikes
against al Qaeda targets in the region
over the past year — there still remains the question of what was so important that all four cell members would risk their lives for a meeting. Considering the functions of the men involved, we believe it was a planning meeting — and for a serious operation, at that. Operatives at that level don't risk face-to-face gatherings for the sake of planning small actions. Unless there had been a serious snafu, the meeting in Damadola probably would not have been called to discuss an attack plan that was already in progress. There is evidence that timing of attacks is determined by operational commanders nearer the ground: In the Sept. 11 plot, for example, Mohammed Atta decided on the date for the strike, and the information was relayed back to bin Laden through Ramzi bin al-Shibh. It must be recalled that, in the video released by the U.S. Department of Defense in December 2001, bin Laden says he was told of the exact date only a few days before the strikes. Thus, if an attack team already was in place to strike at the United States, the cell in Damadola would have had little reason to call a meeting to discuss the imminent action — updates could be sent from the field to the leadership over the Internet or through couriers with encoded recordings, as has been seen in the past. Instead, it is more likely they were meeting for purposes of planning a future attack, or to bless proposals from other parts of the network. While we do not believe al Qaeda's core leadership is involved in detailed tactical planning for strikes, it can shape broad-based, strategic plans. This might include such things as guidance on the general location of an attack or series of operations (for example, Western Europe or the United States) or timing (spring or summer). From the core, mid-level operatives
are then dispatched to work out the details. Could this be one of the operations that bin Laden mentioned in his recent audiotape? Perhaps. If U.S. intelligence had a source close enough to al Qaeda to help direct the strike against the cell in Damadola, the source might have been close enough to the group to know what they were discussing — which might indeed warrant overwhelming firepower as a way of permanently nipping an identified plot in the bud. But we note also bin Laden's recent reference to "operations" — in the multiple — in his most recent tape-recording: "Operations are in preparation and you will see them in your own homeland as soon as they are ready, Allah willing." Moreover, it is known from the activities of past al Qaeda operators and planners, such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, that the organization frequently has more than one plan in motion at any given time. The assassination of Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud on Sept. 9, 2001 — quickly followed by the strikes in New York City and Washington, D.C. — is a good example of this. Additionally, the devolution of al Qaeda
must be considered. While the apex leadership obviously issues guidance and seems still to be involved in strategic planning, there are autonomous and semi-autonomous groups and cells that could plan attacks against the U.S. mainland without consulting the chain of command. There are many things about al Qaeda, its leadership, and its future plans that cannot be stated with certainty. However, what is known is that al Qaeda has not abandoned its war against the West, and that it continues to maneuver in efforts to shape the mindset of the Muslim world. It is known that al Qaeda's attack plans have long gestation periods, and that it is not uncommon for more than one plan to be in play at any given time. It is clear that the meeting in Damadola was a gathering of HVTs who risked their lives to congregate there — indicating that something important was happening at that meeting that either was interrupted or stopped altogether by the airstrike on Jan. 14. The strike in Damadola may have disrupted plans for one attack, but all things considered, it's likely that there are others in the works.